Risk Management & Ethics in Conflict Mapping


Editor’s note: Dr. Matthew Levinger is a guest author and as such his views do not necessarily reflect the institutional or personal views of TechChange or its staff. His course is not directly associated with TechChange in any way and is being offered in as part of the US Institute of Peace training  academy.

The advance of information and communication technologies over the past decade has been so astonishingly rapid that it is easy to lose track of the historic dimensions of this transformation.  Google Maps and Google Earth were both launched in 2005, just six years ago, and the Google search engine itself is just 14 years old. Today, there are more than 5 billion active cell phones around the world–an average of nearly one for every human being on the planet.

Two years ago this month, the first International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) was held at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Next month, the third ICCM will convene in Geneva, Switzerland, as the annual gathering of a volunteer network with 2,900 members from 137 countries.

As GIS and other place-based technologies continue their exponential rate of advance, the need for sustained dialogue between the producers and the consumers of data from volunteer GIS-based and other participatory mapping projects becomes ever more urgent.  The producers of this data are predominantly experts in information and communication technologies, whereas the consumers of the data include international humanitarian responders, officials from governments and international organizations, members of advocacy groups, and residents of communities afflicted by natural disasters or political crises.  Miscommunication and cultural disconnects can easily arise among these diverse stakeholder groups, with negative effects on the outcomes of participatory mapping projects.

Collaborative efforts to map humanitarian and political crises pose both logistical and ethical challenges.  From a logistical standpoint,  participatory mapping projects have often had limited impact in supporting more effective crisis response efforts—in part because of insufficient coordination between the technical specialists who have organized and led mapping initiatives and the end users of the data who are charged with responding to these crises. A recent UN Foundation report entitled Disaster Relief 2.0 points out shortcomings in the crisis mapping efforts launched after the Haiti earthquake: “The international humanitarian system was not tooled to handle these two new information fire hoses—one from the disaster-affected community and one from a mobilized swarm of global volunteers.”

From an ethical standpoint, such mapping projects pose a number of thorny questions, for example:

  • Are the producers or recipients of data from these projects exposed to security risks or other potential adverse consequences, including threats to privacy?
  • What negative effects may result from false or distorted reporting?  For example, after the Haiti earthquake, many reports of victims trapped inside collapsed buildings were posted by people seeking help for digging out the corpses of family members who had been buried in the rubble.
  • Does the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for crisis mapping create unwarranted expectations that there will be a timely response to reports by people in need?  Some observers have suggested that creating an Ushahidi platform for a disaster zone is akin to establishing a 911 telephone line without giving the dispatchers any emergency response capability.
  • What are the ethical implications of creating universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources?
  • In the context of violent conflicts and other political crises, how can parties to the conflict be prevented from using crowd-sourcing platforms to spread disinformation or incite violence, e.g. by exaggerating the number of victims or falsely accusing their opponents of war crimes or mass atrocities?

These ethical and logistical questions need to be effectively addressed as part of an operational plan prior to an intervention.  While getting the hard data is important, we also have to remember that our goal is providing aid and support to the people affected by conflict.

Matthew Levinger is a senior program officer in the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he teaches professional education programs on conflict analysis, conflict prevention, and participatory conflict mapping.  He has worked previously as founding director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and as a senior intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of State.  A historian by training, he spent 14 years teaching Modern European History at Stanford University and Lewis & Clark College before moving to Washington, D.C.

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  • anahiayalaiacucci

    Dear Mr. Levinger, I wrote my answers to your blog post on my blog: http://crisismapper.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/answ

  • techchange

    Many thanks for your blog post response. Please know that TechChange as an organization doesn't necessarily support the views expressed by authors that publish on our blog – we're invested in critical dialogue and learning and our aim is to post lots of content from lots of sources that incites dialogue. In fact we agree with many of your points and assertions, otherwise we wouldn't be doing the work we're doing. So please don't assume that we agree with the views expressed by authors. We are also working closely with a number of your Ushahidi colleagues who have practical on-the ground experience to conduct our trainings and design our curriculum and we'd love to add you to the team as someone who is a fantastic thinker and do-er in this space. Thanks, TechChange

  • Pingback: Answer to Matthew Levinger and TechChange | Diary of a Crisis Mapper

  • Laura Madison

    All of these below are excellent questions, that in fact cannot be asked enough by anyone who is so curious as to venture to do so. In fact i am wondering if the author Dr. Levinger would be interested in contacting me for a follow up discussion with a crisismapper volunteer (previously geo-coordinator with SBTF) to delve deeper into these essential questions? Please consider this as an friendly & open invitation @ org9 :D

    L Madison

    * Are the producers or recipients of data from these projects exposed to security risks or other potential adverse consequences, including threats to privacy?

    * What negative effects may result from false or distorted reporting? For example, after the Haiti earthquake, many reports of victims trapped inside collapsed buildings were posted by people seeking help for digging out the corpses of family members who had been buried in the rubble.

    * Does the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for crisis mapping create unwarranted expectations that there will be a timely response to reports by people in need? Some observers have suggested that creating an Ushahidi platform for a disaster zone is akin to establishing a 911 telephone line without giving the dispatchers any emergency response capability.

    * What are the ethical implications of creating universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources?

    * In the context of violent conflicts and other political crises, how can parties to the conflict be prevented from using crowd-sourcing platforms to spread disinformation or incite violence, e.g. by exaggerating the number of victims or falsely accusing their opponents of war crimes or mass atrocities?

    • Matt Levinger

      Laura,

      I would be delighted to talk with you about these issues. Could you please send me an email at mattlevinger@gmail.com, so that I know where to reach you?

      • joseph owuondo

        Matt, i am also going to write you. I am from Kenya and developing a system for election monitoring based on FrontlineSMS and Crowd sourcing. Ii is true, Laura, that the information gathered and community involvement in information collection creates higher expectation of the community side. still, with all information withouteffective feedback, in cases of conflicts, are more fetal. In our strategy, we hope to build partnership with service providers, humanitarian organizations and even government departments to effect response.
        Matt, hope you can help us explore further. Bus as we do this is wish to write to you not about this but your Academy. Meeting you in your inbox.

  • ralphstanton

    Are the producers or recipients of data from these projects exposed to security risks or other potential adverse consequences, including threats to privacy? Probably less than others.

    What negative effects may result from false or distorted reporting? When disasters strike, the overwhelming response into the domain of the crisis (called convergence behavior) always results in a divergence (split) between intended and unintended consequences (e.g. uncertainty) and emergent phenomena (e.g. new structures, interstitial groups, etc.). The disaster is experienced culturally, and negative effects are linked to resilience, as well as dispositions of complex health factors (e.g. cognitive and semiotic, emotional and social, environmental and physical). Thus, someone may be traumatized by an incident in a virtual environment (e.g. images on social media), but they may recover from it emotionally and physically once they have cognitively discussed the situation in a social environment.

    Does the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for crisis mapping create unwarranted expectations that there will be a timely response to reports by people in need? This is a straw dog argument; especially the syllogism with 911. Hazard maps (before disaster strikes) should be compared with crisis maps (after incident) if first response or preparedness programs are to be improved upon. Mitigation programs (before and after disaster recovery) should be analyzed as well to study risk. Without an assessment of a specific geography, the resources of one place compared to another will be apples and oranges, even if a disaster is analogous to fruit.

    What are the ethical implications of creating universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources? This is where life gets interesting, for on one hand we want civil liberties, yet many forget the importance of transnational security. Transportation of goods and services, whether it is digital or physical, is a form of migration in urban landscapes. Urbanization requires civil liberties, and a landscape requires individual roles linked to education, experience, and improvisation to deal with uncertainty as organizations respond to crisis, yet there are transnational violations of security in just about every society. While some societies use surveillance to punish everyone, others use surveillance to target individual activity. Without question, the surveillance works, but privacy must be balanced with transparency, or witchhunts will emerge. This requires more dialogue associated with the last question.

    In the context of violent conflicts and other political crises, how can parties to the conflict be prevented from using crowd-sourcing platforms to spread disinformation or incite violence, e.g. by exaggerating the number of victims or falsely accusing their opponents of war crimes or mass atrocities? This is why war is surreal, and ugly, not good or bad. To answer this question, we must look at superheroes and roadmaps, and how both are built by legends, signs, and symbols which will survive like a palimpsest.