A grotesque picture – Election violence in Sri Lanka

Spent the last couple of days updating a map of election violence in Sri Lanka. It’s depressing work. A culture of violence, largely perpetrated by the ruling party (the UPFA), and also demonstrating signs of mindless tit-for-tat attacks by the UNP pervades the Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provinces in the lead up to election day on Saturday.

The Google Map is so packed with markers of incidents that you need to zoom into some places (e.g. Kekirawa, Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura) to see the degree of violence on the ground. It’s really incredible, especially when reading through the incident reports. Shooting at each other is routine. So is arson, looting and violent assault. Heck, even swords are used.

Positively medieval this.

It was interesting to note the reaction of several journalists after the press conference held by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence this morning, who came up to me and said that the map helped them to understand better the pervasive nature of violence on the ground. They said it was far easier to understand a map than to go through a detailed report of incidents. Interestingly, they also said that they referred to the detailed reports more than before after looking at the map first, especially to find out more information on places where violence is especially bad.

CMEV was the first elections monitoring body to introduce Google Maps based incident mapping in Sri Lanka and to date the only one to use it. Frankly though, I wish I had introduced the technology for a purpose other than to help citizens understand the nature of the savage brutes they elect to power.

Ushahidi – Testimonies of violence in Kenya on the web

“Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground. It occurs to me that it will be useful to keep a record of this, if one is thinking long-term. For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something – any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”

Ory Okolloh, aka Kenyan Pundit, is who started it all.

Ushahidi is quite frankly an inspired and inspiring use of ICTs, including mobile phones, to bear witness to, record and facilitate action against the most dispiriting post-election violence in Kenya. It is one of the best mashups this author has seen dealing with the reporting and documenting of post-election violence and communal unrest, as well as a tool that facilitates international and local help to affected communities and victims.

I’ve passed this website around to a few people as the first meaningful application of an idea I first touted in 2006 talking about SMS, MMS and Google Maps mashups:

Rather than think of Citizen Media only as a text based initiative, mash-ups that match SMS location data with MMS / SMS messages onto a map, allowing users to browse through locations and messages related to that location, but also see an interactive timeline of the development of message clusters on a map, would have tremendous applications in mapping violence, confidence in peace, IDP movements and a whole raft of other issues.


As White African notes,

At the beginning of a project like this the technology portion can seem to be the hardest to get off the ground. In the end, it’s just the tool, and the hard work will come from people in the field who are working with NGO’s to keep this information accurate and to chronicle as much of it as they can..

The tool allows for those on the ground to send in situation reports and alerts via the web and mobile phones. At the same time, the Kenyan government was warning mobile phone users of possible prosecution if they use SMS to cause public unrest, “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution.”

Others note the importance of going beyond technology to address the needs and concerns of those on the ground,

While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services. Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite.

While in principle agreeing that a technocratic approach to conflict resolution has its significant short-comings, I don’t agree with the sentiment above.

This suggests that the information presented on Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) is somehow removed from the “real problems of real people”. As far as I can gather, Ushahidi is no work of fiction or a figment of the collective imagination of a few bloggers. By plotting violence, communal needs and actual incidents on a map, this becomes a vital record for the Kenyan State, NGOs and the international community including humanitarian agencies to know about and effectively plan for exigencies on the ground.

It is not just those who are connected (the “technologically (sic) elite”) who benefit, but all citizens, esp. those who don’t have access to technology. Those who choose to bear witness  and report violence may be individuals empowered to do so using ICTs ranging from PCs to mobiles, but important to recognise is that they do so on behalf of others as well. Technology facilitates actions and responses for ALL victims of (post-election) violence, not just those who send in the reports and who have mobiles or PCs.

I had the rare opportunity to meet and talk with Ory Okolloh at the Global Knowledge Partnership in Malaysia late last year and wish her the best in this and all her ventures to bring about an end to violence in her country.

For another idea that could be helpful in Ory’s case, take a look at this. For a more detailed account of the evolution of Ushahidi, read Global Voices Online.