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.

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.

Automation vs. control

The title assumes that automation is about giving up, to whatever degree, control of a process. That’s a key tension in many of the systems I design for peacebuilding. Users like to know they are in charge of what’s happening, but complex processes are impossible to manage without some degree of automation, even if at the end of the day nothing really significant happens without human approval. 

One example – InfoShare’s OneText system on Groove Virtual Office. All the underlying asynchronous and secure communications architecture which made sure everyone’s files and data were up to date was completely automatic. On the other hand, users didn’t want the programme to access their personal folders on their PCs and automatically ferret documents and directories to share with other stakeholders. They wanted control over what was shared.

I felt the same way today when a few months after I switched to Leopard, I enabled Time Machine. I’ve been happy with the free and very easy to use iBackup to date, but I must admit that I’m careless about keeping my machine on at the anointed time for the scheduled backup to work. As I write this, Time Machine is silently and completely automatically backing up every single vital file on my machine to my external hard drive. The degree of faith involved in this is significant – I don’t take optical backups (I have around 41Gb of data which just takes too much of time to burn) and I am mortified about the restoration process if (when!) something goes wrong. Time Machine will do this every hour, every day I keep my machine on and connected to the external hard drive. 

It was David Pogue’s recent column that finally swung my decision. Given that I’m entrusted 6 years worth of emails to it and some irreplaceable photos and music, this had better be everything that Pogue and Apple say it is!

I’m mindful that humanity is already losing more information than it is backing up or frighteningly, has the capacity to backup. I just hope I won’t be part of that statistic. 

Websites at Risk – Archiving information on human rights, governance and peace

Websites at risk

I created and launched Websites at risk yesterday as a simple yet effective means through which to archive information and knowledge produced on the web in Sri Lanka on human rights, peacebuilding and democratic governance.

This has been on my mind for a while ever since I was appalled to be told that the website of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) completely shut down, without any notice, once it left Sri Lanka in early 2008. Everything on it – all their situation reports, press releases, CFA violations statistics, briefings and special reports are lost, perhaps irrevocably.

It’s this kind of information loss that is anathema in a peace process and for a serious scholar and historian of peace process, borders on the catastrophic.

As I note on the new blog,

A litany of issues is to blame. These range from an incumbent regime that is viciously intolerant of alternative narratives and perspectives on war and peace to a disturbing lack of awareness of, emphasis on and interest in securing information and knowledge for posterity by NGOs and other content producers, including governmental processes and actors. There is also a significant lack of any sort of business continuity planning amongst NGO and civil society actors in Sri Lanka. Most never learn, even when disaster strikes once.

Having archives of this nature is also helpful for students and researchers, since once downloaded, the entire contents of a website are available to browse offline, without any need for an Internet connection.

Design considerations

  • I chose WordPress because is is easily and effectively scaleable, is extremely reliable and not hosted in Sri Lanka.
  • I also chose it because it is much harder to block this specific site. The case of India after the Mumbai train blasts for example suggests that Governments are not averse to blocking entire blog sites. Doing so however guarantees international headlines – so it is hard to brush it under the carpet.
  • The WordPress database itself is kept as small as possible for easy portability.
  • No graphics at all are used in the site.
  • The archives are standard ZIP files that open on any PC – Windows, Mac or Linux.
  • All the archives are hosted on www.box.net. I bought a year’s worth of storage for around US$ 70 and uploaded the archives there. Considerations that weighed in favour of box.net were ease of use, access, reliability, familiarity with the system, a good feature set and security at a relatively cheap cost. It also offers unlimited downloads for each file. Box.net also offers WordPress integration, which I haven’t leveraged at the moment.
  • The name chosen is also scaleable. Since the essential idea is a valuable one for other countries, the idea was that each country or region would use sitesatrisk and at the end plug in their name – e.g. sitesatriskuk, sitesatriskkosovo.

Please visit Websites at risk and pass the word around to colleagues who will I am sure find the information already archived on it useful for their research on issues central to peace and governance in Sri Lanka.

The pitfalls and future of social networking

An  article in The Economist highlights the pitfalls of social networking platforms and technologies today and their possible evolution in the future.

“We will look back to 2008 and think it archaic and quaint that we had to go to a destination like Facebook or LinkedIn to be social,” says Charlene Li at Forrester Research, a consultancy. Future social networks, she thinks, “will be like air. They will be anywhere and everywhere we need and want them to be.” No more logging on to Facebook just to see the “news feed” of updates from your friends; instead it will come straight to your e-mail inbox, RSS reader or instant messenger. No need to upload photos to Facebook to show them to friends, since those with privacy permissions in your electronic address book can automatically get them.

The problem with today’s social networks is that they are often closed to the outside web. The big networks have decided to be “open” toward independent programmers, to encourage them to write fun new software for them. But they are reluctant to become equally open towards their users, because the networks’ lofty valuations depend on maximising their page views—so they maintain a tight grip on their users’ information, to ensure that they keep coming back. As a result, avid internet users often maintain separate accounts on several social networks, instant-messaging services, photo-sharing and blogging sites, and usually cannot even send simple messages from one to the other. They must invite the same friends to each service separately. It is a drag.

Dataportability seems to be a key initiative in addressing the information silos of social networks as they stand today noted above. See their fascinating video here or from below.