The Citizen Archivist

A public lecture on archiving from a few years ago dealt with how I’ve developed an interest in preserving digital content – especially on social media – for posterity. The assumption many hold is that digital content never decays and that once online, on the web or indexed on Google, content never disappears or goes away. This is wrong on many levels.

For starters, digital content is only good if its accessible. A book or scroll can last hundreds of centuries in the right conditions. Printed text doesn’t require energy to store and regenerate. A book’s format is timeless, requiring only the physical turning of a page to access its contents. A digital file – like this column sent to the Sunday Island’s Editor, a PDF or a spreadsheet – requires energy to be stored, and proprietary technology to open. Think of WordPerfect, dBase III Plus or VisiCalc. All of these programmes were – just two or three decades ago – very common and widely used. Today, it’s a technical challenge to access any file created by them for two reasons. One, the magnetic media they were stored on. Old floppy disks, especially in the tropics, would have long given up a fight against fungi, humidity and insects. Two, the file formats are defunct and require significant effort and technical expertise to open in modern day computers and programmes. No digital file format or medium used today is immune from this same decay, decades hence.

So-called ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation aside, where citizens in certain jurisdictions can order search engines, through judicial review, to delink specific content, social media content is in fact extremely difficult to find as time goes by and for a variety of reasons. Vital content essential for a fuller historical record is sometimes erased. A few years ago, a demeaning comment on the posterior of a well-known actress, published on Namal Rajapaksa’s official Twitter account, is now gone. At the time it was originally posted, the tweet generated a lot of pushback from others, including from your author, disgusted at the comment and appalled that a culture of violence against women was condoned on the account of a prominent personality. As Namal Rajapaksa’s profile expanded and a public, political persona was more carefully crafted, this tweet, obviously  inconvenient to and incompatible with future aspirations, was surreptitiously deleted without any apology. Namal’s father provides another example of deleterious digital deletion. In the first 24 hours of the constitutional coup late last year, the entire contents of the Prime Minister’s official website was wiped out and replaced by a single image of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rarely seeing or treating content on official websites as held in public trust, politicians often completely erase or overwrite content for parochial optics and partisan gain. In yet another example from few years ago, the entire contents of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) website disappeared completely, almost overnight, prompting an unprecedented note of dismay and alarm from the US Foreign Affairs Committee, which correctly flagged that citizen testimony was a vital part of historical record. Sadly, the website was never restored and its content – ranging from invaluable audio recordings to multi-lingual transcripts – is gone forever.

The problem is in fact much larger and more complex. Historically, every time the website of a leading newspaper in Sri Lanka is revamped, access to its archives – if they exist at all – is completely lost. Civil society projects often launch websites, each important and unique for what is captured, showcased and indexed. However, many aren’t engineered to last the unceasing onslaught of attacks against vulnerable web properties. In time, the sites crash or their domains – the web address if you will – expire. The greater the volume of production at a certain time, around a specific topic or on a particular platform, the harder it is to find a specific post. Combined with this, the longer the time after content was initially shared or produced, the less discoverable it becomes. Further, a lot of social media content exist in what are called ‘walled-gardens’. This means that what’s posted on Facebook and Twitter isn’t by default indexed on or discoverable through search engines. Biographies in the near future, anchored to key individuals whose correspondence, output and personalities mostly or only exist on certain social media platforms, will be near impossible to write or capture.

Over a decade ago, disturbed and saddened at the prospect of so much vital content being maliciously wiped out or disastrously degenerating over time, I started to archive key civil society websites and websites launched at the time of, or set up to record vital aspects of the ceasefire agreement. I also archived all the Twitter Q&A sessions conducted under the Rajapaksa regime, including with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga and Nivad Cabraal. Sites set up by the erstwhile LTTE, linked to their ironic Peace Secretariat and Department of International Relations, were also archived. Additionally and over time, I started to archive key government websites linked to key political and developmental events, processes and projects. Dr. Saroja Wettasinghe, the former Director of Sri Lanka’s National Archives, in conversation with me after an interview we recorded for TV in 2014, said that she wished the Archives had the human resources and technical knowhow to scale up what I was doing.

Unsurprisingly, many of these sites, particularly linked to or from the time of the Ceasefire Agreement as well as the CoI and IIGEP processes, don’t exist anymore. The only existing public copy of vital records – from speeches and statements to declarations, agreements and proposals – are in the archived sites. Sadly though, much more than I could save, is lost. It begs the question as to how we record politics as it is conducted and contested today for posterity. The constitutional coup late last year resulted in the unprecedented growth of social media content, both in favour and staunchly opposed to it. From flood relief to constitutional reform, from the announcement of key policies to vibrant debates around political developments on Facebook, from the live broadcasts of press conferences and rallies on social media, generating millions of views and tens of thousands of comments, to campaign websites and related content, from personal tweets of politicians to the plethora of output from official accounts, from structured social media interactions with the public to more informal and unstructured engagements with those in positions of authority and power, politics is digital. How and to what degree we can capture these conversations, at risk of being subsumed, erased, deleted, lost and forgotten, matters a great deal. It requires, on the lines of UK’s Web Archive initiative, a high-level commitment by government to archive digital records. The UK doesn’t, to my knowledge, have to deal with politicians erasing entire websites just to put up their own image after an unconstitutional transfer of power. Clearly, Sri Lanka’s challenge, in addition to technical issues, is also institutional and cultural. There is no discernible evidence that successive governments value enough the work done by predecessors to save their digital records and output carefully.

Ultimately, the issue is how we deal with history, including inconvenient truths. To remember is political, and remembrance often is an act of defiance. Successive governments and political leaders want citizens to forget. This essential tension is what places at risk all digital content that are official records. With scant regard for any version of history other than what’s officially sanctioned by whoever is in power, a fuller appreciation of the value of preserving digital content is almost entirely lost. The tragedy is that future generations will never even know how much of the country’s rich conversational, political, social and cultural textures they’ve lost.


First published in The Sunday Island, 17 February 2019.

Digital Blooms | Article for LMD, January 2019

Witnessing a constitutional crisis through social media

Of the many frames of reference readers may employ to help comprehend the extraordinary developments in Sri Lanka after the 26th of October, I doubt images of flowers in bloom or flower beds would immediately spring to mind. And yet, this is how I see Sri Lanka, or more precisely, how I study the debates, conversations, events and processes that shape our polity and society today. My doctoral research is anchored to the study of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, post-war. There is an entire canon of academic research and literature around the use and abuse of social media around revolutions. Little to nothing is published around the role, reach and relevance of Facebook and Twitter in societies coming out of war. I inhabit the intersection of what’s called data science – the study of very large datasets – politics and peacebuilding. My chief interest is in creating social media ecosystems – think of it like immunisation – resilient to content and actors who incite hate and violence.

Having set up Groundviews in 2006, the country’s first civic media platform that continues to publish content that cannot or will not go up in mainstream media, my research at present is anchored to the dynamics of social media beyond inflammatory and simplistic headlines. I look at Facebook and Twitter at scale – meaning, in the hundreds of thousands of posts – sifting through content in English and Sinhala for patterns and trends that can help explain complex interactions between what is produced, shared and engaged with online, and what this content goes on to inspire in the real world. A causal linkage between online hate and kinetic violence is elusive and not the goal of my research. I am more interested in how Sri Lanka’s 18-34 demographic are introduced to politics, and subsequently, engage with political developments on social media.

The research is hard. A large part of it is visualising upwards of hundreds of thousands of records in ways that can help flesh out conversational dynamics. Facebook and Twitter have different affordances – meaning that you can do things on one you cannot on the other. The most obvious difference is with the length of a post – Twitter allows a far more limited number of characters than Facebook. Looking at how conversations grow, spread and eventually die offers insights into what exactly generates the most traction on social media, and why. Over time, armed with contextual knowledge, the data can also help prefigure a proclivity towards certain responses.

The mushroom around Jana Balaya, the political protest engineered by Namal Rajapaksa in early September captures three key hashtags on Twitter used by the organisers. Even without knowing anything about data science, the singular way the graph is structured – like a hub and spoke, with a few key accounts at the centre every one else links to – is evident. Compare this to the mushroom that captures, around the same time, a campaign by Amnesty International South Asia around enforced disappearances. Using the hashtag the organisers used, the graph very clearly shows several clusters within a larger one. Not unlike a matryoshka doll, each cluster is its own ecosystem, within the larger campaign. The two campaigns are visually distinct. Both visualisations are created using thousands of tweets, computationally arranged in such a way that groups them according to ties to other accounts. This gives researchers the ability to figure out who in the larger network really drives the discussion as well as other influential actors who act as bridges or amplifiers. All this is useless without contextual knowledge, which is why my research is anchored to socio-political dynamics at home, which I know far more than a foreign country.

Since the 26th of October, several key dynamics and trends have emerged, strengthening what I have observed for months. Gossip in Sinhala on Facebook is the primary driver of news and information, including political frames. This is extremely disturbing on many levels, since these pages – which numbers in the hundreds – produce content as such great volume and velocity, they are by order of magnitude engaged with more than mainstream news sites in any language. Ethics are absent and professional optional on these pages. Those who engage believe they are very well-informed, when in fact they are entirely ill or misinformed. On the other hand, memes – or cartoons produced anonymously – are hugely popular as a vehicle for incisive political critique. Often, the assumption is that exposure to this content makes consumers better informed. Sadly, this too is not the case.

Think of followers or fans as different species of flowers, growing side by side. What may look visually quite appealing is in fact a significant, growing problem. Each bloom is distinct, and doesn’t interact with others. Likewise on social media, fans of a politician, party or brand rarely if ever engage with anything that contests their beliefs. Worse, they are hostile towards difference. These are called echo chambers, which are hyper-partisan and rife for the injection of rumour engineered to instigate violence.

Responding to these complex, violent dynamics is made harder by the fact that dissent, advocacy and activism, in a context of authoritarian control of all other media, is also to be found on social media. Vital speeches made at the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero’s memorial event were censored by mainstream media and only carried over social media. Compelling letters, statements, press releases and short essays opposing the unconstitutional coup are rife on social media, just as much as content seeking to legitimise, justify and normalise it are also strategically produced and promoted.

This is Sri Lanka’s new battleground. Its dynamics are complex and evolving, but the simple fact is this – every single political party, politician and other actors vying for political power, recognise the value of capturing attention, containing negative messaging and controlling the narrative on social media. My research, like a medical doctor would, examines all this as a contagion. The worst we can be, and amongst us, often overwhelm our better angels on social media. The odds are stacked against those of us who seek to strengthen civil discourse, decency, dignity and democracy online. I work to increase those odds and believe the democratic potential of Sri Lanka is anchored to getting this right.


First published in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD), January 2019. Download PDF of the article here. Download PDF of the article as it appeared in the magazine here.

Seeds to blossoms: Social media post-war (in Sri Lanka)

I was invited with colleagues from the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS) to deliver a presentation on our research and motivations to a group of locals this week, assembled at the Mornington Methodist Church in Dunedin.

The central challenge around presenting my doctoral research for many who are fearful or anxious about social media in the main, don’t know the Sri Lankan context, particularly post-war, and aren’t remotely familiar with data science, is on how to best communicate, in a way that sparks interest and curiosity, what I do and why I do it.

As an early slide of mine showcased, half-jokingly, this endeavour is ironically more difficult in a community, context and country that is the second most peaceful in the world, and where local media’s reportage of violent conflict is around ducks being shot in the back (yes, seriously).

I have used fire, water and nature as a way to help explain the genesis, growth, spread and engagement of content over social media. For this presentation, I used the bloom and blossoming of cacti and a rose.

Going through snapshots of what Facebook usage is like in both Sri Lanka and New Zealand (biggest difference really is that in New Zealand, iOS users are much more than in Sri Lanka) I noted that I specifically will not be showing any photos of violence, war and trauma from Sri Lanka because not only are they a Google search away, my endeavour was to frame solutions, not sell the worst of what we are and have been.

A brief introduction to social media frames my research was partial to prefaced, for me, the key slide of the entire deck, which had looped videos of nine flowers in bloom.

Most of the flowers (Echinopsis Cacti to be precise) were taken from this Vimeo video, to illustrate how on and over social media, content and conversations evolved.  I likened conversations online – their genesis, spread, key proponents, timbre, form, reach and contours – to the bloom of flowers. Each flower (or conversation) distinct, yet in key ways, similar or connected. I also noted that with cacti and roses, what looks immediately appealing can hide thorns and sharp shards, unseen at first, but present and alive within, under or as part of the blossoming. Some conversations, like flowers, I said stayed alive more than others. The life of other conversations, I said, also like the environment or flower bed a plant grew in, was entirely dependent on context, climate and culture.

I followed this slide with my own data visualisation of the Jana Balaya Rally and #stillnoanswers, Amnesty International’s campaign on the disappeared, both of which happened around the same time in Sri Lanka. Without going into too much detail, I noted how research into conversational dynamics over social media, accounting for identity frames, language, geography, platform affordances, device limitations, network effects, education and economics, was not too different from how a gardener would tend, lovingly and with great care, to a flower bed.

Just a glance, I noted, was enough to reveal that one movement or campaign was very different to the other. As a researcher, I noted, my motivation was to ascertain why.

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I then showed snapshots of Twitter based on my preliminary observations and data collection. I flagged how around the violence in Digana in March, there was a discernible increase or spike in the content generation on Twitter alone – leading up to the kinetic violence on the ground, and during it. I flagged that causal linkage between the volume of content and a violent context, if any, was undetermined as yet.

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I then gave two snapshots of Facebook, again from data pulled from my research from just 1st January 2018. Noting that the dominant drivers and primary frames on politics, country, context and the world were gossip sites in Sinhala, I noted that the media diet of a young demographic, post-war, was akin to always or only eating fast-food. I then flagged how much greater engagement the extreme nationalist Sinhala-Buddhist pages and accounts I monitored gathered over accounts pegged to civil society.

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I ended up with frames I would employ in my doctoral research around social media analysis. Using a video of bubbles, I noted how many seemingly disparate conversations online were, based on language, locale, issue or proponent, connected, with these connections morphing over time. Using the awful hate directed against Sandya Eknaliyagoda as an example, I noted that the conversational domains I often looked at (and am sometimes an actant in or inadvertently thrust into) were very far removed from decency and civility. I noted that my interest was in ascertaining the drivers of hate and violence, that after finding expression online, could exacerbate, render more intractable, lead or contribute to violence in the real world.

I ended with a quote from Voltaire, discovered by reading (the absolutely wonderful) War Gardens: A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm by Lalage Snow. The quote I said captured the primary motivation for my doctoral research – to look at home and my work since 2002, as fertile terrain to help unpack why and how conversations online are the way they are today, and how, if at all, their thrust, timbre and topics can be changed.

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My hope, I said, was that one could eventually extrapolate from my work on and in the post-war context in Sri Lanka ways of looking at and dealing with hate online in fragile democracies, applicable or resonant elsewhere.

Download the full presentation as a PPT here.

Trolls, bots and digital propaganda: What it all means, and how it will impact citizenship

This blog post should have come up much earlier than this, but Digana got in the way and in a way, resonating with what was discussed, esp. through a weaponisation of Twitter hitherto unseen in the kind of violence that gripped Sri Lanka in general, and Kandy in particular, that week.

After Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka, first published on Groundviews went viral, I was inundated with emails seeking more information on what we had written on and warned against. The requests for clarification, more information on and ways to safeguard against what we had noted came from civil society, and perhaps unsurprisingly, also from sections of government.

Instead of responding to each and every one, I decided to have an open forum to discuss the article and key issues arising from it.

Invited Yudhanjaya and Sabrina Esufally, from Verite Research, to join a panel that was moderated by the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Yudha and Sabrina gave excellent presentations, looking respectively at the technical aspects (the data told a compelling story) as well as the long-term impact and potential solutions to the challenges we had outlined.

All of our presentations and related material are online here.

My presentation captured in brief an almost total reversal in the perception of social media as democratic, emancipatory platforms that helped citizens overthrow illiberal, dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to over the past year alone, its unprecedented weaponisation by non-state and government actors. This is in addition to disturbing practices by the social media companies themselves. I flagged individuals like Brad Parscale in the US and Davide Casaleggio in Italy as individuals, with supremely capable minds adept at political communication over social media, now as powerful as, if not more so, than the politicians and political parties they worked for or with.

Flagging the weaponisation of Facebook and how countries like Sweden were taking measure to safeguard critical infrastructure elections from foreign interference (read Russian psy-ops and hacking), I gave an overview of what Yudhanjaya and I discovered around Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account. I went into some detail to explain what a troll and bot were and how they polluted discourse online, as well as how cheap they were to deploy.

Providing frames of entry for both Yudha and Sabrina who spoke after me, I flagged some of the topline data and a meeting with Sri Lanka’s Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, late last year, around some of the issues other countries in the West were preparing for, safeguarding against, dealing with and as I submitted, Sri Lanka also needed to take very seriously.

I warned against a troll or bot arms race, where others seeing what Namal Rajapaksa had done and how, also would try to do the same and better. This I said would lead to a situation, backed by Yudhanjaya in his presentation, where public discourse would be completely overrun by narratives, ideas, frames and perceptions determined by parties who were adept at manipulation, subterfuge and deception. I flagged regulation as way forward, but with many pitfalls too, if championed and overseen by a government with poor democratic principles.

The threat to the timbre of public discourse and democratic institutions is real, as the growing partisanship in the US clearly shows. Given the violence in Ampara that had just occurred (our conversation pre-dated the catastrophic violence in Digana by just a day or two) I noted how an attention economy can and will be gamed, clearly brought out by the viral appeal of a video first shared on Facebook around the sterilisation pill myth that fuelled the violence.

I also flagged how Namal Rajapaksa deleted inconvenient tweets from the past that painted him in a light incompatible with the reinvention of self and branding he was undertaking at present. This I submitted was more generally applicable to social media, and strategies employed to whip up unrest, and then delete all traces of the material that fuelled the violence, or was the cause of it.

I quoted George Marshall’s speech from 1947, launching the Marshall Plan, twice, because of how resonant it is in our contemporary information landscape, and the challenges arising from it. My penultimate slide called for a much greater emphasis to be placed on media and information literacy, from the time children entered school. Sabrina’s presentation built on this considerably and is well worth taking a look. The entire panel was in agreement that critical media appreciation was vital as a means through which to really address the problems around rumour and misinformation taking seed and growing over social media. But we also agreed more urgent measures needed to be taken in order to address the immediate challenges posed by the weaponisation of social media in Sri Lanka.

And then, Digana happened.

Namal Rajapaksa, bots and trolls: New contours of digital propaganda and online discourse in Sri Lanka

In the last quarter of 2017, pushback over Twitter to content Groundviews pushed out over the same platform came from sources not encountered or interacted with before. This piqued the interest of the site’s founding editor, Sanjana Hattotuwa, for one key reason. All the accounts publishing content against Groundviews were overwhelmingly promoting and partial to Namal Rajapaksa, a Member of Parliament and the extremely (social) media savvy son of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The troll army retweeting and promoting Namal Rajapaksa’s Twitter account was overwhelmingly anchored to profile photos that were fake, and registered to names that deviously sounded like they were from the Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities, but were also fake.

In any case, the data clearly suggests Namal Rajapaksa drawing a highly predictable number of followers on to Twitter every day.

What’s interesting for social media research is the manner in which the @RajapaksaNamal account on Twitter is used, or arguably, abused. It reflects a new appetite for social media strategies specifically engineered for electoral gain amongst all politicians, and not just the Rajapaksas and Joint Opposition, involving human trolls as well as automated bots. The intent it clear – to influence voter perceptions and public discourse, over and beyond social media.

…the danger around the weaponisation of social media around electoral processes is that neither government nor civil society is prepared to deal with it.

…what is now a danger is that the followers (in the form of bots and trolls) can also be strategically leveraged to quell dissent, shape narratives, highlight propaganda, spread misinformation, drown out critical voices, bully, act as echo chambers and shape social media discourse.

Without sounding alarmist, Sri Lanka has already entered a new online political dynamic, in which the discursive landscape is governed agents of censorship, manipulation and control outside the parameters of traditional observation and analysis. This isn’t just a technocratic concern.

Co-authored with the amazing Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, read the article in full on Groundviews here.

Social media, viral news and the future of peace negotiations: Panel at Build Peace 2017

I was invited to take part, over Skype video, in a panel on social media, viral news and the future of peace negotiations at Build Peace 2017, held early December in Bogota, Colombia. My great disappointment at not being able to attend in person was somewhat offset by what was a great conversation with Juanita León, Director, La Silla Vacía moderated by the inspiring Helena Puig Laurri, co-founder and co-director of Build Up.

I don’t think there was a video recording of our session, which was in itself no mean technical achievement, since I was connecting was Sri Lanka, Juanita from elsewhere in Bogota and Helena at the conference venue, patching us all in. Skype, when it works, is quite incredible.

In brief introductory comments, I flagged my work in 2002 with the Sri Lankan Ceasefire Process and the One-Text process for which I designed technical solutions for asynchronous, confidential, encrypted Track 1 and Track 2.5 negotiations and communications using, what was at the time, commercially available off the shelf software (called Groove).

A lot of this work, and subsequent research, pre-dated and prefaced, by many years, the current praxis and increasing academic research on the use of technology for peacebuilding.

Referencing my keynote address at the first Build Peace conference three years ago, I spoke about radical transparency and how combined with now ubiquitous computing devices that recorded passively, or actively through user intervention, their surroundings, what it meant for negotiations processes where an element of timing, founded on secrecy, remains essential. I flagged how we needed to re-evaluate the meaning and effectiveness of the Chatham House Rule, for example, and how to engineer today a process that retains confidentiality in a manner that doesn’t also infringe on the rights of participants in a process to speak aloud and freely about what they are doing, and involved in.

I noted that with radical transparency also came radical inclusion – the idea that everyone today was a stakeholders in a negotiations process, with what happens in society and polity deeply and almost immediately impacting high-level discussions, as well as vice-versa. My challenge was around how to create processes that included stakeholders who had the power to bring about change and exclude spoilers and spoiler dynamics, which isn’t as easy as it was even just a few years ago – and certainly at the time I engineered the platforms for the One-Text process in Sri Lanka. The management of expectations and optics has I argued a substantive bearing on the negotiations.

I spoke about how difficult it is, ironically, to ascertain the interests of negotiating partners because despite the tsunami of content created, it was increasingly difficult to tune out the noise and focus on the signal. Given filter bubbles inhabited by those at the table, the challenges around misinformation, disinformation and sophisticated, web based propaganda campaigns, it is no longer possible to understand and respond to stakeholder positions, even as the manipulated of public opinion is easily possible with social media.

I flagged the importance of information and media literacy in this regard, noting that for example in Sri Lanka, while adult literacy was very high, people actually believed what they consumed over social media, leading to a disturbing situation where rumour and misinformation online and over instant messaging apps stood to derail fragile negotiations processes more than help secure them. I also flagged how power, patriarchy, social, cultural and political norms were ingrained into what is increasingly algorithmic bias – meaning that the social media platforms we use daily to help understand the world outside are themselves hostage to algorithmic filtering that only promotes what one is already partial to – increasing over time, and not bridging, differences between communities and regions.

In light of what I’ve noted elsewhere publicly, I also wondered how psychometric profiling, sentiment manufacture, trolls and the use of bots, the public mood could today be influenced in subtle (or not so subtle) ways that had a direct and lasting bearing on complex negotiations.

I wondered how the constant chatter – often without the art of the long view, vision, reflection, context or calm contemplation – impacted the reception and perception of what was publicly known of negotiations, putting those in the process under intense pressure to not just negotiate across the table, but also almost in real time, with their own constituencies as well.

I quoted Dannah Boyd, a well-known researcher from Microsoft ,

“[W]e have a cultural problem, one that is shaped by disconnects in values, relationships, and social fabric. Our media, our tools, and our politics are being leveraged to help breed polarization by countless actors who can leverage these systems for personal, economic, and ideological gain.”

Our conversation focussed a lot on the role and relevance of technology in (peace) negotiations spanning social media networks, how first interpretations of official processes are now made, remade, contested, contrasted, accepted and rejected, in close to real time, online, how instant messaging conversations go totally under the radar of the usual media monitoring (that informs an official process), the role of corporate entities and how 18-34 year olds, in various countries, engage with news and information.

Build Peace has a useful collection of tweets from the session here.

Frontier Issues: Some thoughts from 2012, still relevant

In early 2012, Patrick Meier emailed me (and I think a few others) asking the following questions: If you had some of the most cutting edge software developers at your disposal and funding were not an issue, what major software/computing innovations would have the greatest impact on disaster affected communities and humanitarian response? What are the most important gaps in humanitarian technology? What software challenges, if any, do you face in your own humanitarian work?

I rediscovered my email to him today, in light of some discussion I had in New York with the United Nations. Enough time has passed to publish what at the time was a bilateral exchange. I wonder, how many of these issues remain valid today, as those that will impact how we work in the years to come?


Machine translation and semantics and demonstrate how far even in a few years machine translation’s come. This is especially pertinent when non-English (script + language) data flows during most disasters (political or natural) eclipse the English you and I would be familiar with. During Strong Angel III we were shown a a real time translation of a TV broadcast – – but the technology still has a way to go before it can pick up nuances so vital for aid coordination during a crisis. I strongly feel however that NLP will play an increasing role in aid systems, and it appears the US govt (for parochial reasons) is getting into the act in a big way too –, along with the phenomenal work (which I believe you’ve covered in your own blog) of Recorded Future ( not so much for their platform, but their underlying analysis engine. And in the field of semantics, platforms like Cognition to Wolfram Alpha (powering Siri) are changing the way we interact with the web using strict Boolean logic. Can these new interfaces be applied to humanitarian platforms?

Not enough conversation is around the ethics of data generation, sharing, use and archival. and the more detailed (with my post tsunami experience) are early cracks, and along with more recent and in-depth writing on the use of Big Data (A brief exploration of Open and Big Data: From investigative journalism to humanitarian aid and peacebuilding), deals with this issue which I feel is often underplayed. Intertwined with issues of privacy, safety and security, the ethics governing the use of crowd-sourced information is put on hold for what are often called more immediate needs, but if unaddressed, can increase the risk of communities that were vulnerable. Lives saved during a disaster, ironically through the appropriation of information generated by them, could leave to lives lost to civil strife within repressive regimes.

Mapping are hugely interesting experiments, though field utility is suspect for at least 5 – 10 years. The whole gamut of physical sensors interacting with virtual design elements that influence data representation is a model of thinking that can however deeply inform humanitarian aid dashboard design and deployment. Obviously, Google’s Project Glass also holds promise at the field level for aid workers unfamiliar with the terrain. It is the most compelling vision to date of many other augmented reality platforms and apps already preset and working for Android and iOS. I actually started to talk about the use of augmented reality for humanitarian aid 6 years ago! See which I followed up in 2009 when Layar came to my notice I don’t know where Nokia’s at, my Layar has gone through many iterations.

Grassroots / citizen mapping
It may not be the case in every place and context, but essentially the technologies and tools for citizen mapping will grow. Products like will increasingly become hobbyist kits, complementing the kind of work done by grassroots mappers around the Gulf Oil Spill. Essentially, our view of the world is going to be increasingly plural – no one view will dominate another easily, with technology and tools to complement, confirm and contradict ground realities not just in the hands of govt’s, but in the hands of ordinary people too. The perceptions of Kibera to New York will change as a result, and this neo-geography will also inform identity – the sense of location within a society and community. From crisis to governance, these tools will play an increasing role.

Citizen journalism
In a blog post of yours from a while ago, you wanted a red button application for citizen journalism ( Now there’s one Of course, the Gulf Oil Spill resulted in a similar app – Along with the likes of Google + for iOS, FB Timeline, platforms like, and the really interesting, we are looking at the, interestingly, the fracturing of a key need – personal information curation. There are really complex algorithms behind each of these platforms and apps, and their potential to be deployed in and adopted for dealing with the peaks of information generation during a crisis are as yet untested.

Visualisation and mobiles
Can we do what does for books and music to missing persons registries and conflict drivers? Can we build remote field intelligence to mobiles so that what is shown on thin client apps in the field is geo-fenced, information rich, bandwidth frugal, contextual, updated, interactive and accountable? The combination of NFC, geo-positioning, data transmission via SMS, smart devices, multiplatform apps all exist – no one is really putting them together in the same eco-system, to create a HQ to remote aid worker ERM system of sorts. It can be done technically, but needs political vision and drive?

GAP: Archival, both the thinking and the tools
I first wrote about the problems of digital archiving in 2006 – The problem is growing. And fast. We’ve already lost, irrevocably, so much of the data produced during disaster even over the past 3 – 4 years. Given the pace at which information generation during and immediate after a disaster is increasing, the sheer technical challenges involved in archiving this information for posterity are significant, never mind the challenges over data governance, use and archival standards and media.

In 2006 I came up with six mantras – They remain valid today, and will I submit also be valuable into the future. And please, more Failfares – The marketing around specific platforms, apps and tools is already just to nauseating, because so much of it is disconnected from the more humbling ground realities. If we want a better future, let us start with our failures today.