Some critical thoughts on New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks

New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks, co-authored by Diane Coyle and Patrick Meier and published by the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation in 2009 is a simple, yet useful introductory guide to the manner in which ICTs have dramatically changed the way in which we are forewarned about and respond to emergencies, disasters and conflict. The Foreword to the report notes that the report was commissioned to “profile innovation on the frontlines of communications in emergencies, and to point to new opportunities for governments, civil society, and individuals alike to benefit in times of crisis from our increasingly connected world.” Patrick Meier’s blog notes nearly twenty leading tools, platforms and services that are covered in detail in the report,

  • Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS)
  • European Media Monitor (EMM, aka OPTIMA)
  • Emergency Preparedness Information Center (EPIC)
  • Ushahidi Crowdsourcing Crisis Information
  • Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF)
  • Impact of Social Networks in Iran
  • Social Media, Citizen Journalism and Mumbai Terrorist Attacks
  • Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS)
  • AAAS Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights
  • Info Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action (ITHACA)
  • Camp Roberts
  • OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers
  • UNDP Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis project (TRMA)
  • Geo-Spatial Info Analysis for Global Security, Stability Program (ISFEREA)
  • FrontlineSMS
  • M-PESA and M-PAISA
  • Souktel

Despite this spread, the report has come in for some valid criticism in online fora and email newsgroups for not flagging a number of other platforms and processes that currently exist supporting early warning and effective crisis response. The response to this criticism by one of the authors in an email newsgroup I am subscribed to was that the editors of the report had truncated twenty pages from what was originally submitted. It is not clear who these editors are since they are not mentioned in the report, or why this was done. It is also not clear what information was included in these twenty odd pages that was deemed fit to leave out.

But more than the criticism about what’s left out, what I find problematic is what’s included in the report. What’s left out from the report and why, it can always be argued, will never be settled. It is not possible in the space of sixty odd pages to submit a comprehensive study of all the ICTs at play currently in disaster / conflict prevention and response scenarios, given also how much these technologies and their application on the ground change and evolve rapidly. It is therefore no mean feat that the authors have critically captured a few leading examples, and used these case studies to come up with some broader recommendations,which though well-known to the HA/DR community are of enduring relevance and worth reiterating.

However, there is absolutely no indication how the authors chose the technologies they’ve highlighted in the report. We are left to wonder whether the selection was made on personal choice or affiliation, editorial judgement or based on a more robust methodology of research that fails to be mentioned.

Tellingly, save for a solitary reference to the rising incidents of intra-state civil conflict on page 4 of the report, there is no greater reference to, or interrogation of the hydra-headed challenges of designing and implementing ICTs that meaningfully respond to civil strife and the challenges of statebuilding after protracted conflict. This is a failing that I often see from organisations and authors with little or no experience of real world peacebuilding, assuredly different to what’s in most textbooks on the topic. For example, a report by the US based National Academy of Engineering on technology and peacebuilding also falsely asserted that complex political emergencies (CPEs) can explained with simplistic diagrams and further, as a consequence, be easily transformed with the introduction of ICTs. This report could have been informed by what is not an insignificant body of research and work flagging the challenges in using ICTs for conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery documented on this blog alone, and for example on the ICT4Peace Foundation’s site and ICT4Peace Inventory. Lest it be misinterpreted, this is not a submission to include in the report every example herein or on the ICT4Peace wiki. Rather, I would have liked to see the authors far more rigorously flagging the challenges of using technology during and after CPE’s in a report that after all includes ‘conflict’ in its title. I guess a better definition of what the report addressed would have helped, since conflict, crisis, violence and emergencies are not the same.

There are also a number of strange references in the report.

For example, page 7 highlights Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 as an example of disaster preparedness. This is strange. I’m not aware of any significant progress in Myanmar to make communities in the Irrawaddy Delta region more disaster resilient even post-Nargis given the junta’s sui generis approach to humanitarian assistance, and the challenges this rigid approach posed to aid workers and their associated technologies. I certainly am not aware of a single technology solution or tool noted in the report active on the ground in the country before Cyclone Nargis.

There are also significant concerns I have flagged in the past of the nature of ICT tools and platforms deployed post-Nargis which the HA/DR community may find inconvenient to address, but must be posed nevertheless. I stress this point because even more recently announced initiatives like the Emergency Information Service (EIS) by Thomson Reuters Foundation dangerously assume, inter alia, that all governments provide free entry to aid agencies, respect the Tampare Conventions and sport a benign attitude towards the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework. However, not every disaster reflects the nature, context, attitudes and practices of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami aftermath. The aftermath of Cyclone Nargis clearly points to the challenges of post-disaster technology deployment with military regimes / governments hugely resistant to foreign intervention and with technology deployments, like for example the localised Sahana instance, which problematically (and despite the best of intentions) relied on good will and good luck to actually get used meaningfully. This is not adequately addressed in this report.

Again, page 11 of the report notes that “The Sri Lankan telecommunications authority now insists that subscribers may only use SMS messaging during national emergencies, so as not to overburden the networks”. This is the first I’ve heard of this bizarre regulation and would like to know from the authors what exactly this means and how it can be technically enforced, especially since the footnote only points to an article on Sri Lanka’s use of SMS during the Boxing Day tsunami and another tsunami alert in 2007 which I’ve written about in much greater detail.

The report also makes a significantly impolitic assertion regarding Sri Lanka. In noting that “UNOSAT provided independent evidence that the Sri Lankan army had continued to shell civilians in no-fire zones despite claims by the government that military had ceased” on page 35, the authors callously ignore a statement made by the UN office in Colombo regarding this imagery (which was leaked) and its subsequent interpretation by media. While this is not in any way to suggest that this imagery must be wholly discounted as compelling documentation of tragic circumstances, we must hold the authors responsible for a significant lack of rigour and balance in researching what is even post-war a hugely contentious point. Seemingly endorsing, without question, satellite imagery that has been interpreted by some to suggest war crimes committed by the Sri Lanka State is a faux pas of no small measure.

Overall therefore, this report falls short of a standard we have come to expect of UNF / Vodafone Foundation reports, such as for example Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs based on a published survey methodology and genuinely interesting to read for its exposition of new and innovative ideas and initiatives.

As many have already suggested, the authors – one of whom, Patrick Meier, I consider currently one of the world’s foremost researchers on the use of ICTs for HA/DR/EW and DRR – must take the criticism of this report as an indication of how important this work is, and incorporate suggestions made here and elsewhere in perhaps a second edition which must follow anon, addressing concerns over definitions and research methodology, content selection and if the title remains the same, a far greater fidelity to the study of conflict and application of ICTs in it.

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