Tag Archives: Early

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping

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.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Quest for a Disaster Early Warning System (1988)

I assign this short report (PDF) by Kumar Rupesinghe as required reading in my courses and professional seminars on conflict early warning and crisis mapping. This paper could be published today—20 years later—and still be considered forward looking. I highly recommend reading the report along with Rupesinghe’s new edited book on Third Generation Early Warning Systems, which I reviewed in detail here.

I stumbled across this report while working for Norway’s Former Secretary of State at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) in 2006. Rupesinghe was also a research fellow at PRIO and I found the worn-down report hidden away in the Institute’s library. I carefully scanned the report and have been disseminating it as widely as possible ever since.

The excerpts below are the main highlights of the report. While some of these may seem obvious, keep in mind that Rupesinghe was writing this in 1988—well before the field of conflict early warning became formalized.

I realize there are numerous excerpts below but this just reflects how important I think this piece is.

  • It is crucial for the viability and credibility of developing information and communication systems to discuss ways in which the information can be used. Information is useful if acted upon, and when the information so produced provides choices of action to policy makers as well as to the victims to the victims of the impending disasters.
  • Discussions on ‘early warning’ systems would remain academic if information systems are developed which bear little relationship to social policy or social action.
  • Important to the discussion of early warnings are some of the issues related to the demand for a ‘new information order’. Here we have to raise the entire question of who controls information. Generally, discussions relating to early warning systems emanate from the North, and particularly in environments, which can handle large amounts of information. Little attention is paid, however, to the victims of disasters, or to the competence of local NGOs to strengthen their own capacity to handle information, to evaluate and control their own environment.
  • Akira Onishi suggests a highly sophisticated information system, since in the fields of present day technology, particularly in the astounding developments of computers in the 1980s, extraordinary sophisticated handling of information has become possible both in software and hardware systems. Onishi suggests this field of research as been stimulated by the progress made in global modeling.
  • The distinction between a ‘natural’ and a ‘social’ disaster has also been challenged, particularly by those who have witnessed the recent famines in Africa:

The causes of the African crises are increasingly perceived as man made, or they are at least attributed to human activities more than to natural phenomena. Such terms as ‘man made’ and ‘natural disasters’ widely used to distinguish two categories in the past disaster jargon, are of little relevance or may even be misleading. It is now understood that some of the major interlinked factors behind the growing disaster problem in Africa are man made.”

  • Within the discussion on restraining military technology and redeeming modern science and technology for the good of humanity, Marek Thee has proposed that research and development be subjected to national and international scrutiny. Further, he writes:

National and international technological assessment bodies can be established to serve as a kind of ‘watch and early warning system’ against military excesses. Such concurrent international measures may not be easily achieved. But, if we have the political will informed by human rationality and a comprehension of the scientific-technological global interdependence, reinforced by an awakened public opinion, the barriers for change are not insurmountable.

  • Although billions of dollars have been invested in developing sophisticated data banks and early warnings, we have to note that even the most expensive systems have shown a striking inability to forecast political events.

‘Quite simply, the record has been terrible, despite all the technological improvements of the last twenty years. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, the Yom Kippur war, and the Argentine take over of the Falklands all caught the American government by surprise.’

  • A specific proposal for [a United Nations] early warning system was made by the Speial Rapporteur, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in his report on Massive Exodus and Human Rights to the UN Human Rights Commission on December 1981. In his study, Sadruddin Aga Khan drew attention to the increase in the phenomenon of mass exodus:

‘which is becoming a tragically permanent feature of our times, … The problem is to become more serious with time unless imaginative and concrete measures are urgently taken to contain, if not avert, situations of mass exodus. … It is however my considered opinion that if we are to succeed in any measure to spare future generations the spectre of millions of uprooted peoples, more is required than reports and resolutions, however pertinent and useful they may be.’

  • A recent report of the United Nations that the UN’s own capacity to deliver is its existing commitments is seriously at stake. The report suggests that ‘today’s structure is both too top heavy and too complex.’ Further, ‘its present organizational structure is too fragmented’, and ‘without enlarging secretariat functions’, a ‘leaner Secretariat will enhance productivity and improve efficiency.’
  • In many cases, the problem has not been one of insufficient information about probable crises, but that the specialized [UN] agencies or the secretariat lack the mandate or the authority to act on the information.
  • The United Nations alone would not be in a position to assist in the building of adequate information systems, without the participation of a range of NGOs. This is particularly relevant for developing countries, who themselves can be involved in an active partnership in the exchange of information.
  • What is increasingly realized is that the NGO community in general has a profound role to play in early warnings, monitoring, providing immediate relief, and finding creative ways of resolving conflicts. […] NGOs, particularly in the Third World, and the media, can play a crucial role in early warnings, sounding the alarm in cases of emergency.
  • Most of the discussions with regard to early warning systems have emanated from a concern with the early prediction and reporting of events which could lead to social disasters. […] However, these systems have been developed in advanced environments where the intention is to gather data so as to predict events in distant places. This leads to a division of labor between those who predict and those predicted upon. And this in turn tends to draw attention only to those efforts which continue to reinforce existing unequal distribution of information.
  • A democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warnings and resolution. However, ‘information’ is a highly explosive and political issues, especially in the Third World. Many countries have elaborate laws to prevent people from gaining access to information, or censorship laws which prevent people from reporting on what actually happens in a society.
  • Thus, efforts must be made to strengthen the capacity and competence of Third World NGOs to communicate locally and internationally so as to create a democratic global communication system. An information system of the monolithic type developed by the superpowers cannot be encouraged as far as the NGOs are concerned.
  • [There is a] wealth of knowledge available within the local societies [hence the] importance of finding ways of tapping this wealth of information [and] of involving the local societies and integrating their work, so as to build local competence in monitoring and evaluating, their own experiences.
  • […] NGOs, both international and national, will have a vital role to play in the development of a global, decentralized early warning system. They now need the capacity to build information systems, and to provide the basis for rapid information exchange. In general, NGOs will have to confront the monopolization of information with a demand for the democratic access to information technology. Further, the working conditions of most NGOs and NGO networks, especially in developing countries, remain difficult.
  • Increasingly, bureaucracies are exhibiting their incapacity to manage the complexities of our global village. And today the alternative structures most likely to succeed these bureaucracies are rapidly emerging. The most common term for these structures is ‘networks’. They tend to be decentralized, where policies tend to be flexible and fluid, where staff relations are not monolithic and hierarchical, where the structure tends to be polycentric rather than monocentric.
  • NGOs lack systematization and standardization of information. Each small NGO uses its own methods often based around their previous normal systems. Thus, NGOs have to build competence in standardization of information and cataloguing procedures, to facilitate exchange of data and easy retrieval.  HURIDOCS, Human Rights Information and Documentation System, ahs been established on this basis as a network to assist information sharing and usage.
  • Low cost computers provide opportunities for information recording and retrieval and for the development of data bases in highly specialized areas. Once electronic mail becomes cheaper than the conventional post, every NGO will be able to do cheap mass mailings in a fraction of the present time.
  • With regard to the use of satellite technology, there is a strong case for involving grass roots movements and international NGOs alike in the learning process about satellites as well as radio communication. The aim would be to ensure adequate access to the airwaves for the non-governmental sector as a whole and guarantee the democratization of satellite communication.
  • In this discussion of communications and information for early warnings, we have stressed the need to strengthen the capacity and the competence in the South to store, retrieve, and analyze their own information. […] Here Northern NGOs and donors have an important role to play.

Where to Study Conflict Early Warning?

A number of readers have contacted me via blog comments or by email to ask where they might be able to pursue a post-graduate degree or certificate in conflict early warning. That is indeed a good question. I don’t know of any graduate program (or undergraduate, for that matter) that includes courses specifically on conflict early warning.

I would therefore suggest looking for graduate programs that have a strong focus on conflict analysis and risk assessments. I would also recommend looking for programs with courses on international security, human security, human rights, complex emergencies and causes of conflict. Courses on international institutions, decision making, humanitarian logistics, etc., would also be a plus.

In addition, it is important to venture beyond your own field, say political science, and to learn as much as possible about how other fields such as public health, environmental studies, disaster management, etc., approach the challenge of early warning and rapid response. To be sure, some of the most valuable insights I have gained over the years have been from those fields.

Taken together, these courses will allow you to write research papers that focus on various aspects of conflict early warning that are of interest to you. You’ll want to develop good analytical skills, both qualitative and quantitative, as well as research methodology skills. So find a program that has a strong track record in methodology and research design.

Now, I realize no one program will necessarily have all the above courses. So it’s up to you to find out which courses appeal to you in particular and which professors you’d specifically like to work with. Scholarships, stipends, etc., will also play an important role (if not be the overriding factor). Finally, it’s important to feel good about location and environment.

So that would be my advice on the academic end. But you don’t have to wait until graduate school to get started and remember also that practical experience is important. I would encourage you to read as much of the literature and material available online as possible (for as long as you’re still interested!).

To get you started, here are similar syllabi for seminars I have taught on disaster and conflict early warning/response: syllabus 1 and syllabus 2. Feel free to get in touch if you can’t find any of the readings online and I’ll try to see whether I can share an electronic/scanned copy. I would also recommend reading the posts (and comments) on this blog! If you find any other blog on conflict early warning, please let me know!

Finally on experience, get in touch with practitioners and other scholars in the field. Ask them specific and informed questions on issues or ideas you’re thinking about and ask them for advice on further reading or other individuals to get in touch with. Offer to volunteer on projects of interest to you and ask about the availability of internships or other short-term research assignments.

Use papers you are writing in class as a reason to get in touch with practitioners and scholars. Write papers on projects or issues they are currently working on. This serves two purposes: first, your papers would become directly relevant to the “real world”; and second, you’d be able to share your papers with practitioners who will most likely appreciate and read your work. This is a great way to network and  could open up professional opportunities for the future.

If you still have any specific questions on issues I may not have addressed, please always feel free to get in touch. My contact information can be found in the “Contact” link above. If I don’t answer within a week it’s usually because I’m traveling or under a tight deadline. In any case, please contact me again if you don’t here from the first time around, perseverance is a good skill in any field!