The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) has been gathering and databasing all the news events related to conflict and political protest dating back to 1979. GDELT continues to be fed new data through the various global news services, automatically updating every day. At the end of July GDELT released their Global Dashboard which visualizes all of their data collected from February 2014 to present on a map of the world. It’s a fantastic tool for conflict management and resolution professionals who are interested in big data, since it takes their information and puts it in a visually attractive, easily navigable format. This is an exciting development, so how does it work and what can peacebuilding practitioners get out of using GDELT’s event data?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the Dashboard is new. As it stands there are only two filters for event data (‘conflict’ or ‘protest’), but there are plans to expand these filters so that users can easily focus on the events that are of most interest. For now they’ve done a pretty good job of helping filter out conflict events, which are basically events involving kinetic violence, from protest events, which could end up being violent but are generally more along the lines of protests and social action. While basic, these are good starting points for an initial filter. The nice thing about the dashboard though is that if I have some expertise about the region or event I’m interested in gathering data on, I don’t need the filters because I can use geography and date to narrow my search. The Dashboard allows the user to take advantage of their contextual knowledge to filter the data, so while the built-in filters that come later will be helpful researchers can still use the database efficiently now.

Let’s say we’re interested in recent protest events in South Africa, but we want to know if there have been any in smaller cities, since we know that there’s likely to be a lot of political action in places like Cape Town and Johannesburg. I started with the Dashboard zoomed out to the maximum, so I could see the whole world, then went to the bottom left and set the date that I was interested in seeing news from. For this test I picked August 3, 2014. Below is what the screen looked like at this point:

GDELT Global Dashboard

We can see the whole world, and in South Africa there are big dots indicating aggregated data. Since I want to see what’s happened outside the main cities, I zoomed in until the dots started to disaggregate, then I selected the ‘protest’ filter to remove the ‘conflict’ events. Once I was zoomed in the filter was set, I found that there was a protest event in Port Elizabeth so I clicked on the dot and a box with the web addresses for news articles about a protest against money being spent on a museum appeared: GDELT Global Dashboard: South Africa

I clicked on the Google News link, which took me to the related articles that Google had collected about that protest and read one that had been reposted by a local news service from the Agence France-Presse:

"South African shantytowns residents force anti-apartheid museum to close," Agence France-Presse

I managed to do this in a few minutes using the Dashboard, work that would have taken longer if I was just doing searches for protest news out of South Africa. What makes the tool really useful is that I can search in a few different dimensions. If want to know if this is the first time there has been social action around the museum in Port Elizabeth, I can leave the map zoomed in to that location and scan through the dates going back to February. What we can do, relatively easily, is see events and narratives spatially and analyze how they change over time.

This is a big dataset, so I thought hard about what its value added is from a methodology perspective. As I dug through the data, I realized something important. I’m not sure this is a database that will be particularly useful for forecasting or predictive analysis. You might be able to identify some trends (and that’s certainly a valid task!), but since the data itself is news reports there’s going to be a lot of variation across tone and word choice, lag between event and publication, and a whole host of other things that will make predictive analysis difficult.

As a qualitative dataset though, the GDELT data has incredible value. A colleague of mine pointed out that the Dashboard can help us understand how the media conceptualizes and broadcasts violence at the local level. Understanding how news media, especially local media, report things like risk or political issues is valuable for conflict analysts and peacebuilding professionals. I would argue that this is actually more valuable than forecasting or predictive modeling; if we understand at a deeper level why people would turn to violence, and how the local media narrative distills or diffuses their perception of risk or grievance, then interventions such as negotiation, mediation and political settlements can be better tailored to the local context.

Big Data is a space that is both alluring and enigmatic for conflict resolution professionals. One of the key challenges has always been making the data available in a way that is intuitive for non-technical experts to use. GDELT’s Dashboard is a great start to this, and the possibilities for improving our understanding of conflict through the narratives we can observe in the media are going to grow rapidly in the next few years.

This post originally appeared in Insight for Conflict on September 19, 2014. 

 

TechChange COO Chris Neu is fond of pointing out that in social change, technology is only 10% of the equation while the rest is about the humans using that technology. That 10% is a pretty powerful percentage though, and when technology is used effectively, it can amplify voices of peace and empower local communities that want to find alternatives to violence. It’s easy to forget though that technology isn’t the most important part of any information and communication technology (ICT) for peacebuilding enterprise; it’s the people, both the beneficiaries and the peacebuilders (who can be one and the same!). Because what we’re doing with ICTs in any peacebuilding context involves asking people to share data and participate in interventions, we must be aware of the risks participants face and how to manage those risks. The problem is that we face a variety of risks at multiple different levels when using ICTs in any political environment, so what are a few things we can focus on while planning a project?

An Institutional Review Process as a Starting Point
There are a variety of simple starting points. For example, if you are an academic or affiliated with an academic institution, they require you to go through an institutional review process before you can do any research involving human subjects. This would include doing a crowdsourcing project using SMS text messaging or social media. Many institutions have some kind of process like this, so check before you deploy your project. While tedious, the process of defending your risk management procedures can help you identify a lot of problems before you even start. If you don’t have an internal review board, grab a copy of the ICRC’s “Professional Standards for Protection Work” and check your project design and risk management against the recommendations in Chapter 6.

Along with doing this kind of standard review, what are some other factors that are unique to ICTs that you should be aware of?

1) National Infrastructure and Regulatory Policy
The first is that ICTs are part of national infrastructure, and are regulated at the national level. When you use any kind of transmission technology in a country, the rules for how that data is transmitted, stored and shared are set at the national level as part of regulatory policy. If the government in the country you’re working in is repressive, chances are they have very broad powers to access electronic information since they wrote the regulations stipulating data privacy. In general locals will be aware of the level of surveillance in their lives, so do your legal homework about the regulations that people have actively or passively adapted to. These are usually titled something like “Telecommunications Act” or “Electronic Transmission Act”, and are often available for public viewing via the web.

2) Legal Compliance
If you’re going to go forward with an ICT-supported peacebuilding program after doing your legal homework, ethical practice starts at home. Unless you are reasonably adept at reading and interpreting legislation, did you have someone with a legislative or legal background interpret the privacy laws in the country you’re about to work in? Does your team have someone with expertise on the technical and policy aspects of using ICTs in a conflict-affected or high risk environment? Has the entire project team had some basic training in how ICTs work? For example, does everyone understand the basics of how a mobile phone works, how to protect sensitive data, and the implications of having people share data on electronic platforms? Before showing up in a conflict-zone and asking people to participate in your project, you should make sure your team understands the risks they are asking people to take.

3) Informed consent
What do the local project participants know about ICTs? In terms of safety, people are generally aware of what will get them in trouble. Always assume that your perception of risk in a country is under-informed, even if you’ve read the laws and done some regulatory analysis. With this in mind, if you’re going to ask people to take risks sharing electronic information (always assume that sharing electronic information is risky), do you have a process for assessing your participants’ knowledge of ICTs and then addressing any gaps through training? Do you and your team understand the technology and regulations well enough to make the risks to partners clear, and if they still choose to participate provide risk management training? Informed consent means making sure you and your partners are both equally clear on the risks involved in what ever project you’re doing.

Peacebuilding carries some level of inherent risk – after all, we’re dealing with conflict and violence. ICTs carry a unique set of risks, compounded by both the nature of digital information and the capacity for governments and conflict entrepreneurs to exploit this information. An effective ICT for peacebuilding program addresses these risks from both the legal and technical sides, so that implementers and local partners are equally informed and able to use the tools in the safest, most effective way.

Want to learn more about the ethical issues facing peacebuilders using technology? Enroll now in our Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding online course which runs October 6 – 31, 2014

 

Image source: Tech Republic

The release of the South Sudan Ushahidi map has spurred an online dialogue on the possibilities and challenges of how we understand crowdsourcing, big data, and technology for conflict management and peacebuilding. A series of blog posts from Chris Neu of TechChange, Daniel Solomon, and myself highlighted these issues, which I wanted to combine with brief descriptions because I think they’re an interesting series for those grappling with how we make use of emerging data and technology tools in pursuit of peace and stability. It’s worth giving all four a read, since they represent a nice arc of thinking about big data for conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

  1. Can a Crisis Map End the Crisis in South Sudan? by Chris Neu. This was the first post about the South Sudan Ushahidi map that got the chain of posts started. Greg Maly had advocated getting a map up as the situation in South Sudan began deteriorating, so with the help of Rob Baker, a deployment was launched. After the map was live, comments came back in – a number were constructively critical and thought provoking. The key points were focused on the utility of the data that could realistically be provided.
  2. Two Tweets Reveal Central Problem for South Sudan Crisis Map by Chris Neu. Chris’ following post brought up the important issue of ethics when using data submitted by individuals in such a chaotic environment. “Is it ethical to restrict information to the public? Is it ethical to reveal information about the vulnerable?” Both questions are valid, but the one that gained some traction focused on the data we expect to get from conflict zones.
  3. The Murky Swamp of Mass Atrocity Data by Daniel Solomon. Up to this point this online discussion had focused on the map and software, so Daniel Solomon took the conversation and framed it in the context of conflict itself. He outlined a set of important issues about how conflict affects data, and thus how our efforts to crowdsource and use big data could actually lead to greater confusion instead of clarity.
  4. Finding Big Data’s Place in Conflict Analysis by Charles Martin-Shields. Daniel Solomon’s post inspired me to think through the methodological challenges of using Big Data for conflict analysis. The two posts got some good traction and discussion going, which is always exciting.

I wanted to pull all four posts together in one place since I found them to be useful individually, and interesting as a whole. They also provide an arc of event, critique, and potential solutions that are useful when practitioners are trying to decide how and when to use crowdsourcing or Big Data in their conflict analysis and resolution work.

Interested in this topic? Want to join the conversation and learn more? Enroll today in our Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding online course to learn more about digital mapping, social media, mobile platforms, and other technologies for promoting peace.

Spreading violence in South Sudan threatens thousands of civilian lives, political stability in the region, and even outbreaks of transmissible disease (NYT). As the fog of the initial outbreak of war begins to clear, the question becomes how the international community should begin to address this hot conflict, and prepare for what is likely to be a global humanitarian response effort. Student networks such as STAND are writing open memorandums to policymakers, while volunteer technical communities such as contributors to The Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) are sending their pleas straight to the media. But as we move from advocacy to response, a number of core questions come to mind:

  • Who are the key actors?
  • What are their motivations?
  • What are our windows of opportunity to see a reduction in violence?

And as these questions get answered – how do organizations ensure that their work is complementary?

Coordinating the Information Flow

With information flows from the region taking the form of emails, phone calls, text messages, and videos from people’s mobile phones, connecting the dots is the entire point of organizations such as the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNet), whose activation TechChange was proud to be part of last year, and reliefweb.int – a well known asset for first responders. But because South Sudan is still in the midst of a hot conflict, actors coordinating with one another must take into consideration the lives of individuals who are still in the region to ensure that no additional harm is done through the sharing of this information.

The good news is that there are guidelines for such a response effort, not least from what has been provided by the lessons from the Libya Crisis Map by OCHA, who are also keeping tabs on the current crisis (see image below). Andrej Verity, an Information Management Officer at UN-OCHA identified three specific ethical issues in Libya:

1. Identify. We did not want any information provided in the LCM that could be used to identify the individual who reported.

2. Location. To avoid anyone from being able to pinpoint anyone reporting, the data was generally anonymized to the centroid of the city it was reported from.

3. Do No Harm. Given the situation in Libya was conflict-based, we needed to ensure that whatever we did minimized the chance of causing anyone harm.

Sudan: Humanitarian Snapshot (30 September 2013) [UN-OCHA]

Connecting Grassroots to Government: South Sudan Watch

Connecting grassroots volunteer networks to government response is not an easy task, as our partners at the Wilson Center have explored these challenges in depth. Moreover, their recent workshop report lists “[f]actors obstructing the adoption of crowdsourcing, social media, and digital volunteerism approaches often include uncertainty about accuracy, fear of liability, inability to translate research into operational decision-making, and policy limitations on gathering and managing data.”

These are not small challenges, but one recent effort deserves recognition: A recent Ushahidi deployment for South Sudan Watch. According to the About page, it is designed to be just such a centralized reporting mechanism for watchers of the current conflict in South Sudan. Also worth noting, is that the entry forms have been modified to aid in conflict analysis, and the public information restricted to protect those on the ground and report contributors.

Will it make a difference? Maybe. Rob Baker of Ushahidi (and until recently a Presidential Innovation Fellow) shared with us:

“It won’t be easy, but we believe it is necessary to try. We can learn from past examples to help on the ground — nobody is here to just make a map, but hopefully to improve the situation on the ground through a better understanding of what is happening through technology and crowdsourcing.”

If you are interested in learning more, please do check out the live Ushahidi deployment and see how you can contribute. We’ll continue to add more information as it becomes available.

South Sudan Watch: http://southsudanwatch.ushahidi.com/

Want to learn more about how digital mapping and other technology like social media and and mobile phones are addressing conflicts around the world? Enroll now in TC109: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, which starts January 13, 2014.

In recent years, mobile phones have drawn tremendous interest from the conflict management community. Given the successful, high profile uses of mobile phone-based violence prevention in Kenya in voting during 2010 and 2013, what can the global peacebuilding community learn from Kenya’s application of mobile technology to promote peace in other conflict areas around the world? What are the social and political factors that explain why mobile phones can have a positive effect on conflict prevention efforts in general?

1. A population must prefer non-violence since technology magnifies human intent

Context and intent is critical. One of the most important aspects of using mobile phones for conflict management and peacebuilding is recognizing prevailing local political climate. If a population is inclined toward peace in the midst of a tense situation, then mobile phone-based information sharing can help people promote peace and share information about potential hotspots with neighbors and peacebuilding organizations. Of course if the population has drawn lines and it ready to fight, mobile phones and make it far easier to organize violence. As Kentaro Toyama said, technology amplifies human intent and capacity. When integrating technology into conflict management and peacebuilding, the first step is to have a good idea of the population’s intentions before turning up the volume.

Photo: UN Women

Photo: UN Women

2. The events of violence start and stop relative to specific events

In the case of Kenya, violence erupted during particular period in the political calendar, namely during elections. Thus, violence starts and stops relative to external events, as opposed to being a state of sustained warfare. We have to be realistic about what we intend to do with the technology as it relates to peacebuilding or conflict management. In Kenya, prevention is made easier by the fact that the violence occurs around elections; the peacebuilding community has time to reach out to leaders beforehand, set up programs, test software, and organize networks of trusted reporters. It’s a different kettle of fish when violence is unrelated to something like elections, which are predictable. This starts to get into conflict early warning, where there are methodological and data challenges – we’ll be covering these in TC109, since they present some of the most interesting and difficult issues for conflict prevention.

3. The population knows to use their phones to share information about potential violence

Photo: UNDP

So the population prefers peace, and we all know when violence is going to happen. Now we have to make sure everyone knows that there are people listening when text messages are sent in reporting violence, and where those messages should be sent. Training and public outreach are key to making sure there is participation in a text message-based conflict management or peacebuilding program. This has to go on even when there aren’t high risk events like elections looming. One of the best examples of this kind of training and network building is Sisi Ni Amani, a Kenya-based NGO that does SMS peacebuilding, civic participation and governance training, and conflict mitigation around land disputes. By developing capacity within communities between elections, Sisi Ni Amani helps communities be prepared to respond to, and be proactive in, peacebuilding.

4. Third party actors involved in collecting and validating the crowdsourced data.

Never underestimate the value of having a third party involved in validating and rebroadcasting the information that comes from crowdsourced SMS text messages. In situations where trust between communities may be shaky, having the United Nations or a large NGO monitoring and responding to citizen reports can lend institutional credibility to the information being shared by local citizens.

Endnote: These factors were taken as excerpts from a recently published article titled, “Inter-ethnic Cooperation Revisited: Why mobile phones can help prevent discrete event of violence, using the Kenyan case study.” To read the entire published piece in Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, including works cited, please click here.

Charles Martin-Shields is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is currently a Fulbright-Clinton Fellow in Samoa, advising their Ministry of Communications and Information Technology on disaster response and data collection. Learn more from his primary research and also from other technology-for-peacebuilding experts by enrolling today in our upcoming Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding course. The course runs January 13 – February 7, 2014. Group discounts available. Please inquire at info [at] techchange [dot] org.

 

For those interested in Technology for Peacekeeping consider taking our online certificate course, Technology for Conflict Management and Prevention, starting July 23rd.

There has been a recent surge in literature that is cynical of ICT4D projects.  Spurred on by the randomized control trial results of ICT4D projects, such as those of the One Laptop Per Child initiative in Peru, more and more authors are concluding that ICT4D projects’ capacity to end poverty and promote transformative national or community development is often stifled by political hang-ups.  Even annual ICT4D Fail Faires have occurred the past three years, where practitioners willingly explain how their project failed and what they learned.

The change from a glorified rhetoric about ICTs’ strengths and utter invincibility to a cynical and even comical view of ICT4D, is reflective of a larger cynicism pervading international development.  Contemporary international efforts to alleviate poverty are criticized as short-term goals that do not ultimate end poverty, and in fact further inequality by embracing neoliberalism and capitalist globalization.

Cambridge economist Ha-joon Chang, for example, argues that only one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) actually promotes “transformative development” in the classical sense, meaning industrial production and sustained economic growth.  The other goals, he contends, can be boiled down to improving education and healthcare, which without growth leave individuals and nations trapped in place, inmobile.  Focusing on poverty reduction via education and healthcare initiatives alone allows the neoliberal regime to continue forward unchallenged, allowing the rich to continue to benefit from the poor via lower tariffs and product subsidies.

In a special issue on the politics of ICT4D, the International Journal of E-Politics’ newest volume includes three articles that are indicative of the change toward cynical views of ICT4D projects.  Charlotte Scarf aggressively argues that ICT4D projects that encourage the creation of local content make the unfortunate assumption that ICT content creation alone empowers local people, but Scarf finds that unless content is directed at people with power to cause change, the local people remain poor.  Sam Takavarasha Jr. and John Makumbe document the five year legal battle between private IT company Econet and the Government of Zimbabwe.  Their study is but one example of how oppressive political regimes restrict the ability of citizens to utilize ICTs for political mobilization or development activities.  Finally, Einar Braathen, Heidi Attwood, and Julian May document the different political problems community telecenters operated by NGOs face in South Africa, even in similar environmental contexts.  The unpredictability of these political problems limits the possibility of rectifying these issues via policy solutions, and is evidence of the limits of ICT4D projects in promoting sustainable development.

The cynical studies on ICT4D projects suggest no overarching solution to correct projects’ flaws.  In fact, the cynical nature of the studies lead one to speculate that ICT4D projects, along with the MDGs, perhaps should be abandoned altogether.

Before jumping ship, however, there is another way of looking at the alleged failure of ICT4D projects to promote development.  First of all, while many projects may effectively “fail” in the short term, they may ultimately point recipient communities and nations toward joining the information society, which indirectly could promote transformative development.  Second, instead of abandoning ICT4D projects altogether, the projects can be modified to incorporate politics and power relations from the beginning of project conception and design.  For example, in the case of the production of local ICT content, only when the content can be directed as a particular organization that can mobilize resources to help the community, and the organization can be anxiously expecting the content, should local ICT content production be utilized as a means of achieving development goals.

ICT4D is at its next stage in maturity.  Its time that projects are prepared from the outset to meet the political challenges that inevitably appear during project implementation.  When these challenges can be overcome then ICT4D projects can be a catalyst for transformative development.

 

Jeffrey Swindle is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Michigan and has previous experience as an evaluator of ICT4D projects. 

For those interested in Technology for Peacekeeping consider taking our online certificate course, Technology for Conflict Management and Prevention, starting July 23rd.

**Disclaimer: These are Asch’s personal views and do not represent those of his employer.

You’ve heard of the 90/10 rule, right? I hadn’t heard the concept, at least, until recently. The meaning, though, I learned the hard way—an ICT-enabled project should be 90 percent planning and only 10 percent digital tool.  Not the other way around.

We initiated the Nigeria Security Tracker, an effort to catalog and map political violence based on a weekly survey of domestic and international press, at least two years ago. We wanted to answer the question “are things getting worse in Nigeria?”

The death of Nigeria’s president in office with upcoming elections, an increasingly divided electorate, and an apparent up tick in violence in the north and the middle of the country raised serious doubts about Nigeria’s stability.

And yet many disagreed. The optimists said things were getting better; the pessimists that Nigeria was becoming a “failed state”; and everyone else that Nigeria would continue to “muddle through,” as it had done since independence in the 1960’s.

Measuring levels of violence seemed like it could give us a more precise answer. While the Nigerian press has many shortcomings—lack of journalist training and professionalization, concentration of ownership and coverage in the south—it is relatively free, and there is a lot of it. Also, the presence of major outlets like Reuters, BBC, AP, AFP, and the Wall Street Journal added another layer of reliability. Indeed, some of the best Nigeria analysis I’ve seen comes from open sources. You just need to learn to read between the lines.

Mapping seemed like a useful and visually engaging way to organize our information. But without funding or any programming experience, our options were limited. We experimented with manually pinning incidents to Google maps and embedding on our blog. We tried to pitch Ushahidi to the web department hoping to get programming support, but without success.

Eventually, we abandoned the project–until Crowdmap was launched. Free, hosted on Ushahidi servers, preprogrammed, and simple to set up and use, it made the security tracker possible.

Our Mistake

We designed our research methodology around Crowdmap capabilities. We could include basic descriptions of events, and simple codings as well as details like causalities, but it was labor intensive.

Not until three months later, when we sat down to review our work, did we realize the shortcomings. Putting incidents on a map is useful if you want to see where violence is happening. But less so when you want to know when incidents occurred, or if you wanted to look at trends or correlations over time. (The automation feature of the map, while fun to watch, is not a terribly useful analytical tool.) We discovered it was impossible to look at, for example, the relationship of violence perpetuated by the security services and causalities.

Fundamentally, the project was supposed to be about the information captured. Not the technology. And we had it backwards.

We also discovered a major lost opportunity. Because we tailored our methodology to what could be included on the Crowdmap, we failed to capture other useful information, such as attacks on religious establishments, which only required marginal extra effort.

The Redesign

Given that our project was supposed to answer a particular question that a map alone couldn’t, we relegated the Crowdmap to a component of the project–no longer the driver. We thought more thoroughly about what kind of information we needed, and what we could glean from press reports of political violence.

Fortunately, we had documented all of our sources. So we could return to our original information and recode, albeit with a significant time commitment.

The Way Forward

Despite better planning the second time around, we continue to find shortcomings. We defined one variable, “sectarian violence,” inadequately, which means coding has been inconsistent throughout the project, making it less useful.

We are also vulnerable to technical problems on Crowdmap’s end. When there is a bug in the system, there is nothing we can do but wait for Ushahidi to fix it. (Recently, the site was down for about a week.)

Finally, we now have a year’s worth of information. It’s a huge dataset. And we still haven’t figured out what to do with it. Yes, we can make defensible, conservative estimates of causalities caused by actors like the police or Boko Haram. We can also show any escalation or decline in violence across the country.

But this only scrapes the surface of what our data can tell us. Admittedly, this is a good problem to have.  But given the time and resources we have already committed, and the wealth of date we have accumulated, we are constantly trying to balance benefits of the security tracker with the costs of maintaining it.

Asch Harwood is a specialist on Africa at a New York City-based think tank. 

On May 7 I was invited to give a talk as part of a brown bag lunch panel hosted by the UNDP’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Response (BCPR).  This panel also included input from senior staff from BCPR and the E-governance team in the UNDP’s governance policy shop.  We expected 20-30 participants from within the UNDP; what we got were about 50-60 participants from across the UN system.  Clearly there is interest in how technology, particularly mobile phones and crowdsourcing technology, can enhance and support development, conflict prevention and good governance.  So what are the challenges that make integration difficult?

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