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Can new technology prevent conflicts?

Crisis mapping programs aim to stop escalation of violence.

A Tamil girl is held by her mother near their temporary shelter at a refugee camp located on the outskirts of Vavuniya town in northern Sri Lanka May 9, 2009. The widespread use of cell phones encouraged humanitarians to map reports of violence and concentrations of refugees in the Sri Lankan conflict to help determine where to send supplies. (Stringer/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Information is power and no more so than in a time of war.

Just before its final push into rebel-held territory in May, the Sri Lankan military announced via radio — the only medium that was still working in the region — that citizens in the affected area should move to government-controlled sectors for their own safety. It also released notices by plane in a few areas.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) countered by saying that government security forces would likely kill anyone who fled and then the rebels reportedly shot fleeing civilians for good measure. Hundreds of thousands of people were trapped between the opposing forces and many died.

It is a story that is repeated over and over again in conflict zones and disaster areas. The professionals — whether they are soldiers or international relief experts — have all the information and power while civilians, the people who are most affected, typically do not have many options for deciding their own fate.

An unlikely group of academics, entrepreneurs and activists is trying to redress that imbalance by empowering communities to gather and analyze their own information not just to react to violence but, hopefully, to prevent it from breaking out in the first place.

Using open-source software, they are creating online maps that are updated in real-time with messages from mobile phones and computers. These maps can quickly reveal patterns in violence or provide an early warning of looming conflicts. So far, the results have mostly been more theoretical than practical. But the potential is significant enough that it is rapidly giving rise to a new field of endeavor called crisis-mapping.

Probably the best-known crisis-mapping endeavor is the Ushahidi platform, which was first put together in three days by a handful of Kenyan programmers as a response to that country's post-election violence in late 2007 and early 2008. Basically the programmers took reports of violence and other incidents from among those that were texted to them or sent via e-mail and after verifying them, pinpointed them on an online map. That way, anyone with access to the Internet could see where the hot spots were and how they developed with the passage of time.

As it happened, most people who were caught up in Kenya's election violence relied on their own observations, family networks and radio reports to determine which areas were safe and when it was time to leave. But even after the fact, Ushahidi provided valuable information about the patterns of the violence.