Short memories, Doppler radar & disasters in Sri Lanka

An article published by renowned journalist Amantha Perera on IRIN today triggered a series of tweets over @groundviews around how officials in successive governments have lied to citizens around investments in life-saving technologies.

Amantha’s article notes,

Lalith Chandrapala, director general of the Meteorological Department, said the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability, which allows for the accurate forecasting of the direction and velocity of storms.

For the radar to be effective, stations would have to be located around the country. Senadeera said that Sri Lanka had only one such station, but it had broken down. The government plans to set up two stations with Japanese funding within the next two years, he said.

Emphasis mine. This quote around Doppler radar reminded me of an article, also by the same author and on the same website, published as far back as 2013. In June that year, a storm killed at least fifty fishermen. Many of the deaths were preventable.

Speaking to the WSWS, angry fishermen condemned the government for not providing a proper early warning system and safety facilities. Though the storm was a natural disaster, many lives could have been saved if people had been alerted in advance. Via Sri Lanka: Storm kills dozens of fishermen

As Amantha’s article on IRIN published in July 2013 noted,

DMC assistant director Sarath Lal Kumara said the Department had also been experimenting with issuing recorded warnings over the web and sending out regular updates to a selection of government officials, armed forces, police and media outlets using SMS text messages.

The Department will begin operating a new Doppler radar system in late August, allowing it to detect changing weather patterns at least three hours earlier.

It’s 2017. We are now told the Doppler radar is still two years away. And the DMC is still not using in a discernible, coherent or sustained manner, any modern communications technology around disasters for early warning or risk reduction.

The issue around the installation of Doppler radar alone suggests that those at the Met. Department in Sri Lanka, along with those at the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), and all those involved in early warning, including the Minister, should be held criminally culpable for the loss of life, over many years. Why they get away with what they do is because we all have short memories, and tend to forget statements and promises made by officials.

Perhaps social media, in addition to being centre and forward in disaster response and relief, can also act as a record for posterity around individuals who choose to misdirect and misinform over saving lives, with complete impunity.

A column (Disaster Response) first published in The Sunday Island on 4th June 2017 goes into more detail around some of these issues noted above, looking at in particular the catastrophic floods that hit Sri Lanka in May 2017.

Human Rights & ICTs: Presentation to Amnesty International

I was invited to give a presentation of around 20 – 25 minutes to Amnesty International’s 2017 Chairs Assembly & Directors Forum (CADF) meeting, held for the first time in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Focussed on the work done through Groundviews at the Centre for Policy Alternatives to use information and communications technologies (ICTs), for over ten years, to bear witness to, verify, narrate, showcase and record human rights violations as well as more generally supporting democratic governance.

The presentation is embedded below. It can also be downloaded as an Apple Keynote, Microsoft Powerpoint or high-resolution PDF from here.

The presentation followed a speech by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. Live tweeted a few responses to his submission, and also touched upon some of what he said during the very short Q&A that followed my presentation.

I did tweet a bit earlier in the day that it was quite incredible to sit in a forum, where all the leading members of Amnesty International from across the world were present in one room, without a single issue around getting into the country. AI also announced the opening of a country office. Both developments would not have happened, or been remotely considered, under the Rajapaksa regime.

We have come far, but the journey ahead is no less arduous or challenging than what we have been through. It is unclear whether the Foreign Minister’s optimism and vision translates into what the President and Prime Minister want, believe and have the political will to see through. One hopes Amnesty International, also using a full spectrum of technology, will hold those in power accountable, complementing what Groundviews has stood for and done since 2006.

Blurred lines: Surveillance and ethics

I was invited to deliver a short-talk, as part of a public discussion looking at ‘Cross Cutting Dynamics of Online Democracy: Mainstreaming Internet Freedom and the Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka”, at the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) on 21 March 2017.

The programme can be downloaded here. The panel included old friends Nalaka Gunawardene, Subha Wijesiriwardena, Jayantha Fernando and others.

Partly because the title I was given from BASL was indecipherable, and partly also because I wanted to identify threats and opportunities on the horizon and not just what jurisprudence and the legal system had to deal with today, I opted to focus on the role, nature and scope of surveillance in Sri Lanka, as we know it, and implications for personal privacy. In the presentation I also focussed more broadly on the intrusive nature of web, cloud and social media services, siphoning ever increasing information produced by us for a process of monetization that is essentially the commodification of personal data.

Covering the rise of psychometric targeting, the passive yet pervasive harvesting of personal data by corporate entities, I also looked at AI technologies that now have the capability to mirror the discursive patterns of actual humans.

Noting the rise of a post-privacy world, at least related to traditional notions of privacy (I didn’t talk about the far more complex theories around differential privacy and big data, championed by the likes of Apple and Google), I also noted that the concern post-Snowden in particular is that States and corporations now have the ability to track or target individuals at scale. I flagged the atrocious nvestigatory Powers Act 2016 or Snoopers’ Charter in the United Kingdom as an example of how legislation today seriously eroded personal privacy.

I then showcased, based on court records in Sri Lanka as published in The Internet as a medium for free expression: A Sri Lankan legal perspective by senior lawyer J.C. Weliauma, how ISPs had pushed back against TRC directives to have blanket bans on websites, including YouTube, ostensibly because they carried pornographic content.

Looking at a story I did for Groundviews in 2015 (), I demonstrated how under the Rajapaksa regime, state authorities were deeply interested in procuring technologies that could covert infiltrate and surveil targets selected by intelligence authorities, which given the context at the time, would have invariably included journalists, civil society and human rights activities.

Towards the end of the presentation I also flagged serious concerns around the lack of data privacy laws in Sri Lanka in relation to the proposed electronic national identity card (e-NIC) project, particularly when as noted online, an entity leading the development of it, is also associated with and owned by the Ministry of Defense. Subsequent discussions during the panel suggested that this has changed, but the e-NIC project remains mired in confusion and secrecy.

Noting concerns around ‘smart cities’ and MoU’s with service providers based out of China to undergird the ICT aspects of proposed urban development in Sri Lanka, I noted there are significant privacy concerns around (though I didn’t mention it by name at the session), a world where the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly controls and influences aspects of our lives.

I ended by referring to the Matrix, and feared many in the audience wouldn’t know what I was talking about or when I showed Neo, a central character in the trilogy, who I was referring to. The point I made, in homage to Neo’s role, was that instead of going with blind faith and acceptance towards a future where our privacy would no longer exist as we know, value and seek to protect it today, we needed as citizens or even consumers to be more aware of what we sign up to, install, use and publish on. I urged the audience to question everything, and noted that at the end of the day, digital rights and privacy was inextricably entwined with issues around citizenship and governance under a new constitution, promised to Sri Lankans later this year.

Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2017: Finalist

‘Corridors of Power’, a path-breaking project marrying constitutional reform and theory with architecture, is a finalist in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2017 awards, under the Urban Design category.

As noted online, “Fast Company sifted through more than 1,000 truly impressive entries to find the ones our panel of judges thought were the best combination of creative problem solving and potential to change our world for the better. [Fast Company] crowned 12 winners–along with 192 finalists.”

Conceived of and curated by me, in close collaboration with leading constitutional theorist Asanga Welikala and renowned architect Channa Daswatte, ‘Corridors of Power’ through architectural drawings and models, interrogates Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972.

The exhibition depicts Sri Lanka’s tryst with constitutional reform and essentially the tension between centre and periphery. The exhibits include large format drawings, 3D flyovers, sketches and models reflecting the power dynamics enshrined in the the 1972 and 1978 constitutions, as well as the 13th, 18th and 19th Amendments.

The exhibition premiered late 2015, was taken around Sri Lanka in 2016 and will also be taken to key cities over the course of 2017. To our knowledge, nothing along these lines has ever been attempted or created before.

More details here. Content from the exhibition is also archived here.

A dedicated website for the project will be launched in April.

Identifying & combatting Fake News: A primer

I was recently asked to put together a presentation on the fake news phenomenon for discussions with leading journalists and media institutions in a developing country, with extremely poor media literacy but strong growth around social media use, on how to both identify misleading content and also stem its flow, reach and influence.

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In addition to Slideshare (embedded above), a Google Drive folder has the presentation as an Apple Keynote (which I used to create the slideshow), Microsoft PowerPoint and PDF. Obviously, the PDF will not show the videos that are embedded into the presentation, which in order to understand the fake news phenomenon, are important to watch. Access the material here.

I’ve made this presentation made for widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) laptops and HD projection, but will obviously scale down to lower end laptops (4:3 aspect ratio) and projectors. The presentation of fake news covers, inter alia,

  • The definition of Fake News
  • President Barack Obama’s warning around Fake News
  • How Fake News has become an industry and a profile of one of its key producers
  • Fake News in Afghanistan over Facebook
  • The reason why Fake News spreads so much and goes viral over social media
  • What technology and social media companies are doing to combat Fake News
  • What media organizations are doing to combat Fake News
  • What governments and multi-national entities are doing to combat Fake News
  • The future of Fake News, including voice and video manipulation in real time
  • The role of media literacy in combatting Fake News
  • Simple tips for spotting Fake News and checking the veracity of content consumed over the web and social media
  • Endeavours from around the world anchored to counter-speech and combatting the spread of rumours
  • New technology platforms to combat the spread of rumours
  • The role and responsibility of consumers in addressing Fake News

The presentation has embedded videos, all of which are under 4-5 minutes and are integral to the discussion around Fake News. They play locally, and in fact, the whole presentation can be conducted without any connectivity whatsoever.

While my presentation covers most of the current discussions and trends around fake news, it doesn’t go into media literacy or media literacy training too much, which is a different thrust entirely.

This presentation follows work around identifying and combatting fake news for a number of years, in Sri LankaMyanmar and elsewhere, including primary research on the spread of hate speech online and over Facebook in the Sinhala language. As the ICT4Peace Foundation also notes, it is a problem that resonates more deeply and broadly than just countries in the West,

Hope this presentation is useful in any lectures or workshops on a phenomenon that will only get more sophisticated and pernicious in the years to come.

Corridors of Power: Constitutional Power and Architecture

Delivered a short presentation today to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom office in Colombo on ‘Corridors of Power’, an exhibition I curated with Channa Daswatta and Asanga Welikala that explores Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture.

The exhibition was first shown late 2015, and in 2016, was again shown in Colombo, in addition to Jaffna, Kandy, Batticaloa and Galle. The presentation, made for those visiting Sri Lanka from FNST’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany, gave an overview of the exhibition, the amazing responses to it and around constitutional reform writ large from outside of Colombo (covered here) as well as plans next year to build on it, including a new website, taking it to more places around Sri Lanka and also developing the original idea into a more democratic, web based model that can result in citizen-driven models around perceptions of constitutional rule that can be scaled even to the level of public parks.

Digital transformation and the role of civil society in Sri Lanka

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The Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit Regional office South Asia organized a regional seminar on “Promoting Liberty Digitally” in Sri Lanka from 15th to 17th October 2016. I was asked to speak on “Digital transformation and the role of Civil Society in Sri Lanka” and to be present at a group discussion on “Civil rights and the Internet”.

My presentation covered how technology in general, and social media in particular, had been leveraged by civil society around a range of issues related to elections, democracy, rights and governance in Sri Lanka. Looking at Facebook statistics in Sri Lanka, and also CPA’s own social polling data around Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province, I noted how designing and developing for mobiles first was essential if CSOs and NGOs wanted to engage with digital natives, who in Sri Lanka are also the most politically active and fall within the 18 – 34 demographic / 1st, 2nd or at most, 3rd time voters.

Noting the results of CPA’s social polling, I flagged that,

  • Not everyone needs to be connected to web to be influenced by it.
  • The influence of content on social media in particular, and online content in general, extends to groups well beyond those who are directly connected to, and participating in these online networks.
  • This also puts to rest the often quoted myth that since Internet penetration is relatively low in the country, content shared online has little to no footprint in the larger public consciousness.

I also flagged key changes, as I saw them, brought about by the ever increasing adaptation and adoption of technology by civil society (and indeed, government),

  • Ubiquity of two way communications
  • Addressable peoples, even those who IDPs or refugees
  • Disintermediated models vs. traditional media model
  • People as producers
  • Low resolution, hyperlocal helps focus and granularity
  • Aggregation of low resolution helps macro analysis and strategy

I then looked at specific apps and technologies and how they had been used in Sri Lanka (e.g. Abdul Halik-Azziz on Instagram, or Groundviews on WhatsApp).

I then looked at how technology helped remember the inconvenient, harking back to my more detailed presentation on this topic at Colomboscope 2016 (‘Remembering is Resisting‘).

Groundviews has pioneered long-form and responsive web based storytelling on platforms like Adobe Spark, Atavist and Shorthand – I flagged these as important to embrace in light of the fact that so many consumed content over mobiles and smartphones.

Flagging the path-breaking Change Sri Lanka campaign leading up to the General Election in 2015, I also noted how infographics, the web and mainstream media were leveraged to capture opinion from a broad section of the public in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

I also flagged drone journalism, immersive VR content (360 degree videos for use with the likes of Google Cardboard) and the many aspects of Facebook, ranging from Notes to Facebook Live video, as ways to communicate and engage with more effectively target audiences.

Finally I flagged some questions around identity, safety, security, information overload and ‘slacktivism’ – noting that increasing digital advocacy and activism also meant opening oneself, and institutions, to greater more pervasive surveillance, especially in South Asia which remains colored by a democratic deficit.

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I also said that the biggest challenge facing the greater adoption and adaptation of technology for advocacy was not a paucity of apps, platforms, tools or services, but a crisis of imagination in civil society itself – noting that civil society is usually unable and unwilling to think outside the box.