Patrick Meier (PhD)NB: THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO iREVOLUTION.net
Born and raised in Africa. Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi and co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers.Previously co-directed Harvard's Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Consulted extensively for international organizations in Africa, Asia and Europe. PhD from The Fletcher School and Doctoral Fellowship from Stanford University's Program on Liberation Technology. MA from Columbia University. BA from York and EAP at UC Berkeley.
Author Archives: Patrick Meier
[Cross-posted on Ushahidi blog]
CeaseFire began operations 10 years ago in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Within a year, the project reduced shootings by 67%. These results have since been replicated dozens of times in Chicago, other US cities and abroad including Iraq. An extensive three-year independent evaluation funded by the US Department of Justice provided statistical proof that CeaseFire’s model was directly responsible for the dramatic decline in killings. Indeed, “this evaluation scientifically-validated CeaseFire’s success in reducing shootings and killings by 41% to 73% and demonstrated a 100% success rate in reducing retaliatory killings in five of the eight communities examined.”
Thanks to PopTech, I was able to meet with the CeaseFire team in Chicago on two occasions this year. This is truly one of the most stunning projects I’ve come across in a long time. Members of the CeaseFire team are true professionals. They prove that preparedness is fundamental to successful tactical early warning and response. Having worked in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response for years, I’ve always known that a people-centered approach to violence prevention would be far more effective than a state-centric approach. CeaseFire demonstrates this beyond the shadow of a doubt. The model itself is based one how diseases are controlled, which is fascinating.
I’m incredibly excited to be part of PeaceTXT, a joint PopTech, CeaseFire, FrontlineSMS:Medic and Ushahidi initiative to explore how technology might help the team leverage and scale their incredible work. From the PopTech website:
The PeaceTXT project brings together some of the world’s best technologists and social innovators to explore how mobile tools and mobile messaging might further accelerate CeaseFire’s ability to engage communities, change social norms, improve its efficacy and find new paths to scale. Our investigation is broad but intensive, exploring and rigorously evaluating several possible applications.
While the initial work will focus on CeaseFire’s efforts in its model sites in Chicago, there is clear potential to apply key insights and methods to the global context. Experience and learning gained from this project is expected to prove invaluable to conflict resolution and violence prevention efforts, nationally and globally.
The project was publicly launched and announced last week at PopTech 2010 thanks to seed funding from the Rita Allen Foundation. My colleague Josh Nesbit and I have already learned a lot from the conversations we had in Chicago, but we know that we’re just scratching the surface. So I’m eager to get back to Chicago and pilot some projects with the CeaseFire team.
Thank you PopTech for bringing us together!
The International Studies Review just published a piece by Sean O’Brien entitled “Crisis Early Warning and Decision Support: Contemporary Approaches and Thoughts on Future Research.” Sean outlines the latest attempt by the US military (ie, DARPA) to develop a crisis forecasting tool. This time, the platform is called ICEWS for Integrated Crisis Early Warning System.
O’Brien gives a brief overview of recent efforts in this space including Bueno de Mesquita’s Policon and Senturion forecasting systems, which are said to be 90%+ accurate. That said, O’Brien notes that Mesquita himself acknowledges that “he is not exactly sure how to interpret this accuracy claim since most of the reported assessments he has were not explicit about how accuracy was measured.” Incidentally, I like how this rather important qualifier is buried at the bottom of a footnote.
Some of Policon’s/Senturion’s supposedly accurate predictions had to do with questions like:
- What policy is Egypt likely to adopt towards Israel?
- What is the Philippines likely to do about US bases?
Keep in mind that millions of dollars were spent on these sophisticated systems and yet I can’t help but think that paying some experts on Egypt and the Philippines a few thousand dollars would have more or less accomplished the same task. Apparently, Senturion accurately predicted the deteriorating disposition of Iraqis toward US forces. Really? Shocking, who would have expected Iraqi public opinion to shift? Yes, that was sarcasm.
O’Brien also references a forthcoming study by Ward, Greenhill and Bakke, which “delivers a serious blow to the predominant way in which most conflict models are evaluated using statistical significance.” These include the predictive models developed by Fearon and Latin (2003) and Collier and Hoeffler (2004). Ward et al. show that these models predict few if any civil war cases at a reasonable probability cut off of 50%. In fact, the Fearon and Latin model “does not even appear to generate a probability of greater than 30%.” In sum, Ward et al. conclude that we cannot correctly predict over 90% of the cases with which our models are concerned.
Many of the most interesting, policy-relevant theoretical questions are also the most complex, nonlinear, and highly context-dependent. They demand consideration of hundreds of massively interacting variables that are difficult to measure systematically and at a level of granularity consistent with the theory. In such cases it is at best impractical and at worst impossible to apply standard regression techniques within the context of a Large N study, short of invoking unreasonable, oversimplifying assumptions. This may in part account for contradictory findings in the literature relative to the validity of alternative theoretical claims.
So lets keep in mind that previous “breakthroughs” have since been largely discounted.
ICEWS phase one of three consisted of a competition between different groups to successfully predict events of interest (EoI) on a set of historical data. The most successful team was Lockheed Martin-Advanced Technology Laboratories (LM-ATL) in cooperation with a number of established scholars and industry partners. The team integrated and applied six different conflict modeling systems, including:
- Agent-based models drawn from Barry Silverman’s Factionism and Ian Lustick’s Political Science-Identity (PSI) computational modeling platforms. The latter is created with “agents representing population elements of various ethnic ⁄ political identities organized geographically and in authority structures designed to mirror the society being studied.”
- Logistic regression models developed by Phil Schrodt and Steve Shellman, which use “macro-structural and event data factors commonly analyzed in the academic literature.” Shellman’s approach uses a Bayesian statistics model.
- Geo-spatial network models built by Michael Ward, which uses “structural factors, event counts, and various types of spatial networks—trade ties, people flows, and ‘‘social similarity’’ profiles—that embody potential EOI co-dependencies between proximate countries.”
- “A final model was developed by aggregating the forecasts from the above mentioned models using Bayesian techniques.
I’m particularly interested in the use of Agent-based models (ABM) for conflict analysis. O’Brien references a very interesting project at Virginia Tech which I was unaware of:
Scholars at Virginia Tech have already developed a 100 million agent simulation that includes synthetic versions of many American citizens, and plan to expand to 300 million agents this year (Upson 2008). Each synthetic agent has as many as 163 variables describing age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, and various attitudinal factors. The simulation is used to assess how different types of pandemics could spread across the United States under different scenarios.
Many of us in the field of conflict prevention and early warning have argued that there seldom is a lack of warnings on conflict escalation. The problem, we argue, is often response, not lack of early warning. Cue today’s main news story on BBC:
Ten international aid groups say a 2005 peace deal in Sudan is on the verge of collapse and that the world must act now to prevent conflict.
- Agencies blamed a “lethal cocktail” of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions.
- Agencies cite disputes over Sudan’s oil resources, national elections in April and the independence referendum as potential flashpoints.
- The BBC’s James Copnall in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, says the country is clearly at the start of a highly charged and risky 12 months.
- Sudan’s ambassador to London, Omar Muhammad Siddiq, acknowledged that the situation in South Sudan was “deteriorating”.
I’ll be following the lead up to the April elections and the January 2011 referendum. If violent conflict does erupt, the international community will yet again have failed in the prevention of armed conflict despite clear early warning signals. And will yet again have failed to train local communities about how to get out of harm’s way.
As Öhman notes, “conflict analysis, including early warning, has traditionally not included a women’s rights or gender perspective.” The consequences? “When women are not included in EWS, their opportunities to fully participate in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction are limited and, thus, EWS risk failing to adequately predict or prevent conflict.” Moreover, gender-based indicators can “provide a more complete understanding of the causes of conflict and, as a result, help develop more appropriate responses to mitigating or preventing it.”
Some key excerpts:
- By bringing to light such patterns of structural discrimination, integrating a gender perspective can improve the effectiveness of early warning systems by gathering more specific information and allowing for more detailed and precise analysis. In turn, this can ensure better preparedness and, when necessary, more accurate and measurable responses — as well as preventive mechanisms — that can more directly address some of the underlying causes of a conflict.
- To integrate gender into EWS, both men and women must have the opportunity to report on their security situation. Likewise, the different threats and concerns that impact men and women as a result of any conflict must be taken into account and duly analyzed.
- Existing inequalities and different roles during conflict can lead men and women to perceive threats and vulnerabilities in different ways. The same signs and occurrences will not necessarily elicit the same reaction in both men and women. A UNIFEM EWS programme in the Solomon Islands clearly identified some of the disparities. Men, for example, rated inter-ethnic relations as a high source of tension, while women rated them only as a medium source of tension. This could confirm the suggestion that women were better able to maintain inter-ethnic alliances, even during tense times, while men generated stronger in-group identification.
- Recent developments in the area of EWS are focused on working more with the local community and ensuring its preparedness and resilience, rather than elaborating external actors’ actions. Negotiations are not limited to states but can‚ — and should — be performed by a multiplicity of actors. Ideally, all actors should work together in order to strengthen their collective impact.
- Ushahidi is software allowing organizations to establish EWS using basic information technology. The software allows anyone to report incidents via SMS or the Internet and to receive information by the same means. It offers a wide variety of ways to integrate gender, including by ensuring that both women and men are aware of the systems launched using Ushahidi and know how to use them.
- Women as informants: Conflict-response mechanisms still have a distance to go in developing and applying a broadened understanding of security that does not limit it to military matters or ignore human rights and women’s rights. Such thinking has also defined what constitutes security information and who provides it. This has often restricted women from reporting such information, especially women who live in remote areas. Yet the perspectives of women are invaluable — not only because without them monitors will not capture the entire picture of the situation, but also because women are often socialized differently than men, and thus may experience conflict very differently. As a consequence, women tend to ask different questions and focus on different aspects of the conflict cycle and, therefore, can provide different and enriching perspectives to early warning and conflict prevention. Men’s and women’s contributions complement each other.
- Men and women experience security differently and their needs for feeling safe are different. Location is one key factor; women experience insecurity in different places than men. Knowing and understanding these differences and patterns of discrimination is important when elaborating a response to EWS data in order to be sure that the response does not inadvertently reinforce existing inequalities and that it reaches all rights-holders equally.
- Because threats that are regarded not as public but as private matters (including sexual violence and domestic violence) are often perceived and treated as non-political matters, there is a risk that EWS reporting disproportionally highlights security threats that affect men. Gender analysis in EWS, however, can raise factors related to the violations of women’s rights that cause conflict or are direct results thereof. The lower status that most women generally hold relative to most men may cause them to be among the first to experience the weakening of security levels. Thus, their experiences can potentially serve as foreshadowing of more widespread armed conflict.
- When states move to limit the equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, exacerbating the discrimination women might already be facing, this can serve as an important factor to indicate increased instability. It is therefore essential that a broad range of indicators, which also cover ESC rights, are developed as a part of the EWS. In addition, a more balanced team has a greater chance of ensuring that a more diverse set of indicators is developed to monitor and address rights violations.
The OSCE will follow up with a second EWS brief that will address in greater detail how to formulate indicators that incorporate gender. I very much look forward to reading that brief as well. Both address as aspect of conflict early warning that is systematically ignored.
Cross-posted on iRevolution.
Lynda Gratton at the London Business School gave one of the best Keynote speeches that I’ve heard all year. Her talk was a tour de force on how to catalyze innovation and one of her core recommendations really hit home for me: “If you really want to be at the cutting edge of innovation, then you better make sure that 20% of your team is under the age of 27.” Lynda upholds this principle in all her business ventures.
I find this absolutely brilliant, which explains why I prefer teaching undergraduate seminars and why I always try to keep in touch with former students. Without fail, they continue to be an invaluable source of inspiration and innovative thinking.
A former student of mine, Adam White, recently introduced me to another undergraduate student at Tufts University, Rachel Brown. Rachel is a perfect example of why I value interacting with bright young minds. She wants to return to Kenya next year to identify and connect local peace initiatives in Nairobi in preparation for the 2012 elections.
Rachel was inspired by the story of Solo 7, a Kenyan graffiti artist in Kibera who drew messages of peace throughout the slum as a way to prevent violence from escalating shortly after the elections. “Imagine,” she said, “if we could identify all the Solo 7’s of Nairobi, all the individuals and local communities engaged in promoting peace.”
I understood at once why Adam recommended I meet with Rachel: Ushahidi.
I immediately told Rachel about Ushahidi, a free and open source platform that uses crowdsourcing to map crisis information. I suggested she consider using the platform to crowdsource and map local peace initiatives across Kenya, not just Nairobi. I’ve been so focused on crisis mapping that I’ve completely ignored my previous work in the field of conflict early warning. An integral part of this field is to monitor indicators of conflict and cooperation.
There are always pockets of cooperation no matter how dire a conflict is. Even in Nazi Germany and the Rwandan genocide we find numerous stories of people risking their lives to save others. The fact is that most people, most of the time in most places choose cooperation over conflict. If that weren’t the case, we’d be living in state of total war as described by Clausewitz.
If we only monitor indicators of war and violence, then that’s all we’ll see. Our crisis maps only depict a small part of reality. It is incredibly important that we also map indicators of peace and cooperation. By identifying the positive initiatives that exist before and during a crisis, we automatically identify multiple entry points for intervention and a host of options for conflict prevention. If we only map conflict, then we may well identify where most of the conflict is taking place, but we won’t necessarily know who in the area might be best placed to intervene.
Documenting peace and cooperation also has positive psychological effects. How often do we lament the fact that the only kind of news available in the media is bad news? We turn on CNN or BBC and there’s bad news—sometimes breaking news of bad news. It’s easy to get depressed and to assume that only bad things happen. But violence is actually very rare statistically speaking. The problem is that we don’t systematically document peace, which means that our perceptions are completely skewed.
Take the following anecdote, which occurred to me several years ago when I taught my first undergraduate course on conflict early warning systems. I was trying to describe the important psychological effects of documenting peace and cooperation by using the example of the London underground (subway).
If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably experienced the frequent problems and delays with the underground system. And like most other subway systems, announcements are made to inform passengers of annoying delays and whatnot. But unlike other subway systems I’ve used, the London underground also makes announcements to let passengers know that all lines are currently running on time.
Now lets take this principle and apply it to Rachel’s project proposal combined with Ushahidi. Imagine if she were to promote the crowdsourcing of local peace initiatives all across Kenya. She could work with national and local media to get the word out. Individuals could send text messages to report what kinds of peace activities they are involved in.
This would allow Rachel and others to follow up on select text messages to learn more about each activity. In fact, she could use Ushahidi’s customizable reporting forms to ask individuals texting in information to elaborate on their initiatives. Rachel wants to commit no less than a year to this project, which should give her and colleagues plenty of time to map hundreds of local peace initiatives across Kenya.
Just imagine a map covered with hundreds of doves or peace dots representing local peace initiatives? What a powerful image. The Peace Map would be public, so that anyone with Internet access could learn about the hundreds of different peace initiatives in Kenya. Kenyan peace activists themselves could make use of this map to learn about creative approaches to conflict prevention and conflict management. They could use Ushashidi’s subscription feature to receive automatic updates when a new peace project is reported in their neighborhood, town or province.
When peace activists (and anyone else, for that matter) find peace projects they like on Ushahidi’s Peace Map, they can “befriend” that project, much like the friend feature in Facebook. That way they can receive updates from a particular project via email, SMS or even Twitter. These updates could include information on how to get involved. When two projects (or two individuals) are connected this way, Ushahidi could depict the link on the map with a line connecting the two nodes.
Imagine if this Peace Map were then shown on national television in the lead up to the elections. Not only would there be hundreds of peace dots representing individual peace efforts, but many of these would be linked, depicting a densely connected peace network.
The map could also be printed in Kenya’s national and local newspapers. I think a Peace Map of Kenya would send a powerful message that Kenyans want peace and won’t stand for a repeat of the 2007 post-election violence. When the elections do happen, this Peace Map could be used operationally to quickly respond to any signs of escalating tensions.
Rachel could use the Peace Map to crowdsource reports of any election violence that might take place. Local peace activists could use Ushahidi’s subscription feature to receive alerts of violent events taking place in their immediate vicinity. They would receive these via email and/or SMS in near real-time.
This could allow peace activists to mobilize and quickly respond to escalating signs of violence, especially if preparedness measures and contingency plans already in place. This is what I call fourth generation conflict early warning and early response (4G). See this blog post for more on 4G systems. This is where The Third Side framework for conflict resolution meets the power of new technology platforms like Ushahidi.
It is when I meet inspiring students like Rachel that I wish I were rich so I could just write checks to turn innovative ideas into reality. The next best thing I can do is to work with Rachel and her undergraduate friends to write up a strong proposal. So if you want to get involved or you know a donor, foundation or a philanthropist who might be interested in funding Rachel’s project, please do email me so I can put you directly in touch with her: Patrick@iRevolution.net.
In the meantime, if you’re about to start a project, remember Lynda’s rule of thumb: make sure 20% of your team is under 27. You won’t regret it.
Thomas Zeitzoff is a PhD candidate at New York University. I came across his research thanks to the Ushahidi network, and am really glad I did. He wrote a really neat paper earlier this year on “The Micro-dynamics of Reciprocity in an Asymmetric Conflict: Hamas, Israel, and the 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict,” which he is revising and submitting to peer-review.
Updated: Thomas kindly sent me the most recent version of his paper which you can download here (PDF).
I’ve done some work on conflict event-data and reciprocity analysis (see this study of Afghanistan), but Thomas is really breaking new ground here with the hourly temporal resolution of the conflict analysis, which was made possible by Al-Jazeera’s War on Gaza project powered by Ushahidi.
The Gaza Conflict (2008-2009) between Hamas and Israel was defined the participants’ strategic use of force. Critics of Israel point to the large number of Palestinian casualties compared to Israelis killed as evidence of a disproportionate Israeli response. I investigate Israeli and Hamas response patterns by constructing a unique data set of hourly conflict intensity scores from new social media and news source over the nearly 600 hours of the conflict. Using vector autoregression techniques (VAR), I find that Israel responds about twice as intensely to a Hamas escalation as Hamas responds to an Israeli escalation. Furthermore, I find that both Hamas’ and Israel’s response patterns change once the ground invasion begins and after the UN Security Council votes.
As Thomas notes, “Ushahidi worked with Al-Jazeera to track events on the ground in Gaza via SMS messages, email, or the web. Events were then sent in by reporters and civilians through the platform and put into a Twitter feed entitled AJGaza, which gave the event a time stamp. By cross-checking with other sources such as Reuters, the UN, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, I was able see that the time stamp was usually within a few minutes of event occurrence.”
Key Highlights from the study:
- Hamas’ cumulative response intensity to an Israeli escalation decreases (by about 17 percent) after the ground invasion begins. Conversely, Israel’s cumulative response intensity after the invasion increases by about three fold.
- Both Hamas and Israel’s cumulative response drop after the UN Security Council vote on January 8th, 2009 for an immediate cease-fire, but Israel’s drops more than Hamas (about 30 percent to 20 percent decrease).
- For the period covering the whole conflict, Hamas would react (on average) to a “surprise” 1 event (15 minute interval) of Israeli misinformation/psy-ops with the equivalent of 1 extra incident of mortar re/endangering civilians.
- Before the invasion, Hamas would respond to a 1 hour shock of targeted air strikes with 3 incidents of endangering civilians. Comparatively, after the invasion, Hamas would only respond to that same Israeli shock with 3 incidents of psychological warfare.
- The results conrm my hypotheses that Israel’s reactions were more dependent upon Hamas and that these responses were contextually dependent.
- Wikipedia’s Timeline of the 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict was particularly helpful in sourcing and targeting events that might have diverging reports (i.e. controversial).
Perhaps the main question I would have for Thomas is how he thinks his analysis and findings could be used for conflict early warning and rapid response to violent conflict.