Ushahidi’s Goma release incorporates features from ICT4Peace Foundation’s crisis information management prototype

Ushahidi’s launched a major new update to their platform called Goma. I’m looking forward to downloading their new thin client mobile apps. Their J2ME app does not yet support the Blackberry Bold, so I’m going to download the Windows Mobile version of it on a Samsung i780 later today.

I was very pleased to see key features in Ushahidi’s Goma release that had evolved directly from ICT4Peace Foundation’s Crisis Information Management prototype, including in particular a new feature to track veracity and trust of users by the admin and email and SMS proximity-based alerting functionality.

David Kobia speaks about the new release:

What I am interested in, and the ICT4Peace Foundation as well, is the development of concepts like Ushahidi’s own Swift River, plus the Foundation’s own information visualisation and crowd-sourcing qualification routines that help decision makers improve the signal to noise ratio during a crisis. Whereas Ushahidi’s emphasis is on the public display of information, the Foundation’s emphasis is on a platform with similar characteristics that facilitates greater information sharing within networks of UN agencies and their partners. We want to see the back-end of the system providing a database based matrix for the qualification of information entered that can then be manipulated to give decision makers the knowledge they need to respond appropriately from the myriad of information feeds flowing out of a crisis, and into their screens and systems.

I’m looking forward to the evolution of Ushahidi in this regard as a tool that helps in the analysis and response to a crisis.

Ushahidi helps develop Crisis Information Management demo tool

Ushahidi

From the ICT4Peace Foundation came news today of its collaboration with Ushahidi.

The ICT4Peace Foundation, Geneva has mandated Ushahidi to develop an ICT4Peace Crisis Information Management Platform Demonstrator (CIMD), based on Ushahidi’s existing platform with the following features and functionality.

  1. A product that is able to be deployed in the field with a minimum of fuss, on any browser, on mobile phones, over any Internet connection and also store data offline for later synchronization.
  2. A database architecture robust enough to meet the demands of information gathering in UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, based on requirements and necessary forms provided by the ICT4Peace Foundation.
  3. A front end that degrades gracefully on low bandwidth connections, with key information able to be consumed even on dial-up.
  4. An emphasis on accurate location data, which needs to include GPS co-ords based information and integration with UN OCHA’s location and mapping standards. The ICT4Peace Foundation will provide location data.
  5. Strong reporting requirements, incl. automatic generation of reports from designated fields, map plotting, RSS updates, geo-location based alerts, proximity based alerts for specific event categories (on the lines of the Ushahidi DRC implementation )
  6. A comprehensive database architecture that allows for (a) easy and seamless information exchange between field and HQ (b) off-site archival (c) customisation according to context and specific mission requirements (d) offline access to the degree possible (e) strong security (f) multimedia capable

Combined, Ushahidi’s thought leadership in the field of crowd sourced information gathering and the ICT4Peace Foundation’s expert input into the development of the tool, especially in verifying information in a manner that facilitates robust, accurate, timely analysis and information sharing in peacekeeping operations will make the CIMD a useful tool to augment crisis information management practices in the UN, and elsewhere.

After championing Ushahidi at the ICT4Peace Foundation in my capacity as a Special Advisor, I am working closely with another colleague at the Foundation, hugely experienced as a UN peacekeeper to develop the CIMD, which we feel can be a powerful tool to:

  1. Demonstrate the potential of what’s possible today with new media, mobile phones, the web and open source tools
  2. Add value to Ushahidi’s model of crowdsourcing by adding a module / component (call it what you will) of information verification. While Ushahidi has its own ideas in this regard, the Foundation’s initial intended audience will be more manageable, allowing for mechanisms – both technical and processual – to be built into the system that along with requisite training can significantly enhance information gathering and analysis in critical peacekeeping operations.

I met David the extremely affable and unassuming David Kobia in New York recently. Our interactions were far too short, but his presentation on Ushahidi wowed an audience of seasoned UN staff and practitioners from NY, Rome and Geneva – never mind that so few of them could pronounce Ushahidi correctly (I heard Ushahi, Ushidi and Ushadi)! We also talked briefly about the joys and pitfalls of moderating websites within cycles of violence that explored conflict resolution – he with Mashada (an online African community) and I with Groundviews.

Looking forward to blogging the development of this.

Recommendations and ideas to strengthen best practices of Crisis Information Management at the United Nations, New York

ICT4Peace Foundation

This is an excerpt from Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities that can be downloaded in full from here.

The authors strongly feel it is timely for the UN System as a whole to address, at a strategic level, issues of crisis information management and technology best practice and interoperability – to identify current knowledge of best practice, capabilities and challenges, and plot a way forward to improved response.

Respondents in the discussions felt that IM and KM strategies, frameworks and technologies were constantly evolving as well, making it important to create policies in the UN robust enough to handle current needs but flexible enough to accommodate change. Others noted the importance of using appropriate technology – hardware and software solutions – that could leverage existing (embryonic) IM / KM mechanisms and render them more meaningful and effective. This includes the need to develop of mechanisms and tools that work in austere conditions. Crisis information systems need to be developed that work robustly and are “good enough” to work in conditions of chaos, political instability, poor and intermittent network access, lack of physical security, with democratic institutions under siege and very little control over territory by a central government. Developed for these conditions, it is expected that the crisis information management tools can both scale up and be deployed in other conditions less austere, and also at the HQ level at the United Nations in New York.

Continue reading

Interim Report: Stocktaking of UN Crisis Information Management Capabilities

ICT4Peace Foundation

Sanjana Hattotuwa and Daniel Stauffacher

From October 2007 to February 2008, representatives from the ICT4Peace Foundation met informally with a number of high-level representatives at key agencies based at the United Nations in New York in preparation for a stocktaking exercise on crisis information management capacities and best practices. These meetings with heads of agencies, units and departments, IT administrators and key Knowledge Management (KM), Information Management (IM) professionals and consultants gave vital insights into some of the best practices and key challenges facing crisis information management at the UN including the gaps and needs that had already been identified, the challenges facing KM and IM and ideas for meaningfully addressing some of these challenges.

A draft report was tabled at a meeting held on 8th July 2008 in New York at the United Nations, where respondents and other high level participants were invited to engage with the preliminary findings and observations. Their input and feedback at the meeting and via email is incorporated in this final draft.

Download a copy here.

Capturing violent conflict in Kashmir with mobile phones

For many people, recording events on mobile phones has become a hobby (c) BBC
For many people, recording events on mobile phones has become a hobby (c) BBC

The BBC runs a fascinating story today on how young people (who in the story are mostly male) are capturing violent events and processes in Kashmir using their mobile phones. 

The example of Kashmir suggests that the prevalence of mobile phones leads to a situation on the ground that mainstream news agencies could not have imagined even a few years ago. The BBC’s story ends by noting that the Kashmiri conflict has become fully digitalised. War today, as Estonia and Georgia demonstrate, is more than the destruction of bricks and mortar structures or military gains on the geo-physical battlefield. It’s also conducted online – either through outright cyberwar – or a more long drawn out propaganda war on the web. 

Kashmir’s mobile phone totting citizens are the new producers of this propaganda. Bearing witness to the violence of the every day, which is so normalised that it doesn’t even register on the radar of international wire agencies (what bleeds daily does not lead!), the content created by youth and young adults with mobile phone is as the story suggests capturing history in the making.

Of the hundreds of videos on YouTube, I am positive that one won’t get any context, a sense of history or impartiality. That’s still the realm of professional journalism and the more committed citizen journalist. What one does get are snapshots of a polity and society mired in conflict, where ordinary people, with no training whatsoever in journalism, are capturing vital moments, people, events, places and processes that define their lives and in doing so, are collectively producing an oral and visual history.

“This is a new trend in Kashmir. There are a lot of young people moving around the city with such mobile phone recordings,” says Amjad Mir of Sen TV, a local news and current affairs channel. In the restive Batamaloo area in Srinagar, a 29-year-old man, who owns a small mobile phone shop in the city, says he goes out every other day with his phone in search of “interesting footage”. This is the first time ordinary people like us are coming out with our phones and shooting. This is the only way we can show to the world what is happening here,” says the young man, who prefers to be unnamed.

This is bearing witness and what I have for the past two years worked hard to engender in Sri Lanka, where once again, information on the on-going war is limited to the bias of either the government or the LTTE. No one today knows what citizens in Vavuniya, less than 8 hours by road from Colombo, are going through because NGOs and INGOs still have not fully leveraged digital media in general and mobile phones in particular to raise awareness of the human rights and humanitarian conditions on the ground. 

There’s another dimension to this story. Telcos and big business, wherever they are and invest in, want political stability and ROI guarantees. The socio-political architecture that animates both is largely immaterial. This often leads to a resistence of telcos to support, or be seen to be supportive of efforts to augment democratic governance and human rights using their networks, devices, bandwidth and technology. The result of this is that telcos are often more conservative and closed than most repressive regimes. 

Yet, Kashmir is an interesting case where authorities didn’t ban mobile phone usage despite fears they aided attacks by armed militants, unlike in Sri Lanka where all major telcos routinely follow the overt and covert edicts of the Ministry of Defence to restrict and ban mobile phone usage. As a result, Kashmiris may already have more content on its conflict produced that Sri Lankans have produced on theirs, esp. from the front-lines of violence. This content is invaluable in any peace process or process of reconciliation as they capture aspects of violence that could possibly, if unaddressed, sow the seeds of future violence. 

In general, its damn exciting to see mobile phone based journalism kicking off in South Asia. There’s even now a word for these mobile phone totting citizens – camjos

Long may they live and capture!

ASEAN Ministers call for greater civ-mil coordination and information sharing in disasters but not for interoperability

The Chairman’s statement at the recently concluded 41st ASEAN Ministers Meeting notes quite strongly the need for greater civilian – military cooperation and information sharing in disaster preparedness and response. 

“The Ministers called for in greater civil-military coordination for major, multinational disaster responses through training, information sharing, and multinational exercises. They recognised that military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses.”

This is a timely and vital emphasis and complements processes such as the International Process for Crisis Management by the ICT4Peace Foundation that is facilitating a greater degree of information sharing and interoperability between and within agencies at the United Nations. 

Interestingly however, there is just one mention of “collaboration” in the statement and it’s not in relation to disasters or crisis management. It unsurprising to find the emphasis on coordination – which means that a single actor (most often a State) takes the responsibility for managing and preparing for disasters.

Collaboration involves relinquishing authority and inter alia, access to territory to international actors incl. foreign militaries and humanitarian agencies. Collaboration means access to infrastructure – physical and virtual – that shares information that agencies and States may be (at first) unwilling to disclose openly. Collaboration means grappling with agencies that come in and once embedded in the humanitarian effort, take the opportunity to critique the ability of State machinery to respond to the disaster, which opens up the regime to international scrutiny. Collaboration means that actors recognise that no one actor / agency / stakeholder has the power or ability in complex disasters to address all the needs of affected communities over the short, medium and long term.

Yet this understanding of collaboration versus coordination is fraught with very real political consequences. And ASEAN, being a ministerial level junket, is hugely conservative and Statist. Tellingly in this respect, although points 16 and 17 in the Chairman’s statement deal with Myanmar, there isn’t a word of condemnation for the junta’s monumental botch-up of the Cyclone Nargis relief efforts.

Since many countries in ASEAN are fixated with the exclusive understanding of and approach to territorial integrity, sovereignty and national security, it’s revealing that Point 9 states that:

In undertaking disaster relief cooperation, the Ministers agreed that several basic principles should continue to apply. These included the principle that the affected country has the primary responsibility to respond to the humanitarian needs of its people following natural disasters occurring within its territory in a prompt and effective manner; where needed, the affected country should facilitate humanitarian assistance from other countries and international organizations to achieve the overall objective of coordinated, timely and effective disaster management and relief based on identified needs; and that external assistance should be provided in response to a request from the affected country, and the disaster relief efforts should be under its overall coordination. 

While all this sounds great in principle, what this also means is that Myanmar’s brutal junta can do just as it pleases in response to another disaster, given that the mechanics of coordination lie with the State and that all external assistance is at its behest. 

On the other hand, the the UN’s R2P principles are also fraught with difficulties, as I’ve noted before on this blog in relation to a case like post-Nargis Myanmar.

What could help bridge these differences that are very real, impacts work on the ground and not just semantic?

Interoperability.

A word that does not feature in the statement. Information sharing cannot and will not work without interoperable systems and information sharing architectures.

To read more and just why interoperability is centre and forward in crisis information management as well as disaster prevention, mitigation and response, read the ICT4Peace Foundation report on a roundtable discussion held recently in Mumbai.