Opening up the Open Data Movement

In the past year I have been attending a lot of conferences on Open Data and had several discussions with people, from the World Bank to the United Nations, on the IATI standard and how Open Data is (or not) impacting the development and aid work. From the Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva, to the UN Transparency Working Group in New York, the issues that development and aid organizations, as well as governments worldwide are struggling with and trying very hard to solve, are not only related on how you open up data and make it available, but how you move from Open Data to transparency and accountability.

As I have mentioned in a lot of presentations the issue for me lies fundamentally under two main paradox: one is the intrinsic understanding from a lot of people in the Open Data movement that Open also means transparent and accountable; the second one is that if transparency and accountability are the goals of Open Data, than there is an unanswered question: which is to whom?

Let’s start from the definition of Open Data.

The first assumption here is that “reusable” and “accessible” by everybody are attributes to the Internet. In fact, all Open Data projects I have seen so far, from governments to United Nations agencies, are entirely and sorely accessible online. Considering that more than 60% of the world population still does not have access to the Intenet, no one of those projects can be defined Open Data, but rather Elite Data. Only a minority of the population, normally the richest one, that has access to the internet, can access this “Open” data.

The second assumption is that Public is a perfect synonymous of Open. By are they really? And if not, what is the difference? Well the difference is that something that is only public is not necessarily re-usable by anyone, it is only accessible. The interesting part about this concept though is the fact that we assume that if something is machine readable is also re-usable, while this is not necessarily true. In fact, what it is true is that this assumption is a derivative of the previous one: if you have a machine that can read that format – hence if you have computers and electricity and some money to run it all,l then you can re-use the data. As per above all Open data available now it is not re-usable by the majority of the population worldwide.


A third assumption about Open Data is the immediateness of the consequences of opening it up: the overall mantra of the so called “Open Data Evangelists” is that Open Data is a good because it leads to more transparency and accountability. But for a government to be transparent there must be several other actions to be implemented than just publish some data online:

1) the data needs to be good first of all – and up to date;

2) the data needs to be relevant

3) there must be a firm intention to respond to inquiries and questions about the data, and explain what lies “behind: the data

4) there must be actions and institutions that allow citizens to hold the governmental accountable

Let’s take the example of the Kenyan Government and their open data portal: the data is indeed there, and it is accessible – again only by people that have an internet connection – but is the Kenyan government more accountable and transparent? If we look, for example, at the way the Westage Mall attack has been handled by the government, one may say, that in fact no, the Kenyan government is not more transparent than it was before. So why? Well my take on this is that while opening up data is matter of making information available to a broader audience, which is indeed war it is happening, the issue of transparency and accountability are much more related to a change in mentality and processes.

There is a strong assumption that when data is made available the underlying process of a government becoming more transparent and therefore being held accountable by its own citizens is also happening. But while we focus a lot of attention on the first part of this process, we do not really know how to tackle the second part. How do we make a government take responsibility for its decisions, once this decision are made clear from the analysis of Open Data? This issue is far more complicated than just creating an open data portal and it is strictly connected to a change in mentality that make that same government value the democratic principle of transparency and accountability towards its own citizens. The next step of Open Data is indeed, a process, where Open Data is only one product but now the end product. The end product is a new way to see the role of government in its own country.


A fourth assumption of Open Data is that Open Data is perfect. Why do I mean with that? We assume that once Open Data is released people will take the best decisions and made use of that data in the best way. Mobile applications, data portals, online interactive maps, are all build under the assumption that perfect tools will lead to perfect decisions. But the truth is that even if the data is there, communities and people in those communities are not really using it. Why is that? The main reason is that we have been focusing so much on the data that we have missed a very important human characteristic: people are not interested in all data, people are interested only in what it is relevant to them and to their lives.

In 2013 at the ICCM conference I was sitting on a very interesting panel organised by ICT4Peace and this was one of the main point I tried to make. If we want open data to be “actionable” data, we need to make sure that that data is indeed touching on people’s personal lives and make that connection as explicit as possible. This is what triggers actions: I do act on things that affect me and my life. To make things relevant to communities and citizens then, we need to see what there is behind the data – hence we need to focus on the stories. Data is after all a representation of people’s life, stories, events, traumas and decisions. The more we are able to surface those stories, the more we are really Opening up the data and making it “real”.

So what’s the conclusion? Some time ago someone told me that I am an Open Data Skeptic. But I disagreed – I see the value and the huge potential of Open Data, but I believe that the Open Data movement is only scratching the surface of that potential. There is so much more than needs to be done, so much more that we can do as a community to make sure that Data is really Open. We have an amazing possibility here, which is that we can tackle those issues now, now that we are in the process of opening up more data, now that the community is sharing and learning how to do this. But we need to do this now, because if we keep focusing on the data and not on the processes, then we will end up with a lot of Open Data and no transparency or accountability. Or worst, we can end up with Open Data being used a shield to hide the lack of transparency and accountability.

The failure of the Cybersecurity community

I have been looking at the cyber-security space for quite some time now. I have been myself a victim of my own inability to protect myself online, a mistake that I am still paying for. On the other side I have accumulated increasing frustration towards the freedom online movement, freedom of the internet, cybersecurity/digital security kind of community (I know they are not all the same thing, but for normal people, yes they are).

I am no expert to be able to teach lessons and to point fingers, but I have been both a “mentor” and a “user” of circumvention and privacy tools, so I believe that I have gathered quite some knowledge regarding what is working and what it is not working in that space, and why I am still looking at the digital security movement as a fundamentally big failure. Granted, I am not blaming anyone, but rather trying to investigate why we (and yes I put myself into this) have not been able to achieve what we wanted, which was indeed a more open and free internet and more security and privacy for everyone.

The all NSA issue, and the Snowden endless story are a good example of the fact that all in all, we have failed as a community. And not only as a community of practitioners, but also as a community of citizens.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 2.01.51 PM

(Image from

The first reason where I see this failure is how little people are really adopting and using tools that can protect themselves. The reason behind this is as simple as it is stupid: there are too many, no one agrees on their degree of security, and some of them make your life a living hell. Let’s take TOR as example. It has been advertised and taught in all possible ways and almost in all the parts of the world. The TacticalTech guide for digital security has the best and most complete instructions on how to use it, in several languages.  Lot’s of people agree it is the best tool available right now to protect yourself online.

Even an extract of a Top Secret appraisal by the NSA characterized Tor as “the King of high secure, low latency Internet anonymity” with “no contenders for the throne in waiting”. On the other side, if you google it, you will also find lots of articles claiming that TOR is not safe, and that you should not use it. To add more confusion to this, you can also find out that TOR has been funded/supported by the US State Department – indirectly, but still, the same USA government that created the NSA.  Add to this that if you try to use TOR in places like, for example, Niger, you will not be able to access the internet 8 times out of 10. The other two times, you will had to wait for about one hour before any page can actually load. When I was there I asked a friend to help me out: she walk me through how I could make it faster. It did not really worked (mostly, I guess, because I could not even understand what she was asking me to do). After the second day I gave up.

I remember once talking to a friend of mine, a University professor and PhD, specializing in crisismapping, so all in all, not an expert in cybersecurity but also not a newby to the internet and technology tool. She looked at me and said: “I gave up, I assume that all I do online is traceable and detectable, an that if I want it to be private or secure I just should not use the internet”. Back then I thought she was exaggerating.

The first time I attended a cybersecurity training I ended up coming out so confused and so overwhelmed that I could not remember one single software they though me to use. I ended up installing more than 16 different software on my computer which slowed it down considerably and gave me back a range of 4 to 6 pop ups window for every page I was browsing. Not ideal.

Thinking back, in fact I really did not needed all those software but only a few. According to the risks I was most likely subjected to, I really only needed to change some of my behaviors more than install a million software. The focus of that training should have been my vulnerabilities and my risk assessment, followed by a training on secure habits on the internet. Not how to install and run TrueCrypt.


(image from

And this is where I see one of the biggest problem of the digital security community – and their funders: the obsessive focus on the tools and on the training, rather then on the habits and on assessments. People all over the world are being given a one block solution for all – including almost always the same tools – and expect to start using those tools, regardless if this is really what they need.

In addition to that little or no focus is given to habits and to how you make sure that people pick it up.  A very good friend and a digital security trainer a couple of weeks ago showed me this amazing advert (see below), one that is considered to have been one of the most effective sensitization campaign ever done against smoking. The point of the advert was to make people realize how ridiculous is the concept of “social smoker”, without telling them that they should stop doing it, but simply making them realized how ridiculous that is.

Why we have not been able in the past 5 years to make people realize how important is to protect themselves online? Our advertisement strategy is often just based on hacking people’s Facebook or identity thefts stories, but those have not been enough apparently.

And then there is the last issue that bothers me a lot: aside from the quite disturbing and annoying fact that a lot of the US based cybersecurity movement is, directly or indirectly, being supported by the US government, being it DRL, State department, USAID or other collateral agencies, this movement has badly failed in educating people about their risks. We have been so focused on the tools and on battling on who is the most hardcore internet freedom activist (not worries, they are all Americans and almost all men: we are safe!!) that we have kinda of lost perspective on where the real danger is coming from.

At the freedom online conference in Tunis, earlier 2013, I also realized how the language is a barrier. The majority of the conversations I had a with people at the conference where almost surreal. I consider myself a pretty smart girl: I have two masters degrees and have been working on technology related stuff for the past 4 years. Despite this though, I could not understand more than 80% of the conversations happening in that conference: people talked using lots acronyms and ONLY (yes ONLY) using technical language. There was not one single person there that bothered to explain in plain English what they were talking about. Granted, I guess that the Freedom Online conference is only for “already experts in the subject” people, but if this is the language used to communicate in this space, not freaking wonder no one else outside that community has  clue of the all digital security issue.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 2.00.25 PM

(Image from

In that same conference Google organized a Google Tend. More then 80% of the delegated decided not to go, in protest against the company being one those who gave data to the NSA under their request. Instead we all went to Nawaat, where several digital security activists/experts etc from the USA organized a meeting to discuss what they could do to protect their privacy in their country. During the meeting a tunisian activist, that had been fighting against the censorship of the internet in his country for years, came close to me and asked me “Why are the Americans so shocked about this? Did they really not know that this was happening? Really?”.

I remember thinking that this was a great thing, highlighting how much trust American citizens have in their government. On the other side I realized how little are we prepared to really take actions against the real threats to our online freedom and privacy: the government agencies, the internet/mobile/ISP providers and the tools manufacturers. We have been focusing so much on the users – overwhelming them with tons of information and tools to use – and very little on the main producers and managers of the system.

What the NSA did to me, was not to show that the USA government, together with many others, does not care about privacy at all, but to show that we are unprepared and have ignored the bigger problem: the fact that the all infrastructure of the Internet is still managed and controlled by few, and those few are linked strictly to (or bossed round by) governments. While we were wasting out time measuring our dicks over the most hardcore encryption system, we forgot to invest in what the real deal is: the infrastructure and the laws regulating its use and access.

As I said I am no expert. But I am worried that even the experts here have not been that useful so far. I hope that the NSA issue will not be confined to the usual USA centric discussion based on “can the government spy on its own citizens” but moves a bit towards the fact that our digital security and online freedom strategy has been a huge a failure. We have failed as a community and we need to make up for this. We need better trainings (and tailored to real risks), better strategies for risks assessments, better sensitization campaigns,  better understanding of the issue, better communication skills.

We need a much broader advocacy strategy that starts from obliging, for example, all companies to write in plain English their Term of Reference; mobile providers to give instructions to each of their customers about where and when their communications are recorded, stored and kept; make compulsory to attach to each mobile handset sold an “instruction sheet” that explains to people how their device can be tracked; all providers to have self encrypted systems where they DO NOT have access to the data, they just act as the means to move the data. We need a much stronger position not just against the NSA, but as a community on what we did wrong and how to do it better. Demonstrating or collecting signatures, I am sorry, it is not a strategy, it’s the last resource of an already failed movement.

We need to re-group, re-focus and start everything all over again.

Why the emergency will not be twitted

I have meant to write this blog post since very long time. But I never did since I realized that I am not sure I know what exactly I want to say on the matter. So, take this blog post for what it is: a reflection on what I have been thinking about the issue of using social media to communicate during humanitarian emergencies, and specifically on their usage to communicate with affected communities (I personally dislike this term, but I will use it for lack of a better one).

I’ve always been a big fan of using social media to communicate during disasters. If we look at Haiti for example, we can see the incredible use that not only “official” organization have done of the tool, but also and foremost the local population. The example of the NYC police department during Sandy or of Carel Pedre in Haiti are notable examples of the way different actors have been using social media as a powerful tool during emergencies.

On the other side, if we look at the events coming out from the Arab Spring, we see other very interesting examples of the use of social media by local communities, examples that we have just barely really analyzed, due to the fact that the majority of the interactions were happening in Arabic, while most of the analysis of those phenomenon are being done by English speakers academics.

Notable examples of people using social media during natural disasters can be found in the Philippines, like this map generated by OCHA using social media, or in New Zealand during the earthquake in 2011. 

Now, the question I have been trying to answer to in the past 2 years on the matter is: has any of those initiatives demonstrated without doubts that social media generated content can and is used to make decisions by responders (both local population and humanitarian responders), in a way that allow us to say that those tools are indeed necessary for emergency response?

Unfortunately so far the answer that I have given to this question is no. This does not necessarily mean that indeed social media cannot be used to inform decisions, but that we have not yet been able to demonstrate it.

For several reasons:

1. The technology gap is still there. We may see the future as a world where everyone will have a Twitter account, and where the entire world will have cheap and easy access to internet, but so far this is not yet happening. In the refugee camps in Dadaab, in Mali, in Niger, in Central African Republic people do not have access to those means, internet is still unreliable and where present, expensive. Their emergency is not twitted, facebooked it or youtubed it. (Photo: Meridith Kohut / Internews)

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.13.02 PM

2. Responders still use other means to gather information. So far there is not prove that any emergency responder agency has been using social media data for targeted and specific responses, apart from single and isolated cases. They still need to figure out the verification issues, the filtering of the enormous amount of data, the processing of the data, and the analysis of it. Once they will have this figured out, then they will be able to see if the intelligence gathered from that data is usable at all. On the community side, according to Internews Information Needs Assessments, people still rely on Radio, or word of mouth to gather the information they need to make better informed decisions.

3. The use of more “traditional” tools, like phones, has proven to be more efficient and more reliable. 911 is still the first number people in the US call in case of emergency, as well as in other countries (where there are other similar there are other numbers). Not only phones are much more widespread than internet, but also allow for more structured (and private) interactions in between people in need and responders – without the noise of the social media.

4. The human contact: we often tend to forget that in emergencies people do need a human contact. Talking to someone looking at him/her in the eye has a huge psychological value that a piece of information, for how useful it could be, does not have. Human interactions are still the basics of what people in distress look for, and are still a fundamental part of the recovery path. Sometimes we should ask ourselves not if a toll is useful or not, but if THAT tool is the best way to convey that MESSAGE.

5. Recents studies, like this one, and this one, and this other one, highlight that social media so far do not seem to carry a specific value when it comes to providing quality information as opposed to other sources. It also looks like it much less trusted than traditional media. Even in the social media sphere it looks like traditional media are still the one that people turn to, to understand what is going on, especially in times of incertitude. In this sense, it looks like traditional media is doing a good job at highlighting relevant information and guiding people through the noise of the social media chatter. This study form Farida Vis on the London Riots shows how the top 200 accounts during the riots where in fact Mainstream Media and Journalists:

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 12.50.13 PM


Those are some of the potentials and opportunities that I see in using social media during emergencies:

A. Social Media seems so far to be a very good ADDITIONAL tool to be used by official sources to spread information during an emergency. The tricky point is: how prepared official bodies/agencies are in using this tool, and how much of their strategy is being build in advance so that during the emergency they are actually ready to do it?

B. Social Media still need to prove its value when it comes to be a tool to gather emergency information from affected communities. So far, as I said before, there is little data on how social media information has been used by organization to make decisions. This does not means that the value is not there, but that we are still in the process of understanding how this data can be used, by whom and why. Anecdotal evidence is not enough, and we are still struggling to find tools that would allow us to monitor and understand what is the value of the data collected via social media during an emergency. A huge opportunity can be identified here in terms of working more with humanitarian organization in general to understand their decision making processes, so that social media data can be analyzed and provided in a format that make sense to them, and can be integrated with other data.

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 1.15.48 PM

On the other side, we also still need to prove there there is anything valuable in the data exchanged on Social Media during emergencies. We still need to demonstrate that Social Media is a tool that communities use during emergencies AND that carries valuable information that are not already known by responders through other means. Do communities really communicate important information during disasters using SM? And do we define what is “important”? Also, do communities on Social Media make decisions out of Social Media content during emergencies?

The third factor to consider is the comparative advantage: does Social Media provide any advantage when it comes to relevant and timely information to be gathered in order to make decisions?  In other words, is SM economically sustainable? Is the time, and people, and technology used to filter, analyze and manage social media during emergencies really well spend?

C. The Social Media network is as valuable as the real social network. If we work too much on building one and do not work enough the build the later one, we are setting ourselves up for failure. On the other side, huge opportunities lies in the study of social networks and their modeling in disasters. If we look at trusted sources and important nodes in those networks, we can observe how they function during disasters and try to predict where people will turn to in case of need. This will give us a lot of insights about which interactions to observe and monitor during emergencies.

All in all, there is a lot that we do not know, and unfortunately there is also a lot of misleading information out there. The way we carry out analysis of Social Media content from affected communities and the intelligence we get from it needs to be based on very scientific and precise methodologies.

In addition to that there is also very much a lack of fundings in this kind of research, as it seems that as much as donors are interested in funding new cool technologies and big data projects, they are not that interested in funding research to understand how that data can become really usable and relevant.

Social Media for Emergencies 101

2 weeks ago I was invited to lead a seminar for the Communication with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC) in collaboration with Greg Barrow from the World Food Program (WFP). The seminar was aimed at helping humanitarian organizations to understand how to best take advantage of Social Media (SM) during emergencies, with a particular focus on the communication with communities aspect.

The Prezi I used for that training is available here, so feel free to download, it, re-use it, or even update it is you feel there is something missing.

Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 6.44.45 PM

To be honest this is the first time I delivered a seminar like this one, as I normally teach Social Media strategies for Local Media, not for humanitarian organizations. The interesting thing about this seminar is that I realized how little we know about this subject and how much of what it being produced out there in this regard is very much a tentative to figure it out. For this reason, also my presentation can be described as the best of my tentative to understand what is that we can do with Social Media, and how.

To Begin: before you even decide to have a Social Media Strategy

Social Media as we intend it today refers to interactions among people in which they create, share, and/or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.” As social media is base on the use (and availability) of Internet or mobile technology, the first step to be done before deciding if social media is the right tool in emergency, is to figure out if the telecommunication landscape will allow people within the emergency affected area, to actually use it. It looks like an obvious statement, but believe me, it’s not!

The second thing to look at is the actual user habits and cultural and social customs when it some sot SM in a specific area. What I mean with that is that, for example, if we look at the use of Twitter and Facebook during the storm Sandy, it is pretty clear that the information provided by the users during that even, was adding no value at all to emergency responders. The reason for that, was that while a lot of social media content was produced during the storm, people that really needed support were using 911 or other emergency related tools to communicate with authorities. The availability of targeted and ad hoc tools to report problems and information was what made Social Media mainly a second choice tool.

The third step to be done is the one related to what we call Proxies. During an emergency, and also in normal times, people ten to listen and talk to people they trust. This is true also in our offline life, we talk and listen especially to people we trust. This is why, if a humanitarian organizations is entering the SM sphere during an emergency, it should do so by first looking at who are the most trusted sources in those spaces, and use them as a vehicle for their information or at least rely on their credibility to reach more audience. Of course, this is not always possible and can also be sometimes tricky, especially if the emergency is happening in a very politicized environment (see Syria for example). Of course, looking for the most commonly used Hashtags and Pages is also advised, especially if there are some that are created by Government Institutions or agencies.

The last step is to make sure that you have the capacity to actually manage your social media presence in an emergency context. This is particularly true as sometimes we forget that social media may be free when it comes to create an account, but it is definitely not free when it comes to actually use it: technical capacity and time commitments are really important variables for an affective SM strategy.

A very good example of this. is the graph here, which really shows all the necessary steps to create and set up an effective SM strategy (designed for businesses, but really applicable to any type of organization):


So, Why Social media for emergencies?
This something that I feel a lot of people never really takes the time to think about. In today’s landscape a lot of organizations are increasingly creating a social media presence ore because they “have to” then because they actually have a goal in mind. This is also due to the hype that certain people are creating around SM, hype that it very rarely supported by any real data (or it is supported by data that is being manipulated to prove a certain point). So, in my experience those are different goals that can be achieved by an effective SM strategy:

1. Provide lives saving information to the affected population

If the humanitarian organizations’ audience is online, and it is using social media, then this is where they should be too. Life saving information, like where to find food and water, shelters, education, services, are all information the HAVE to be delivered in as many ways as possible, and social media can be on of those. In this sense, social media can also be an extremely good way for humanitarian organizations to act against rumors, misinformation and to provide psychological support  (the American Red Cross does that in a very effective way).

2. Gather information useful for the response

Here I will have to make a distinction: social media monitoring for general awareness in the first hours of an event has been used before as seemed to have been proven as very effective (UNOCHA engaged several times with VTCs to do that, like in Libya and the Philippines, and according to their statements, it looks that this piece of information, together with other information gathered from other sources, provided a very good contribution to the situational awareness).

The second case is the use of SM for immediate response actions by humanitarian organizations. This second situation is particularly tricky as there are no reliable and solid studies on the general use of SM for this kind of situations. All events reported are very anecdotal, like the Japan case of a woman being saved after she twitted her status. In addition to that, the problem with proving that there is any value in using SM for response is that, while information on SM could be “actionable” in theory, 99% is not really actionable in reality, as humanitarian organizations do not have the capacity to go and deliver food to every single family that has no food in the first 24 hours of an emergency.

The “actionable” data here could be actionable only once aggregated and cross referenced with other information, like the vulnerability of the recipient, their proximity to other people and so on. A second issue that makes the “actionability” of SM content for humanitarian organization tricky is the fact that the verification and the filtering of that data during emergencies may actually be more time consuming than the use of a hot line or an SMS system to ask people to report their situation. Now, the good news is that machine learning and computational technology are really developing in a way that will make all those processes easier and faster, but the real question still remains: is the information provided on SM any faster, accurate or important than the information that humanitarian organizations already have and can act upon?

Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 6.55.32 PM

3. Engage communities affected

The engagement process is always a very interesting one, as a lot of organizations still believe that engagement is measured by how many people follow their account. Unfortunately that’s not the case! The engagement issue is strictly related to TRUST. Engagement in this sense is a conversation, and to have a conversation you have to talk, but also to listen. SM is not different in this sense, as it required organizations to engage in multiple conversations with their beneficiaries knowing that they cannot control that conversation. So how should humanitarian organizations engage?
A. By being relevant
B. By being timely
C. By being responsive
D. By being ready to be criticized

4. Manage expectations

This is a very important one. One of the situations I observed in a lot of emergencies in the past 3 years is that frustration and incertitude are directly proportionated to the expectations that local communities have regarding the response. Let me be clear here: I am not saying that people are expecting something that should not be expecting – most of the time they are expecting something that they HAVE THE RIGHT to expect – but most of the times the humanitarian community is not able to provide what has promised – and again, to be clear, I do know that there are more valid and less valid reasons behind this. In this sense SM is  a good tool to manage expectations and lower the level of frustration and incertitude due to the lack of aid or the lack of information about when aid will be received.

The Challenges of using SM during emergencies
1. Strategy: to be effective you need to have a strategy, and better if it is a good one. Just suddenly using Social Media during a disaster with the idea of setting up a strategy later on is not a smart approach. Since there are times of calm in between emergencies, those are the right times to set up a strategy, test assumptions (and tools) and prepare for the big one to hit.

2. Resources: as I said before, using SM effectively requires skills and people dedicated to that. In this sense an effective SM strategy is an investment in the long term, but this investment needs to be done in the first place, and it is not a small one. Several tools, paid or not, can be used to manage SM in a more efficient way, but still, the human component to it, is fundamental.

3. Verification: verifying social media content is not easy, but the good news is that there are several best practices and protocols that different organizations have created and are using these days. One of those is being designed right now, and I will be writing a case study for it. In general verification is entirely depending on the urgency of the information processed and can be outsourced, like for example using Social Media to gather intelligence about an event and to ask the crowd to verify it. In the Prezi you can find more information about it.

Using SM for emergencies is becoming increasingly important and complicated, but it is indeed an important development of the Communication with Communities (CwC) issue. Learning how to do it takes time and practice but it is not impossible. The important thing is to understand that using SM for CwC is not the same thing than using SM for advertising an organization work, and that once you engage in a conversation you cannot really withdraw from it, or try to control it or manipulate it.

The conundrum of digital humanitarianism: when the crowd does harm

We saw this coming. It’s like when you start sniffing and coughing and you know the real flu is coming. And you know you cannot do anything about it, because even if you take a very strong aspirin, it is too late and you will get sick for at least a couple of days.

We saw this coming: the truth is that the consequences of Typhoon Yolanda are not only the one that we see on TV every day, but they are virtual, and the worst of those virtual consequences is coming.

The Digital Humanitarians (or the Volunteer Technical Communities, as you want to call them) came to be out of an amazing change in the world we live: the internet and mobile phones, with which now you can help, and talk, and share with anyone in the world. And you don’t need to have money or to be a professional to provide support to affected communities. You can give your contribution and you help just by sitting behind your desk in your comfy sofa.  But is that true? Does “the crowd” knows what to use and how to use it in a humanitarian crisis, and does it know what are the consequences of its actions? The answer is that no, most of the people in the crowd do not know what they are doing. But they are doing it anyway.

People want to help, and they can help, but they are not necessarily professionals, they have not done this before. Most of the times they do not know what the “do not harm” principle is and means in a practical way, and most importantly, they do not see the consequences of what they do.

This is not a new thing though: we have seen this in Haiti, in Pakistan, in Chile, Libya and we are starting to see this in the Philippines. And because Internet has not been restored entirely in the country yet, the magnitude of what it is gonna happen in the Philippines is still unknown.

You don’t trust me? Want some examples?

Here you are:

Facebook 1

This messages was posted in Facebook (I added the black lines to cover the information) and then reposted by several people – I counted 64,  but only the re-posts from one account. Which means that I don’t know how many others have reposted it from their accounts. To some of you this may look like heartbreaking (and it is in fact) and you may think that it is very nice for people to share this story so that maybe someone will help this family. The problem that I have with this is that whoever re-posted this did not knew that he was basically saying to whoever has bad intention: “Hey, here there is a young woman with two little kids, and two wounded people with her. Here is her location, and she is scared and alone, with no means to get for help”. This is more or less like to tweet that you have a million dollars in your house and that you are gonna go out for a drink and leave the door open.

This second one thought, is even scarier:

FB2 copyThis post, also on Facebook, has already 4000 shares and 5000 likes. The black boxes to cover the children faces were added by myself – here. The post has also 820 comments, a lot of those asking the organization that posted this to delete it, denying what they claim (that they will take all the children under 18 in the Philippines to the US for adoption). But there are also a LOT of comments asking how people can apply to adopt those children – some people even choosing which one they want from the picture. If any of the readers of this post have been to Haiti, they have seen this kind of things before.

But this is not all that is happening, there is more to come. Since the Typhoon, I have received around 10 different emails like this one:

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.58.10 PM

Now, this company is not doing anything illegal, and they are just offering a very good service to send blast SMS to multiple people in little time – a very good and interesting solution. The problem is, is that a coincidence that I received this just when the Typhoon happened? and that other 10 different companies sent me an email with very similar products or offers?

On Twitter and on several online volunteers Skype chats, I have also seen people already talking about how to set up SMS system to send messages to the people in the Philippines, how to set up a Text2Tweet account, how to harvest requests for help and geo-locate them on line, etc.

Now, don’t get me wrong: information sharing, and the use of technology to provide people with the information they need, when they need it, it is absolutely fundamental! This is why I work for an organization like Internews. Because information is KEY and can save lives. But it can also destroy lives if it is not treated properly and handled with cautions.

In Haiti we saw a proliferation of SMS services, requests for help spread on the internet with sensitive data in it, and multiple people organizing their own “shipment” of goods to the country – not knowing if anyone really needed that. A lot of the people behind those projects REALLY MENT WELL and learned their lessons the hard way. Humanitarian Organizations and NGOs were not immune to this “multiplication” of digital information systems. The real victims though, Haitians people, were the once left to deal with it: misinformation, frustration, and sometimes much more serious consequences.

Let’s be clear here: I am not writing this post to ‘demonize” online VTC or DH communities and individuals. This is not the case. I am myself the co-founder of an organization that does that, the Standby Task Force. This is in of the reason why 3 years ago with some colleagues we created this organizations: to be ready, but most of all to educate people, and to be able to support humanitarian organizations during a crisis, while making sure we can help people not to harm others. This is why we have codes of conduct and CDAC trainings for our volunteers.

But the truth is that the beauty of the internet, in humanitarian crisis, is also its curse: everyone can do everything and does not need to be “trained” or to be a “professional”, or to be part of a formal organization.

So here there are some suggestions to EVERYONE that is today looking at the internet to help and to support people in the Philippines:

1. Do not re-post/share or re-tweet ANYTHING that has sensitive information in it. Sensitive informations are: location of people that need help, names of people, GPS coordinated of their location, picture of children or minors. If you see a message like this, you should do 3 things:

A. Tell the person that posted it to take it off, and explain why

B. Contact the relative NGO working on the ground in the Philippines – use this resource here to find out who does what.

C. If you think that the message is really urgent, and that someone CAN do something about it, look for a hot line number – the government in the Philippines is setting those up for the municipalities locally. See here.

2. If you want to help in any way, contact an NGO, or a humanitarian organization and ask them. If you don’t find anyone, email me(I am at or @anahi_ayala). I swear, I will make time to answer to you. DO NOT DO ANYTHING ON YOUR OWN INITIATIVE IF YOU HAVE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE. You can also join one of the many online communities that have been doing this for some time, see here a list.

3. Do not try to send information to the local communities online unless you are SURE that the information you are giving is correct. If you see a request for help, use the internet wisely: search for a governmental agency, local or international NGOs, UN agencies that are working in that area, see if they have a contact information.

4. Use this resource to find out what is being done and how.

5. Think before you do. I know, we are emotionally touched by what happened and is happening, but the fact that you are online does not means that the people in the Philippines are virtual. Everything you say or do has consequences in their real life.

6. Do not create new software, technologies an other techie stuff to help the humanitarian community without talking to them first. Here is why and how you can do that.

7. If you hear something that sound crazy, probably it is crazy. Do not  report/share or re-tweet it automatically, but try to figure out from other sources. Do your homework!

8. And for the love of god, DO NOT SET UP YOUR FREAKING SMS SYSTEM!!!!!! Unless you are the PH Government, or a coordinated effort from all the RESPONDENTS on the ground. Really, just don’t do it.

The Internet is a powerful tool, use it wisely and think twice. You are not in an emergency, so you can take the time to do that. Keep willing to help, contributing to the community and make your a contribution to a better world, just make sure you don’t screw up.

Kenya Westgate Mall Attack: social media sources

There are times when you feel useless. Those times when you realize that it could have been you, but it is not, and you realize that sometime, randomness is what makes the difference. The Westgate situation is one of those situations.

So, while I am in Italy and I feel as useless as I could possibly feel, I need to occupy my time not to get crazy. And this blogpost is what I can do, little and maybe not that useful, but still something that is helping me to be up to date on the situation.

I am going to keep adding information and sources using this Google doc. Please, feel free to add there any other relevant source that you are using.



Kenyan Police:


The Kenya National Disaster Operation Centre:

Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government in The Office of the President:

Kenya MissingPersons, Official account for Kenya Missing and Unidentified Persons:

US Embassy in NBO:

Kenyatta twitter account :


Twitter (local media)


Citizens TV News:

Daily nation:

NTV Kenya:

The Standard Digital:


Twitter (Individual People)

Daniel Howden, Contributor to The Economist. Co-Producer of Stolen Seas doc on Somali piracy: @howden_africa

Robyn Kriel: eNCA East Africa Bureau Chief. FCA East Africa co-chair. Zimbabwean/South African: @robynleekriel

Robert Nagila: Reporter – CCTV AFRICA: @Rnagila

Nicole Sobecki : reporter – AFP : @nicolesobecki

Ohaga Ohaga: Journalist/Socialist/Realist/Idealist/Writer/Blogger. Communications Officer for a National NGO: @ohagaohaga



#WestgateAttack, #WestagateMall, #WeAreOne, #westgateshootout #kenya #Nairobi, #Westgate. #WestgatemallAttack



Westgate Attack:

Westgate Mall Attack Kenya:


Official **verified** information

Kenya Red Cross:


Phone services

Hot Line: +254714820219

The KRCS Emergency Operation Centre: 1199, 0700395395, 0738395395


Phone donations:

M-PESA No. 848484

 (thanks to Joseph Richard Pollack from the SBTF for the help in compiling this)

Asia Trip 2013: Follow the adventures of a crisis mapper in Asia!

I owe an apology to my readers: I did not disappeared or stopped blogging, I just changed platform for a little while. No worries, this is still my official blog, but for the time being you can see what I am up to here. I am using this platform because it is simpler and easier, it allows me to post from my phone and not necessarily original content. As to say: different methodology, different content, different technology.

Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 4.18.16 PM

I have started a long trip in Asia, visiting 6 countries in one month to work on social media, local technology communities, crisis mapping, local context with regard to communication with communities, media and much more. For the trip, I have set up a Tumblr, so I am using it to write about my trip, my discoveries, and interesting projects or people I am meeting.

I will be back blogging here once I am back into a more of a normal life, but for the time being, please refer to my Asia Trip 2013 Tumblr for more information about what I am up to 🙂

And, as always, contact me if you have any tips, suggestions or comments 🙂

Why citizens’ feedback is a false issue

The new mantra for the ICT4D community seems to be “citizens’ feedback”. The World Bank has embraced it, the donor community is putting out calls for proposals almost entirely focused on that, conferences on development issues always have a panel dedicated to that. The good news about this, is that it is a good thing that we are finally talking about incorporating “beneficiaries” (for lack of a better word) into our projects.

The bad news is that it seems that those discussions about citizens’ feedback revolve about the involvement of “beneficiaries” only at a later stage, almost ignoring their role on the initial stages of a project design and implementation.

Dennis Whittle, which I had the pleasure to meet in one of these conferences, resumes very well in this post the main questions that the ICT4D community (and others) is trying to find an answer to:

  1. How do government agencies, donors, and citizen groups provide incentives for broad-based feedback?
  2. How do they know that feedback is representative of the entire population?
  3. How do they combine the wisdom of the crowds with the broad perspective and experience of experts?
  4. And, perhaps most important, how do they ensure that the feedback mechanisms are broadly adopted and actually lead to positive changes in aid projects?

Incentives to provide feedbacks

The question about citizen’s feedback is more or less the same question that the crowdsourcing community has been asking itself for quite some time now. When looking at a crowdsourcing project, you normally will see over time that participation in the project assume the form of a bell curve skewed on the right. Plotting time in the X axes and number of people participating on the project in the Y axes, you will see that the initial participation will be low, to increase then until it reaches a critical point, and then decrease again.

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 8.57.04 PM

The variables that will affect this distribution are of course related to implementation strategies: the outreach campaign is particularly important in the beginning, while in the long term what become key is the ability to show an impact or to give something in return. This return may be a material incentive, money or information, or “gifts”, or a more substantial return: impact. The first one is difficult to maintain, unless you have a very good business model or endless resources. The second one will guarantee your success, but it is hard to prove and often not really achieved.

How to make sure that feedback are representative

This is a very important issue and it can be broken into two different issues. One is related to whom is engaged in the process. Most organizations that try to implement citizens’ feedback mechanisms use civil society organizations as a subject representative of the citizens. The problem here lies on the fact that depending on the context civil society organizations may not be representative of all the citizens and may have their own agenda. Most often they gather around one specific topic and for this reason represent only one sector of the population. By definition, in this case who is represented is only the sector of the population that is aligned with the vision of that specific organization.

The second issue is the fact that when using technology for citizens reporting, like SMS or mobile phones, or the Internet, only citizens that have access to that technology or knowledge on how to use it will be part of the process. Most often women and elders are left outside of the equation. Even more often, the illiterate part of the population and the poorest, which have no access to the Internet or mobile phones for example, are also left outside. In this case the people that will really be part of the feedback mechanism are the richest, most literate and most educated. Which normally are also the one that are less affected by whatever issues the feedback mechanism wants to address.

The Crowd vs the Experts


Several people lately have been questioning if citizens’ feedback are always needed or good. While I really do not have an answer to this, this issue looks to me less related to whom is right or wrong, and more related to a clear lack in education and 2 ways communication systems. If you ask me if I can take a Tylenol while drinking vodka, I will tell you no, and the reason is that I read the instruction on the Tylenol box and I know it is dangerous to do that. I am not an expert or a doctor, but I know that because I trust the expert that is giving me that information. If I don’t know anything about that, I may tell you that yes, why not? The ability of the experts to show evidence of what they say and decide, is what will make the crowd more informed and able to make the decision. It is also what may lead the experts to figure out that maybe they were wrong. If this ability is lacking, then the crowd may have a different idea on what the solto to a problem is. The same happens if the crowd does not trust the “experts”. The trick here lies in the evidence and in the trust, not in the talking, or in the assumption that just because you have a PhD you are expert in a specific issue.

Ensuring effectiveness of citizen’s feedback mechanisms

There is only one way to assure that feedback mechanisms have an impact, and that way is that the mechanism needs to lead to a result. Now how does it get to a result? Well this is the 1 m dollar question. A feedback mechanism leads to result if there is a structure and a clear goal behind the project. Collecting feedback without knowing what to do with it, or even worst, without knowing how to incorporate it into an ongoing project is completely useless.


The real question is, if I get the feedback and it tells me that my project is not working or that people are not happy with it, will I be willing and able to change my project? How will I do that? Will I be able to say: hey this is not working we should stop and start again from the beginning? Or to change entirely the way the project is being done? The fact that there is alost no conversations about what are we willing to do with feedback, is worrying me.

Why this is a false issue!

Don’t take me wrong, those are very legitimate questions and I do understand what lies behind asking those questions. But to be honest, I think that the very fact that we are asking those questions is a demonstration that we are missing a very important point: citizens’ feedback mechanisms will never work if citizens are not part of our project design and embedded into the ay we work. Until we will keep designing a project, implement it, and then ask people to give us feedback, we will never get to the point where people will trust our mechanism or where we will have a real impact. Once we have already put in motion the machine of project implementation there is no way back. Donors will not be willing to re-fund entirely a project that has been already implemented, we would be less willing to accept criticisms after we have worked so hard to start a project, and most importantly, “beneficiaries” will not trust our system once they see that they have not even been asked if they wanted the project in the first place.

Don’t take me wrong; I know that this is difficult. I have been there. Involving communities in the very first formulation of an issue is not easy and sometimes it is not even possible. If we had to ask people in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to vote if they want or not projects to protect women, I doubt we will ever do any projects in that sense. On the other side, we need to stop using this feedback mechanisms mantra to avoid talking about the real issue. We are still very much working in a totally hierarchical system, where we decide, we involve in the project only the local partners that agree with us, we decide who are the voices that count, and after that we add a feedback mechanism to label our project as a participatory project. The truth is that to create a feedback mechanism that works people need to trust you.

TrustYou need to cultivate and create a relationship. And you do it only by working with communities since the very beginning. “Beneficiaries” are not stupid. They have seen our feedback mechanisms before. They have answered tons of surveys, got our SMSs, called our hot lines, participated in our focus groups, filled our forms, etc. But they know they are not part of the system. The very fact that we need to “create” a feedback mechanism means that we do not even have a channel to talk to them, and for them to talk to us, in our projects.

But there is also another issue that I want to raise. A lot of those projcts are being implemented in places where the goal is to “to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness”. There is a huge focus on having people providing feedback for government lead initiatives or to increase transparency. But this also a false issue. First because if an NGO (or the World Bank) needs to create a feedback mechanism for citizens, it means that there is no institutional way already embedded into the government for citizens to report on service delivery. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be much better to invest money into making sure that those system are part of the way the   government think and create policies, rather than into creating an external system that will ultimately lead to the same results – the ultimate responsible of those services (the government)  ignoring the voice of their citizens. Because let’s be honest, when there is lack of those intuitions is not that the government does not know that citizens are unhappy: most of the times, they just do not care. If on the other side those institutions exist already, then why are we duplicating a system already in place, instead of reinforcing the existing one?

But also the transparency issue seems a false issue to me. The fact that we ask people to report on the services provided to them – being it from NGOs or from the government – does not mean that we are transparent at all. We can even publish the feedback, but still transparency is a totally different issue. If we really want to be transparent we will need first to focus on two other issues: open data and real M&E. This is transparency to me; we need to start inside the NGOs world, not outside it.

Wanna be transparent? Even before you tell me how happy your beneficiaries are, I want to know where your money is coming from, how you are spending them, who is evaluating your projects, what is the impact – and here I am not talking about if people are happy or not, but if you actually achieved to change anything at all-. Open all your data, then we can start talking about transparency.

This is the problem. This is the question we need to ask: are we using feedback mechanisms because we have not been doing our job in the first place? Is this a false issue to hide the real issues behind the way we do development projects?

Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information during the Libyan Civil War

Steve Stottlemyre from the Office of Intelligence & Threat Analysis, U.S. Department of State and Sonia Stottlemyre from Georgetown Public Policy Institute, have recently published an article titled “Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information during the Libyan Civil War: An Exploratory Case Study”.  The article touches on one of the most interesting topic related to crisis mapping applied to civil unrests or conflict settings, and has some very good points in it, as well as some very big mistakes and misrepresentations. The article is definitely worth a reading though!

Let start with the good points:

1. The way Twitter users fused crowd-sourced data during the Libya War resulted in the creation of tactical military intelligence. This is indeed a super interesting matter, that in a way leads us to a broader discussion about the fact that tasks performed by hierarchical centralized systems may now be taken on by networked decentralized systems, in a way that may (or may not) lead to the same outcomes. What this means is also that crowdsourcing is creating a new way to process information that before was only possible by organizations that had the means and the money to do it. These new processes are so decentralized and embedded inside such a huge network (the Internet) that may be able to reach the velocity and accuracy of the centralized hierarchical systems and gain value because completely free and much larger in volume.

2. During the Libya Crisis War it was members  of the “crowd” who planned and directed collection efforts, and established  operating procedures for intelligence operations. This point is in a way very similar to what this article is formulating when talking about the “self-regulation” of Twitter. The social media space seems to be more and more described as a self-regulating and self organizing environment more than an “anarchy”. Balances and collective planning seem to happen in this space even with the complete lack of a unique authority to direct it.

3. Twitter provides both a platform for reporting information, and much of the infrastructure required to convert information into intelligence. The power of Twitter in this sense is incredible and undeniable: this platform I think has by far exceeded the expectations of the same people that created it. More than Facebook has done, or if you want in a different way, Twitter is being used for a range of tasks that all together make it one of the best real-time coordination tool. The division of tasks and the consequent combination of its component can be done, again, in a decentralized, real- time dimension, while the vetting of the information combined is distributed to the all network.


4. Twitter acted as a platform for collaboration on and compilation of intelligence products. Again, the inherent structure that Twitter has and the use of hastags makes is a very efficient curating system. What is happening is that this curation process is being done collectively and intelligently in real-time, making it possible not only to access already curated information, but also to have a sort of continuous verification/vetting system that constantly reiterate itself.

So, let’s make it clear here: people creating crisis maps and people using social media were and are creating intelligence. This was true for the Libya war, as it is for ANY crisis mapping deployment or social media coverage of an event. The first time I had a conversation about this, it was with Heather Blanchard, co-founder of Crisis Commons, in 2010, discussing about PakReport, a crisis mapping deployment in Pakistan. A big kudos to the authors of this paper to have reached the same conclusion 3 years later!!! 🙂

Now, let’s go to some of the major mistakes in this paper and to some of the weird points that the authors make in an attempt to prove their thesis.

Vocabulary and Glossary mistakes

1. Crisis Mapping is not equal to Twitting. Unfortunately it looks like the authors of this article are a bit confused about the vocabulary they use, when they attribute to people twitting the definition of “crisis mappers” and the contrary. For example, the Libya Crisis Map was clearly a crisis mapping effort, but did never engaged in active twitting, while people twitting were not necessarily the same one creating crisis maps out of twitter messages, even if involved in the curation of the data that was subsequently mapped. I suggest the authors to read this blog post to learn more about this.


2. Hashtags do not equal @. This is the most disconcerting mistake in this paper, namely because you would think that people writing a paper about social media would have done their due diligence work in understanding how social media work. In the paper the authors infer that people using the hashtag #NATO wanted to address the information in that tweet to NATO. At the contrary though, people use hashtags to underline a topic, or a specific actor involved in the action reported. For this reason if I am tweeting that the US have just passed a law on cybercrime, I will add an hashtag to US and one to cybercrime, but the reason why I do it, it’ s because I want people interested in the cybercrime topic to find that information, as well as people looking for information about the US. The very interesting part of this mistake in understanding how Twitter works is linked directly to the intentionality that the authors want to attach to everyone that used the hashtag NATO. In fact the thesis they are trying to support is that everyone that used the hashtag NATO wanted to actively pass information to NATO.

The missing point here is that as much as we can assume that the NATO was following its hashtag, we can infer that the rebel groups would have done that too, as well as the Gaddafi forces, as well as the media, as well as everyone on the Internet that wanted to see what the NATO was doing during that period of time. This of course is a very different issue than the Twitter messages that had @NATO or @NATOPress, since this was indeed a way to make sure that the specific accounts were getting that information. Without going into details about the actual intentions behind the willingness of people adding the @NATO to their tweets, those two groups cannot be merged together, nor can their motivations.

Factual Mistakes

As one of the person managing the Libya Crisis Map project I have to say that I am definitely pissed off by one main factual mistake done in this paper.

The mistake is about why and when the volunteers working in the project where reporting about military operations happening in Libya. Interesting enough the assumption that the authors make is that we started reporting about military operations because we wanted to actively support the NATO Operations in Libya. What looks strange is that the  Stottlemyres did not connected the fact that military related reports were increasing in the platform to the fact that military actions overall were increasing in number – since there was a new actor in the battle field, and namely NATO. The second factor that they seem to ignore is that NATO military operations were much more visible and reported than military operations done by the rebel groups or the Gaddafi soldiers.

In addition to this, the authors seem again to ignore a very important point here: if we are assuming that the Libya Crisis Map was reporting more military related information to support the NATO , why not to support the rebels? or the Gaddafi soldiers? as the internet is accesible to everyone in the same way, no causality can be drawn by the simple fact that more information was reported.

In addition to this, what really strikes me in this strong tentative to accuse 300 volunteers of wanting to support a military operation that caused thousand of victims, in a very complex emergency, is the subtle idea that the Standby Task Force is a unique body composed of people that are all politically aligned,  or, the even more annoying idea, that we, as the Core team, could have been instructed people to search and publish information specifically for the purpose of supporting NATO operations in Libya. Both those scenarios are not only unrealistic but also offensive.


To be added to this is the simple fact that the SBTF was acting under the activation of UNOCHA, one of the most independent and imparcial body of the UN. In fact, if the authors of this paper would have taken some more time to actually support their accusations, they would have seen that once UNOCHA took full control of the deployment, the reporting of military related operations stopped entirely. One of the main reasons why this happened was because, while in the beginning of the deployment the SBTF was mandated to give UNOCHA an overall idea of what was happening, and what was the humanitarian situation, in the second part of the deployment, when UNOCHA had more information coming from the ground, the focus switched to more attention to the provision of humanitarian relief.

Let me also add something else here: in order for the SBTF to give an overview of what was happening on the ground in Libya, the location and intensity of the combat was indeed a very useful information. For example knowing that Benghazi was under attack for days, and that the port was blocked, was indeed valuable to infer that civilians would have been in need of water and food, and that they most likely would have been trying to run away, causing an influx of IDPs and refugees in other areas. All in all, saying that combat information do not have a relationship with humanitarian needs is like to say that hunger has no relationship with availability of food.

Specifically in this instance, I would like to think that the authors of this paper are rather ignorant than to think that they are intentionally trying to accuse the SBTF to be an ally of NATO, which would not only be malicious but also dangerous for some of our volunteers, that live in Libya and could be subject to repercussions due to those accusations.

A piece of advice for the authors, is also to remove the twitter account names from the article, especially when they are publicly accusing those people of being NATO supporters.

Totally not supported assumptions

As I said before, this paper is a very good piece of research when it comes to the relationship in between the military intelligence process as done by the army, and the same process as done by the collectivity in the social media or in crisis mapping projects. I find this topic extremely fascinating and definitely in need of more research and possibly in depth research. What is very curious about this paper is the decision of the authors to infer intentionality for everyone using social media or doing mapping to support the NATO. I have been reading this paper over and over and I cannot find a good reason for the authors to add element this to their paper.

In addition to this, what is extremely curious is that, while in the paper the authors repeatedly use several reasons to support the argument of intentionality to support the NATO (i.e. the use of the # NATO or the number of tweets or maps monitoring the military operations), they also specify in the conclusions that “we cannot precisely extrapolate the motivation of crisis mappers who created finished intelligence products, nor can we determine how responsive crisis mappers would be to official PIR and RFI issued by military commanders.” It definitely looks like some confusion is going on there, but we can also notice that there is a huge stretch in the tentative to infer intentionality by using an argument that could be used as well as to infer intentionality to support the Gaddafi soldiers or the rebel groups, or whoever was in the field at the time.


The main questions were basically not asked 

This paper is just scratching the surface of the real issues. What is a shame is that the authors of the paper did not asked the right questions, as if they did not want to actually find out the two main  issues:

1) If the military was actually really using the data produced by crisis mappers or social media;

2) and related to that, if the data produced was of any additional value to what the military already had.

In this matter, clearly the authors of the paper did not noticed that the Libya Crisis Map, for example, had a delay of 24 hours – meaning that data posted one day on social media would have only been visible and usable the day after in the Libya Crisis Map. Would that data be of any value for military purposes?

The authors themselves say that “Public information is unavailable about the extent to which military commanders used information from crisis maps during the Libyan Civil War. Nevertheless, commanders had access to such information, and likely used intelligence products derived, at least in part, from information pulled from social networking websites.”  Forgetting for a moment that this is stating the obvious, since it would make no sense to even think that military do not look at social media data, the actual question for me is to which extend, and how, this data was used by the military, if it was ever.

Hoping that someone competent in the issue will take this topic on, I would love to understand this and know more about how the collectivity is being (or not) more reliable, fast and articulated than the military is in creating intelligence.

Kenya: one election, 7 phone services, 3 maps and some confusion!

We all knew it. We saw this coming in Haiti and talked about it in Egypt, when 5 Ushahidi maps popped out the day before the elections. But the Kenyan elections are somehow different, and the reason why they are, is that the possible outcome is indeed a civil unrest that could bring the country years back to 2007.

I have lived 3 years in Nairobi, and I have been working with journalists, media, technologists, mappers and so on. I admire and respect most of the organizations I will be mentioning in this blog posts, but still, there are some important questions that really need to be asked here.

Today is election day in Kenya, and a lot of organizations have been preparing for this day by setting up their own branded, advertised, funded and public electoral monitoring system.

Let’s have a look at them:

1. Uchaguzi. This is the well known Ushahidi project to monitor the elections in Kenya. Uchaguzi was used already 2 times, for the Constitutional referendum in 2010 and for the by-elections in February this year. Uchaguzi will be receiving SMS at the short code 3002 and also via social media #uchaguzi and via web forms, as well as via Android app and iPhone app.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.16.11 PM

2. Voice of Mathare. This is a project from Map of Kibera Trust, monitoring only electoral events happening in Mathare. The project also has an SMS number 0726300400, and also has a web form to report to.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.16.41 PM

3. Amani Kenya @108. This is a project from the National Steering Committee on peace building and conflict management, under the Ministry of state for provincial administration and internal security. The system will make use of the current District Peace Committees (DPCs), Peace Monitors and other relevant parties to gather crucial information from the field. Once information is gathered from various sources on the field, an analysis group will be able to analyze the information and to issue an indicator based Early Warning Report to the relevant parties for a response. Amani has its own short code for reporting on election related events, which is of course 108. In addition to this there is also a web form to report to on-line.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.19.27 PM

4. The Independent Electoral and boundaries commission Whistle Blowing Portal, where people can report via web any issue competency of the Director Risk and Compliance
Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. They also have an election hotlines for issues, complaints or inquiries: 0711035606 / 0711035616

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.17.23 PM

5. SiSi Ni Amani. Sisi Ni Amani Kenya has worked with local peace groups to set up an SMS-based programming available to subscribers through USSD code *762#. Subscribers are able to dial in for free from any Safaricom line to subscribe and receive SMS from SNA-K. The project aims at looking at rumors spreading via SMS and have a team of “peace-keepers” on the ground responding timely to it by directly addressing the problem.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.17.53 PM

6. And finally the actual formal national emergency services aka, Kenya Police: 0800 720002 and the ambulance service: 0700395395 or 0738395395, which also has a web-form reporting system.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.31.27 PM

7. And lastly the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights toll free hotline for election monitoring: 0800721410

So, let’s be clear here: I am all for more transparency and for multiple channels of communication. Especially in emergencies, the more people are ready to respond, the better it is. Now, the problem is exactly this one: are all of these people really ready to respond?

I have been looking and reading all the pages of those organizations and what strikes me is that, apart from SiSi Ni Amani, which is a system that has been working for almost 3 years now, and it is not a reporting system really, but more a prevention tool; the Kenyan police, which I believe everyone knows what it does; and Amani 108, which is using a very predefined system of Peace Monitors, all the rest of the projects here have very vague explanations of what is that they will be doing with the information they want to collect. Will they respond? Will they have responders on the ground? Will they only monitor for the sake of transparency and accountability?

But other questions are really coming out from this picture is: DO WE REALLY NEED ALL OF THOSE PROJECTS??? Do we really need 3 maps, 7 phone numbers, and several web-forms? Is that really such a crazy bad idea to have one coordinated number/web-form that could then have in the back-end multiple responders and organizations working together?

I mean, seriously, what the hell should a Kenyan do today when something happens? Send 7 SMSs and compile a bunch of web-forms for each event they see? They should all go around with a list of the specific topics that they should report on and which platform they go to?

This would look like something like this: “If you are in Mathare send a report to 0726300400 and to 3002 and to 108, but only after you have alerted the police at 999 or 112. But if it is something related to human rights violations, and more in particular IDPs, then remember to also text 0800721410. If the issue is related to violations competency of the  Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission then you should text 0711035606 / 0711035616, but if you get a rumor via mobile phone you probably should send a text to 8762 just in case SiSi Ni Amani is also working in your area. Oh, and by the way, keep safe and keep reporting to us. If you still have any credit in your mobile phone or if by the time you send us a message you did not ended up being killed!”

Now, I do know that coordination and partnerships are not easy things to do and set up, and that all of those organizations have been meeting on a regular basis before the elections. I also do know that they talk to each other and know what everyone else is doing. But on the other side I believe that the messages being sent out to the actual people that are supposed to benefit from those systems is vague, misleading and possibly dangerous. If technology is supposed to make our lives easier, than I am not sure we are really getting there.

Just a week ago GSMA launched their SMS Code of Conduct. I believe this document is still far from being complete and from addressing all the issues related to the use of SMSs during emergencies. But it is a great starting point, and a very necessary one. Looking at it though, I cannot not shake my head and think that there is still a long way to go from the “Code of Conduct” the piece of paper, to the reality of a Code of Conduct.

Some guidelines in that document COULD BE a good starting point for all of those Kenyan organizations and projects mentioned in this report are namely:

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 10.06.44 PM Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.46.52 PM Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 9.47.28 PM