A response to a defence of New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks

I’m pleased that Patrick Meier responds to some of the significant concerns I have over New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks, co-authored by him and Diane Coyle and published by the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation last year.

I made several points in my first review of the report, noting inter alia that;

  1. It is was a good effort to comprehensively document twenty leading technologies already in use in crisis prevention, mitigation, response and recovery.
  2. Nevertheless, the lack of a clear framework used for the selection and evaluation of the featured tools and technologies, unlike some previous reports by the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation, opened up the report to valid criticism about leaving a number of well known technologies and platforms out in the cold.
  3. That the word ‘conflict’ in the title was woefully addressed in the report itself, which problematically conflated conflict, crisis, emergencies and disasters.
  4. Has factual inaccuracies, such as on page 7 of the report which highlights Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 as an example of disaster preparedness. As I noted, 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.
  5. That the report is, charitably put, naive in its assumption 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, all of which provide the enabling frameworks and context for many of the technologies in the report to be deployed and used meaningfully. I made the point that the responses by governments in countries affected by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 was atypical in this regard.
  6. That I was really surprised to read, especially given the excellent work by Patrick on his blog and in other web fora, observations about my own country ranging from the diplomatically disastrous to those based on very dodgy sourcing.

Patrick’s brief response addresses some of these concerns. However, I am still unconvinced about the methodology of case selection. For example, Patrick suggests that the “new” in the title was generally taken to mean technologies and platforms that did not exist two years ago. Firstly, this should have been made clear in the report. Secondly, I think a number of questions can be raised over restricting “new technologies” to mean only that which emerged in the last twenty-four months, not least of which is to ignore a platform like Sahana – coming from my own country Sri Lanka. Though it was first developed in 2005, Sahana has continued to evolve quite rapidly in the past two years and should have in my opinion been featured in the report alongside platforms like Ushahidi and InSTEDD’s RIFF, if only to avoid the understandable kickback from a passionate, international award winning community who felt slighted by the omission.

The decision taken to reduce the length of the report appears to have been driven by exogenous constraints. But if as Patrick says “This meant having to decide what to keep and what to put aside”, how exactly did the authors go about this decision making? Would it not have made more sense to mention what was left out of detailed case studies, even as just a list with short descriptions and pointers to relevant websites for more information? Surely this would have made the report more useful and less exclusive?

The original report expressly noted 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”. My original post flagged in detail why this was a very problematic observation. Patrick’s response to my concern is that “The reference does not intend to endorse or discount the interpretation of the imagery by the international community.” I’m sorry Patrick, but your original submission in the report does in fact endorse contested imagery, and the fact that you spoke to international experts does not give you the license to ignore the UN’s own qualification over the use and interpretation of this UNOSAT imagery which is in the public domain as noted in my critique. Your report accuses the Sri Lankan government of war crimes and crimes against humanity. I trust you and Diane are not planning on holidaying in Sri Lanka (which is really quite beautiful) anytime soon!

Patrick ends with some general observations about the progressive expression of criticism. There is nothing to disagree or contest here. One hopes there is also little to contest about the need for more robust research that undergirds reports of this nature, especially if they are openly pegged to domains (such as conflict in this case) the selected authors have little or no experience in interrogating. Bitterness, as Patrick rightly says, must not be allowed to commandeer genuine criticism. At the same time, genuine criticism is no palliative. To “expect a lot more from older, wiser colleagues” is normal.

Those colleagues expect a lot more from you too.

10 thoughts on “A response to a defence of New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks

  1. Ah, now I understand, you’re bitter because the report didn’t include Sahana. Like I already wrote, we chose to highlight some initiatives that didn’t exist some 2 years ago. Goodness, this is not a pageant contest. This was a report for a general audience that may not be aware of recent developments.

    But I’ve learned my lesson: always include Sahana as a case study no matter what. Goodness, and to think that Sahana was one of the first projects that inspired and drew me to this space back in 2005/2006.

    On UNOSAT, you obviously read my blog post and decided to ignore that I wrote the following: “That said, I agree that rephrasing is in order.” Thanks.

    I’ve said enough as second-author. I’ll leave the rest to the lead author, who I have the utmost respect for.

  2. Dear Patrick,

    For a person who aspires for constructive criticism and attempts to avoid bitterness, your response is particularly revealing. There is a great divide between what you now say and what is in the report itself. Where in the report is it clear that you “chose to highlight some initiatives that didn’t exist some 2 years ago.”? And how does this address the point made above with regards to significant developments in Sahana over the past two years alone?

    On the points about war crimes, you are clearly out of your depth. Rephrasing, at some indeterminable date in the future, an accusation against a government over war crimes and crimes against humanity is a novel way of going about research and writing.

    You keep saying you are the second author. Your expression however risks one adding ‘rate’ in the middle of that phrase.


  3. My apologies, Sanjana. You’re right, I’m sorry. I just feel attacked. You’re absolutely correct that we completely failed to outline exactly how the cases were selected.

    In terms of significant Sahana developments, I absolutely don’t deny the incredible work you’ve all done. Again, we were looking to highlight initiatives that didn’t really exist some 2 years ago. I really sincerely apologize for not having included or referred to Sahana.

    You’re also absolutely right about my grave my UNOSAT error. I sincerely apologize have already communicated this to the donor.

    I’m sorry that you feel I haven’t been up to par on this report. I have much to learn.

    Take care,

  4. Patrick,

    For the record, I have never been part of, or in any way contributed towards Sahana and its development. I have my own significant and enduring problems with the platform, and they are out in the public domain. This however does not take away from an appreciation of what Sahana has achieved, or being proud of the platform as one that has showcased to the world my country’s innovation and talent.

    You don’t need to apologise, for I will argue that you do so without reading the praise and respect afforded to you in the post above and in my original critique.


  5. I honestly didn’t mean to offend anyone in the Sahana community. They’ve been true pioneers in this space and have paved the way forward for many of those who have come later. You’re right, they are a first-rate, award-winning community. You have my word that if the opportunity for a second/revised/corrected version of the report presents itself, I will do my best to include a case study on Sahana’s developments in the past two years and to make sure we include a paragraph on case selection plus make the correction on UNOSAT.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s