“The Fires Within: Sri Lanka at War” – A waste of web media

Got an email from Steven Pong at Asia Society to take a look at The Fires Within: Sri Lanka at War, described as a “project, which attempts to document the humanitarian costs of the civil war, shows the work of photojournalist Ron Haviv, who has worked in conflict areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia in the past.”

I don’t like it.

There’s nothing original or insightful in the photos or the content and I don’t believe that journalists who parachute in, spend a little time in the war zones, take a few photos and then go on to make a splash internationally for their work are those who in any meaningful way contribute to fragile processes of peacemaking. Self-aggrandizement trumps the longer term commitment necessary to truly understand the subjects and their role as both victims and perpetrators of the violence.  

Ron isn’t a Kevin Sites. While Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone was a compelling series of narratives (incl. on Sri Lanka) Ron’s (photo)journalism seems superficial and of the sort that is the result of covering as much of terrain as possible in a few days without stopping, really listening, pausing to think and reflect and importantly, allowing the viewers to make up their minds about what a picture signifies without the burden of anonymous voices in the background egging them on.

Although Ron mentions that:

“I think the strength of photography itself is inherent in the way we, as human beings, our brains work; when you remember things you remember them quite often in the still image. The still image has this ability, much more so than moving video, to kind of remain with you and sear itself into your mind.” 

the presentation actually features video and other voices that aren’t identified. Although it’s not difficult to imagine why, I simply cannot identity with and in fact am angered by those (particularly journalists) who uncritically believe the suggestion that the LTTE is a “sole representative” of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

The problem with the likes of Ron is that having come into a war zone, they believe they go out with some nugget of wisdom or the truth that escapes the “natives”. So you then set out to make a piece with little or no consultation with local actors, leading to the a presentation such as this which juxtaposes the absurd with the sublime, severely vitiating the appeal of the whole. 

And paragraphs like this which appear on the Asia Society’s site simply don’t help,

“As he shared his experiences in the country, Haviv said he was surprised to see the areas controlled entirely by the Tamil Tigers, complete with fully functioning parallel institutions including schools and courthouses. He witnessed how the Tamil Tigers were attempting to create their own autonomous region by providing basic necessities, even as some of the population was coerced by the LTTE to remain in those areas.”

Ron seems to be easily surprised and given to accept what he sees without too much of questioning. As one photographer to another, my advice would be to switch the rose tinted filters to UV, which can bring to sharper relief the reality of the conflict on the ground and the degree to which the LTTE has destroyed hope for peace in Sri Lanka, just as much as the incumbent regime in the South. A photo presentation that captures the sad penchant for violence of both actors would be worth looking at.

This is not one.

G.ho.st and online operating systems: Much Ado About Nothing?

I was forwarded a recent New York Times article on G.ho.st by Patrick Meier. Perhaps Patrick thought I would be interested in this because of the references to peacebuilding in the Israeli-Palestinian context. .

Even before I clicked on G.ho.st I knew what I was in for when I read this quote by Zvi Schreiber, the creator of the online operating system:

“I felt the ultimate goal was to offer every human being a computing environment which is free, and which is not tied to any physical hardware but exists on the Web,” he said. The idea, he said, was to create a home for all of a user’s online files and storage in the form of a virtual PC.

The notion that cloud computing / online web services are not tied to any physical hardware is sadly given undue credence by articles such as this. The semantic confusion here lies in making services and online products run on any (local) OS versus being tied down to run on any one of them. The solution to the bane of the latter can be achieved even on local operating systems using Java, Air, Flash or open source tools. Ubuntu’s growing adoption lies in its ability to give a Windows like user experience at a fraction of the cost associated with Microsoft latest desktop operating avatar, Vista. The potential of the web to transform organisational transactions (within and between organisations) however is not, in any way, linked to online operating systems. While the point is made and true to a degree that cloud services lack a certain standard look at feel (in terms of their UI) that local operating systems have, in terms of market capitalisation I don’t see that’s been a problem for the most successful cloud computing platforms and services to date – Facebook and Myspace, two social networking platforms wholly different to each other probably get more users still in a day that I think G.ho.st would have signed up since its inception!

The writer also fails to compare G.ho.st with dozens of other online operating systems. The impression given here seems to be that G.ho.st is worth highlighting because, inter alia,

  • it has some peripheral connection to an Israeli peacemaker’s family (quote added for good optics)
  • there is a peripheral interest in peacebuilding through the business (no concrete evidence is provided save for some passing anecdotal intent).
  • that it is located in one of the world’s most troubled regions, with the romanticised Israel – Palestine people to people contact (“at a rundown coffee shop on a desert road frequented by camels and Bedouin shepherds near Jericho”) as some vague marker of its potential to foster communal reconciliation

This is at best disingenuous writing and closer to being downright dishonest. A serious writer would have weighed the pros and cons of G.ho.st for what it is – an online operating system – a breed of cloud computing platforms that’s seen a growth spurt over the past 2 years (largely in the US) but which have largely failed to gain market traction because we are all still dependent on the local operating systems that run our desktop PCs, which are the repositories of every single byte of information we upload to YouTube, to Facebook Photos, to Flickr and to podcasts on iTunes.

See reviews of online operating systems here an an even larger selection here – What does G.ho.st offer that these don’t? What does G.ho.st do better that these don’t?

G.ho.st also offers just 5Gb of space. That’s about the size of Microsoft’s SkyDrive. And with new services and technologies from Microsoft itself (in addition to others) making it terribly easy to access your computer / computers from anywhere (and in the future, even from mobiles) the future for G.ho.st & Co. seems very bleak. (This does not even take into account devices such as the XO laptop, Intel’s Classmate and Microsoft’s Flexgo intiative, that with all their failings are based on the essential idea that the importance of local operating systems and local storage will not diminish even with the growth and reach of the web).

I did spend some time on the rather garish looking guest login to G.ho.st. It’s nowhere near as polished as some of the other online operating systems out there, so in this respect, fails to pass muster even when compared to the competition. However, the most egregious oversight is in opening, by default, a document on Zoho written by Zvi Schreiber in November 2006. There are some real tragi-comic assertions in it:

  • The real threat to Windows is that the very concept of a Personal Computer and of a local operating system is being subtly eroded. Microsoft Windows installed locally on the PC is not being beaten by competition but it has started down inevitable path to irrelevance.
  • Over the next two years, find partners to create hosted version of every single Windows program and help users migrate their data to the new world.
  • In the meantime you can use G.ho.st for those services which you must be able to access from everywhere or where the hostered (sic) services are superior, while still using Windows for software which is unavailable or inferior online. Starting in 2 years time you can consider retiring Windows and performing all your computing activities on the Web via G.ho.st.
  • In the West, Windows is affordable but still an annoyance to a young generation who are used to getting e-mail, instant messengers, social networking, news and so much more for free. In the developing world, the price of Windows is a real barrier to the adoption of computing. With the Global Hosted Operating SysTem, the price of an operating system becomes, like the price of looking through shop windows, zero, as it should be.

Windows may be on the “path to irrelevance” but to prophesise its imminent demise even two years after this article was written still puts one in the category of thinkers dealing with substance abuse. Given that it’s nearly two years ago Zvi wrote this, I wonder how far G.ho.st has gone in creating hosted versions of “every single Windows programme”. Sadly the NY Times doesn’t also ask how users are able to migrate their data to the “new world” (smacks of some Biblical Garden of Eden for information in the clouds) with only 5Gb on offer.

It’s unnecessary to belabour the point. G.ho.st simply tries too hard to be taken seriously. Ms. Kraft should know and write better, given her experience in the region’s vexing challenges. It is not as if the region is in the information dark ages – a World Bank report released in January 2008 suggests that comparisons between other countries in the region put the West Bank and Gaza ahead of or on par with usage / ownership / access of PC’s, ICTs and mobiles. So clearly, there’s opportunities to use ICTs to address peacebuilding in this region.

There’s already a lot happening. Blogging’s already hugely influential and growing apace. (How many use, would need to use, know of or would care to use G.ho.st?) The growth of online real time translation (text plus those afforded by services such as vernacular Skype conversations and Skypecasts) suggest very real possibilities for inter and intra communal engagements on issues related to peacebuilding even when they can’t or won’t be seen together. (e.g. هل تتكلم العربيه؟)

Simple questions, amongst others, that should have been asked and observations made – the NY Times has a photo of the G.ho.st office with some laptops. How many do you think store all their data on G.ho.st? How may rely on G.ho.st for their email or just go directly to the online email service provider of their choice? How many surf the web through the G.ho.st web browser (a browser in a browser?!) How many can print a Zoho document created through and hosted on G.ho.st to their local printer?

These aside, there is in this article a criminal oversight of just how difficult peacebuilding can be, with or without ICTs. The fact that everything is hunky-dory in the offices of G.ho.st is possibly because this is a business tethered to making profit with few unlike-minded individuals in it and where coding takes precedence over conflicting histories. This is Ms. Kraft’s fault. G.ho.st’s own is that it fails to see that online operating systems add a layer to cloud computing that’s unnecessary and unwieldy.

I don’t go to and use the cloud to replicate or replace my desktop. I go to it, use it and leverage it to complement what I do with my desktop and to strengthen my advocacy by using services / products / tools / platforms that are hard for repressive regimes to track down, disrupt and shut down. Particularly in the context of unreliable and costly connectivity and dealing with hundreds of megabytes of information generation and dissemination a day, online operating systems just don’t cut it for me and anyone else in a similar context.

G.ho.st may well turn out to be the blanket monicker for the genre for online operating systems still born in to a graveyard of good intentions.

As noted on Download Squad, Glide has launched an updated version of its web-based “operating system.”

“Like its predecessors, Glide OS 3.0 provides users with a desktop-like space within a browser window. You can use Glide’s web-based applications to create Word documents, spreadsheets, or presentations. You can also play music, manage photos and videos, and send and receive email. In other words, you can do many of the same things you’d do with a desktop operating system, but in a web browser.

What sets Glide apart from many of its competitors is that Glide offers a suite of tools that let you synchronize your files with a Windows, Mac, Linux, or Solaris machine. There’s also Glide Sync software for a number of mobile phone models. Free account holders get up to 5GB of web space, and if you need more, you can shell out a few bucks a month for additional storage.

One of the new features in Glide OS 3 is a Glide Group tool that adds social networking features. You can communicate with other Glide users by sending messages or sharing media files.”

Peace and Conflict Timeline (PACT)

Disclaimer: I was heavily involved in aspects of the design of the new PACT website and gave advice on the development of many of its current features and functionality.


The Peace and Conflict Timeline (PACT) website by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) is one of the most innovative I have encountered. It’s idea is original, it’s content very well research and it’s presentation immaculate. It’s rarely that you come across an idea that makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. PACT is one of them. 

While the PACT concept won it an award of merit from the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) in 2007, the website at the time was an unmitigated disaster. One of my first emails to CEPA late December was a lengthy one with several detailed ideas on how they could improve the site. I’m happy to note that most of them find expression in the new avatar.

There’s really nothing comparable to PACT in the SL blogosphere or amongst Sri Lankan websites. At first blush, any serious researcher will find on PACT a wealth incidents and processes that are vital markers of the ebb and flow of Sri Lanka’s conflict. PACT’s central feature is its timeline, that stretches from the 1800s to the present day. It is exhaustively researched with 420 entries to date. But here’s where PACT really shines – the entire website is designed as a living conversation. Comments and feedback are actively elicited with details of events and processes that have been missed out, or alternatives narratives and perspectives to existing events to enrich that which is already on the site. PACT is a historical narrative that comes alive through new media.

There’s a clear list of issues the site covers on the right – clicking on any one of them brings up associated events. Else, you can browse through the timeline – clicking on a year brings up information related to that year. The site makes very good use of AJAX – everything is fluid and very responsive, even on a slow internet connection, aided by the absence of bandwidth hogging graphics. 

Well thought out submission guidelines will hopefully ensure that that the fringe lunatics, racists, trolls and nut jobs that usually latch on to sites like these are kept at bay. This is important since as PACT evolves, it will have to judge what to publish in terms of comments, keeping the overall tone of conversations on the site civil, progressive, interesting and light. This is my first worry – from what I know, PACT has little real institutional support in terms of human resources. Though it will largely be a site for reading / research more than discussion, the fact that it encourages feedback means that serious consideration has to be given to site moderation and what it will entail. I know from experience that many organisations haven’t the foggiest as to how much of work this really is. Do it badly or haphazardly and the entire site goes down. 

What’s also interesting is that the site allows you to subscribe to new events and new comments. New events don’t necessarily mean contemporary events since PACT will add events in the past as and when necessary. The ability to subscribe to comments and posts via RSS and email is great and avoids the common mistake of assuming that readers actually like to come to a website to access new content.

The first site ran on some half-baked home made content management system that was an unmitigated disaster. To this day I find it shocking that anyone at CEPA thought it was fit to go up the way it did. Mistakes have been learnt from and the new runs on the extremely robust WordPress (2.5.1) platform, which means that it is scaleable, can be accessed through a variety of devices, can be easily referenced and embedded in other blogs and just makes the content in it more easily accessible. Something for all Mac users using Safari to watch out for though. If you intend to register and write something to PACT using the WordPress, some plug in that’s active on it make it extremely unstable. Safari (3.1.1 on Leopard) crashed twice as I was trying to type in something, which is very unusual yet something to keep in mind. 

There’s another small problem. An incorrectly configured submission URL on the Suggest an event page actually prevents anyone from suggesting an event. In the absence of anyone from the general public suggesting an event, all that’s on the site are suggestions by the PACT team. What’s not entirely clear to me is why they remain as suggestions, with the only explanation being that the research needed to enter these into the PACT database is hostage to the limited time available for the administration of the site by the one person I know is behind it almost single handedly.

Three features I would really like to see on the site I’ve already communicated to those in charge. The first would be to plot on a map of Sri Lanka the locations of incidents in PACT. The geo-visualisation of incidents and events would give a user a perspective much wider and deeper than reading the same information in a textual format, just like the Mideast Conflict Timeline

Another is in the visualisation of information proper. I remember using Microsoft Encarta’s timeline and discovering a range of events and processes that I would not have pieced together as easily by reading just text. There’s actually a very powerful example of what I would like to see for PACT in the form of the Xtimeline website. For example, see this history of the microprocessor – beautifully done and extremely intuitive. 

Finally, a way to make PACT more social. The suggestion here is to include ways through which each post can be more easily integrated into a range of social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace. This can be very easily done by integrating Addthis to their site. 

PACT is a must for any researcher on our conflict and is one of those sites that really should be put as a shortcut on the desktops of PCs in libraries and cyber-cafes, so that people actually get to know of it and use it. Traffic to the site will never be comparable to a other sites on conflict including those such asGroundviews or Vikalpa, but what is offers is content that complements, strengthens and gives more insight into that which is published elsewhere. 

It is truly sui generis in this regard. Visit it today. 

Complex Political Emergencies and humanitarian aid systems design

Missing entirely in the discussions I was part of at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium and also the draft statement current on the Symposium website for public review is the manner in which complex political emergencies  (CPEs, herein used to also cover violent ethno-political conflict) influence the design and deployment of ICT support architectures and systems for humanitarian aid.

While there is a large existing corpus of literature that examine CPEs and the challenges it poses to humanitarian aid (also looking at the challenge of aid in response to the “natural” disaster in the midst of CPEs) , there is very little to my knowledge written on the manner in which ICT systems also need to respond to and be shaped by the realities of violent conflict on the ground in theatres of humanitarian aid. As I note in Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding:

In cases such as Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, regions affected by the tsunami were also regions affected by years of violent ethno-political conflict. Without question, any humanitarian system designed to support aid work in such regions needs to be sensitive to the added complexity of ethno-political strife. This added layer of complexity cannot be ignored as it directly influences humanitarian aid decisions and actions.

and go on to note that:

One notes with interest the features in Sahana’s Missing Person’s Registry that are no doubt tremendously useful in aid deployment, but is cognisant that the same features may also be used by less savoury individuals and organisations to track information of people affected by the disaster – say for instance children who have been orphaned as easy fodder for guerilla movements. 

In another article that looks deeply at information security in humanitarian aid support systems, I aver that:

The emphasis on accountability, transparency, trust, right to information legislation, equity and holistic, inclusive frameworks I believe under gird any appreciation of information security in humanitarian aid systems. As I note in a monograph written a few weeks after the tsunami that captured InfoShare’s information architectures for the humanitarian response, the first days & weeks of the relief efforts brought to light the following information needs:

  1. Information on the type of the disaster – what a tsunami was, how it formed, the dangers of further tsunamis during the severe after shocks that continued for many days etc
  2. Information on missing persons, including foreign nationals. This included details of those internally displaced by the tsunami
  3. Information on immediate needs of survivors (shelter, food & medicine)
  4. Information of resources available to deliver aid – from 4WD vehicles, to trucks and helicopters
  5. Information of organisation to give money and donations in kind to – collection centres, bank account details, wire transfer instructions
  6. Information on contact numbers for emergency services, relief agencies, regional offices of large NGOs, country representatives of INGOs and donor agencies, number for key agencies in the UN
  7. Dissemination of requests for help, channelling aid to appropriate locations, mapping resources and taking inventories of aid received
  8. GIS data on Sri Lanka post tsunami and pre tsunami, including accurate and up-to-date maps of affected regions and satellite imagery to pin point where aid was needed in communities which had been isolated after the tsunami.
  9. Coordination of local and international volunteers involved in the relief efforts – what their skills were, where they were needed, what they were doing once assigned to a particular area
  10. News reports on key developments in the affected regions, including the details of money pledged for relief efforts and how to access this money
  11. Database of various NGOs operational after the tsunami across the affected regions who could be mobilised for aid and relief operations
  12. Information on the actual ground situation in the worst affected areas – with dysfunctional mobile communications, the national telecom provider’s PSTN infrastructure badly affected, transport infrastructure washed away, there was an urgent need to ascertain the status of survivors

As the reader will recognise, some of this information is extremely politically sensitive – that which was captured in the relief effort could be used to target communities and ethnic groups in a renewed war effort, and given the Sri Lankan’s state’s pathological inability to engage in a serious peace process, we were faced with the acute problem of having on the one hand the need to collect, store, analyse and disseminate sensitive information and on the other hand the need to maintain control of who and where this information was used.

The closest I came to discussing some of these issues was in a side meeting during the +5 Symposium with representatives from OCHA and the US State Department. In general however, the assumption seems to be that aid support systems, especially using ICT, are applicable irrespective of the timbre of social, cultural, political and religious relations present in the context of the humanitarian intervention.

This is a tremendously dangerous assumption and I hope that in the fullness of time, the larger community of humanitarian ICT systems developers take a page out of InfoShare’s experiences in this regard.

Also read:

Understanding terrorism better through technology?

As I wrote in a recent article:

“The central disconnect between conflict resolution theorists and the essential nature of terrorism lies here – we do not really know the logic that drives terrorism, a logic so alien to us that we cannot even imagine it. It is a logic that driven by a rationale and psychological imperatives that may make little sense to us…”

Juxtapose this with an article featured on the New York Times recently:

“When an Iraqi insurgent group releases a new videotape or claims responsibility for an attack, Western reporters in Baghdad rarely hear about it firsthand. Nor do they usually get the news from their in-house Iraqi translators.

Instead, a reporter often receives an e-mailed alert from a highly caffeinated terrorism monitor sitting at a computer screen somewhere on the East Coast. Within hours, a constellation of other Middle East analysts has sent out interpretations — some of them conflicting — and a wealth of contextual material.”

Reading the article further, it is evident that we are on the cusp of a revolution in journalism – where bloggers and websites shape to a great extent the analyses that frame a story or issue. This brings to sharp relief several questions:

Information is not knowledge
Journalists “embedded” in places like Iraq and Afghanistran aren’t necessarily good journalists. Pegged to the military and unable to travel outside of designated safe-zones, their viewpoints are circumscribed by the radius of a turret or the range of a sniper. Unable to analyse the context, caught up as they are in the rigours of vicarious daily combat, these new journalists rely, as teh NYT article points out, on a slew of websites that seek to disseminate information of various known terrorist groups who post messages and other on the web.

Information however, is not knowledge. Given the subjective interpretation of all content, it is small wonder that a statement from a single source may be interpreted in many ways by which ever person or organisation that chooses to flag its significance. Journalists on the ground are thus faced with a range analyses from which they have to choose from – a choice oftentimes made under the pressure of instant TV journalism and by definition, ill-informed.

Given that some journalists in regions of conflict don’t speak the local languages, interpreting what’s online to help contextualise events on the ground becomes an exercise of blind trust in the subjective opinion and language abilities of those who can and do post their interpretations of terrorist material online.

There is no real measure of the truth of a single interpretation until it is juxtaposed against several others, a task that very few in the field have the time to do on sustainable basis.

The end result is that the opinions of a few key influential organisations and individuals are given primacy over others who may have equally valid interpretations.

“On this front, Memri, the largest translation service, may have drawn the most criticism. It was founded in 1998 by Col. Yigal Carmon, who had spent more than 20 years in Israeli military intelligence and later advised two Israeli prime ministers. Its 60 staff members scan Arab and Muslim media and send translations by e-mail to 100,000 subscribers, including journalists and officials. Critics have long said it focuses on translating the most dangerous-sounding material.

“They say they highlight liberal voices along with the dangerous radicals, which is fine,” said Marc Lynch, a scholar of Arab politics at Williams College who has criticized Memri on his own blog, Abu Aardvark. “But what that conceals is the entire middle ground, where most of the political debate goes on in the Arab world.”

Implications for the framing of conflict
If we are to assume that journalism coming out from conflict zones is inextricably entwined with the opinions of those who interpret material deeply relevant to the socio-political dynamics of the region from afar and through content on the web, we must be mindful that what we may read, see and listen as investigative reporting may be, at worst, nothing more than real-life footage given to embellish the opinion of a partisan think-tank or biased individual somewhere else in the world.

There is no real solution to this dilemma. One way forward may be for the global news agencies and also for journalists in general to begin to list out their sources for background research, giving the reader and audience clarity on the construction of perspectives and the framing of the issues.

The other is also basic journalism – to not trust any one source and to fight the herd mentality of embedded journalism to ascertain perspectives of peace and conflict from communities living with and affected by conflict. Furthermore, radical terrorism on the web may be itself several shades more virulent than that which is practised on the ground by the same organisation (the web allows for thought and action not always possible on the ground). This must be kept in mind when weaving in the analyses and interpretations of material on the web to explain what’s occuring on the ground.

Let’s also not forget the importance of learning the language of conflict to inform the grammar of journalism. The language of conflict covers the vernacular of those embroiled in the conflict (to understand their hopes and aspiration, there one must speak their language) to the language, as it were, of the complex interplay of social, economic, political, religious, caste and other identity markers that fuel conflict and also hold in them the keys to conflict transformation.

In sum, maybe the web gives more access to analyses and information. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that journalism is better for it.

Also see my earlier posts on web translation and peacebuilding:
I don’t speak Tamil – Skype to the rescue?
هل تتكلم العربيه؟