Crisis Mapping Open data

The search for neutrality in Open data and Crisis Mapping

The definition of Neutrality is the following:

“the state of not supporting either side in a disagreement, competition or war” or “the state or position of being impartial or not allied with or committed to either party or viewpoint in a conflict, especially a war or armed conflict”.

An example that everyone knows is Switzerland which during World War II, adhered to its neutral status by never officially becoming involved in the war.

The Red Cross is neutral, by its own status, “In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

According to Michael Meyer

“The word ” neutral ” comes from the Latin ne-uter and means: neither one thing nor the other. An institution or a movement is neutral when it refrains from participating in a conflict and abstains from any interference. Refraining from participation and abstaining from interference can be for various reasons: it may be a question of self-preservation and self-assertion, of the judgement that good and bad, true and false are to be found on both sides, of holding back in the interests of a higher purpose or a special task. Neutrality may however have its origin in indifference, fear and cowardice. Neutrality in itself is therefore not a virtue.”

What is Open Data? “Open data is a philosophy and practice requiring that certain data be freely available to everyone, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. It has a similar ethos to a number of other “Open” movements and communities such as open source and open access.

In the last months everyone, including in the field of Crisis Mapping, is looking at what is happening in Tunisia, and Egypt (and lately in Sudan, Berhain, Iran and so on). One of the issues that is coming out of these debate is: can open data be neutral? If I make information available to everyone to see, maybe on a map, am I participating in the conflict in a way? And in this, if I set up a Ushahidi platform in a conflict setting, am I being neutral? And if not, how can I be neutral?

I have been thinking about this for a while now, and here there my answers. I am not expecting everyone to agree with this, but this is my personal view and as such I will state it.

Question 1: Can open data be neutral?

No. Open data is not and cannot be neutral, unless you decide to open only certain data and not others, in which case it is not really open data. Information is and will always be power, and I think that the events in Egypt and Tunisia showed this very clearly. If you are sharing data you are sharing power and as such you are compromising the establishment that hide himself behind that power. Freedom of information comes from this, and it is considered one of the pillar of democracy.  So, if you are releasing open data in a restricted environment, or under a repressive regime, you are not being neutral, you actively acting against that regime. Let’s take the example of Wikileaks: the released data regarding US diplomatic relations with foreign countries, in the spirit of open data. Is this neutral? Of course it is not, in fact people start jumping all over the place including the US that tried desperately to find a law that would allow them to jail Assange.

Unfortunately they forget that they are (sometimes) the first one to have in their constitution the freedom of speech and of information (and how they manage to combine this with censorship on the media, it is still unknown to me).  But the point here is that there is a very clear reason of why the US get so pissed at Wikileaks: not because of the data released (c’mon my grandma knew more than 90% of the stuff contained in those documents) but because the idea of releasing data that belong to a one of the world superpower is in itself a declaration of war.

Hence, open data is not and cannot be neutral. Open data is a very clear declaration of which side you are supporting, which in the case of repressive regime or not-so-free-as-they-would-like-to-be country, is the side of the people in general, the side of who wants open data because it is their right, and because this will give them power to decide and not only to know or to obey.

If I set up a Ushahidi platform/or similar in a conflict setting, am I being neutral? And if not, how can I be neutral?

You are not and you cannot be. My good friend told me when we were talking about Egypt:

“Data as it is, it’s only data, but the moment you put it on a map it become intelligence and it is a completely different thing”.

I have to say, I had never thought about this in this way, but she is right. Platforms like the Ushahidi platforms transform data into intelligence and in this way add a level of sophistication to the information: they add time, location and insert them into paths and trends. What it comes out is the same thing that defines the difference between massive violations of human rights and genocide: if you commit violations of human rights randomly or with a purpose but not systematically, you cannot be accused of genocide. If it is possible to identify a path or a strategy behind it, you are. So if you map a conflict, whatever is the reason you do it, you are participating actively in the conflict by providing intelligence. Now, this is definitely not neutral!

Could it be? No. Why? Because in the very moment you are setting it up and you are transforming data into intelligence and use the data or sharing it, you are messing up with the equilibrium (or disequilibrium) on the ground by providing additional information to whom may not have them and so you are in a way participating in the conflict. The only way you could do it and remain neutral is to create a map and be the only one using it, and not share any insight or information that you will learn from it.  But then what it the purpose?

I am not saying this to state that all the Crisis Mappers working in repressive regime are bad people because they are not neutral. I am stating this because being neutral is not always something that you want to do. How many of us wanted to be neutral in the Egyptian revolution? How many of us want to be neutral in the Sudan conflict? How many of us would like to be neutral if something like the Second World war happen again?

The real issue here is not how to remain neutral, the real issue here is to choose which side are you supporting and how you will try to help them more than others.

Organizations like the Red Cross and OCHA need to be neutral and for a good reason: they are there to help everyone in the same way and their mandate is precise and specific. The Red Cross is an organization that works with Prisoners of War and civilians and needs to be able to protect them physically. OCHA delivers humanitarian aid to affected populations, which in a conflict normally are on both sides. They act on information; they don’t divulge information. And even in this regard, there are serious doubts about what neutral means when you are providing food and shelters to a population that the government of that country wants to eliminate.

Neutrality is a serious concept and a very difficult to prove as valid sometimes. But sometimes I just don’t want to be neutral. And sometimes you cannot be neutral unless you are able to compromise other values: the Red Cross and OCHA are not Open Data organizations, actually they don’t release almost any of their data. There is a reason: they are neutral, open data is not.


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