Intelligence, trusted networks and double standards

One of thing that I found very useful when working on information systems in emergency situations, is to create privileged communication channels with the different actors by relying on trusted networks already present in the country or in between the humanitarian community.

For example in the case of Libya, we created 2 platforms that had 2 different types of information and therefore two different goals and targets. The private platform was to mainly inform the humanitarians about the situation on the ground, and had details and sources to make sure they could verify and do an evaluation of the reliability of the source (ultimately this evaluation was left to them, even if we did a preliminary verification of the information collected). The second platform, the public one, was for the general public to know what was going on in the country, and had no sources and no detailed information in it.

This is, I think, a very good example of the creation of different communication channels and different targets. The idea here is to understand the difference and to make decision based on the risks assessment and the possible outcomes.

Inform the local population..or not?

In the case of the Libya deployment the Crisis Map we created was not supposed to inform the local population. Despite contrary opinions, this decision was conscientious made based on a risk assessment: we knew that there was no way for us to know who the people we were talking to were, and we had no link with reliable and verified people on the ground. For this reason we knew that it was going to be impossible for us to know that were not giving “sensitive” information to the wrong Libyans, and for this reason we decided that it was better not to chose any privileged group at all. I am not going to say this was the best decision we could make, but it was the only one we could make at the time, so I stand by it: any choose would have been completely arbitrary.

In this regard I have to admit, we knew very well that by putting those information online we were indirectly privileging one group (the one that had access to Internet) to another one ( the one that had no Internet access). On the other side, we also knew very well that the bad people did not needed our platform to know what was going on on the ground – we were ultimately mapping their actions, so it would have been pretty hilarious if they needed to look at our platform to know what they were doing!!

But despite a common thinking, this was not all about communicating with disaster affected communities! We tried to communicate with Libyans by relying on local media – the once that started working freely during the war. The problem was that we did not have a way to communicate to them useful information that did not already knew. This was the reason why there were, on the Libya deployment, lists of local media, that we thought could be useful to the humanitarian community to use to provide  useful information to the local population. Of course they did not used it.

Why we did not get in contact with them directly? Because we did not have enough trusted and verified information to give to them, because the majority of them had more knowledge than us of what was going on, and because that deployment was ultimately managed by OCHA. The issue that a lot of people screaming about communication with disaster affected communities without having any clue about it forget, is that I would never push a group of online volunteers to randomly send blast SMS to people on the ground.

Communicating with disaster affected communities is indeed a very important thing that needs to be done properly and by professionals. In the Haiti case the SMS sent to the local population were designed and created by the Red Cross, not by the volunteers at Tufts. The information given to the refugees escaping from Libya in the refugee camps in Tunisia were taken by Internews from the humanitarians, and not design by the SBTF volunteers. I would very much stay very far away from anyone that thinks that in the Libya crisis mapping deployment we should have sent out information to the affected communities without replying on the support of organizations that do that as a job. The real problem here is that humanitarians should do that, since communication is part of humanitarian relief, but they often don’t.

Creating intelligence vs being intelligent

There has been a lot of discussion about the fact that having people using social media or the Internet to put information out is one thing, but aggregate them, map them and categorize them is another thing. I could not agree more on this, and I also agree that there are several degrees of risks associated with the second that are far higher than the first one. Since crisis mapping is ultimately about mapping, categorizing and analyzing data, we have to look more inept to this issue.

Simple as it is, I have to say I am a bit bored about the discussion on  “u are creating intelligence for the bad people” theory: there has been no one case in the past were the bad people did not knew in advance everything we were mapping or even much more than that. I agree there is a risk to give them some more info, I also think that we should be a bit more realistic and less sensationalists about this.

In addition to this, I have to say, and forgive me for being a bit of an ass: this all being worried about creating intelligence for the bad people theory is always coming from people that have:

  1. Very little knowledge of crisis mapping or repressive regimes
  2. Almost never taken part in any of the crisis mapping deployment were this was an issue
  3. They kind of strangely disappeared when there is a deployment like this, while writing in-depth report about it after the deployment 🙂

To go back to the reality, let’s be honest: I have lived and worked under repressive regimes, war zones and so on. The reasons why the majority of intractable conflicts are that way is because there is a high level of intelligence on the ground that, for how much I love crisis mapping, crisis mapping will never have: this all dream that aggregated tweets will give you a better picture of what u can have when you live, act and know the situation on the ground is the naive “all about technology” bullshit that underline for me a very little knowledge of what the actual reality is.

This does not mean we should not be extremely careful about creating intelligence, and this was why we did had a private platform for the Libya case. But it does mean that we should be a bit more intelligent and face things realistically instead of living in wonderland. Focusing on theoretical scenarios is indeed dangerous here, since it divert attention from the actual thing that needs to be done: gather as much information as possible on what is actually happening on the ground, what is the level of intelligence already present there, who are the actors and what info they may have or not. Again it comes back to real risks and information assessments, not to the power of social media and crisis mapping.

In the case of crisis mapping for example, there are several things that can be done to understand what are the risks associated with that:

– the first one is to look at the information you are producing. An example can be a tweet mapped that sais that the rebels are taking Misrata. What kind of information more than the one contained in the tweet itself is there if I map this on a Ushahidi platform for example?

– the second one is to look at the aggregate value of the information produced. In the case of Libya for example there was a week were a lot of refugees were escaping from the Tunisian border. Now the fact that a lot of reports were saying this gave to us the idea that the phenomenon was really big. The question to be asked here was: were the people on the ground not noticing that? There was any way that this information was not available to them and so where we were actually producing an additional layer of information with the map?

– An additional way to do an evaluation of the risks involved in a crisis mapping project in this kind of situation is to look at the IP address of the people looking at your platform – easily done by using Google Analytics. Are there people looking at your platform from the country monitored, and if yes, are they very frequently looking at it. This may give you – or not – an idea of who is looking at tour platform, how often and maybe telling you something about who are the users of your platform

– Another important thing to do is to look at the freedom/not of the internet usage in a specific country the level of control over the mobile technology and the past experience in that country on monitoring of those channels – and the actors doing it

All in all, I still think it comes to a realistic risk assessment, a case by case evaluation of the outcomes of your crisis mapping deployment and of the capacity of the “bad” people on the other side.

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