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.
A report by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative showed that while Kenyan blogs did well at reporting on rising tensions and the mainstream media featured clashes where people died, Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, had the widest geographical coverage of reports that included eye-witness accounts of rock-throwing and protesters being dispersed by tear gas.
This same technology, now updated and expanded, has since been used to provide ground-level reports from conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gaza.
Of course, the idea of crowd-sourcing a conflict might seem obvious to bloggers and other citizen journalists but it is taking some getting used to among folks who earn their living by analyzing and predicting conflicts for governments, humanitarian organizations and others.
Traditionally, groups that have tried to provide early warnings about potential conflicts and danger zones have focused their attention on governments and the international community, reasoning that they alone have the power and resources to avert tragedy. That approach assumes, however, that the only barrier to government action is credible information. It is hard enough to stop a war between two countries. If the fighting is within one country’s own borders, however, there are basically no alternatives if that country’s government is not persuaded to take appropriate measures. Or if the government is actually encouraging violence.
Once the warnings fail and violence breaks out, it is the disaster management and humanitarian relief communities that are often left to respond to a crisis. Over the past couple of years, a few disaster relief experts have done a bit of soul-searching about whether the information they develop in a crisis mostly flows back to headquarters or can be used more broadly by the refugees and other displaced people they are trying to serve.
That has led to more conversations between disaster relief organizations and those who try to provide early warning of conflicts about who the appropriate audience should be — governments or the populace or both?
“It’s really only recently over the past year or two that discourse has started to shift,” says Patrick Meier, a doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, who also blogs about crisis-mapping at iRevolution. “It’s a more diffuse and decentralized approach that obviously brings up new challenges.”
Crisis-mapping may have greater potential in preventing conflicts rather than in figuring out how to navigate them safely. In some of the latest endeavors, local communities in eastern Africa are drawing up maps that show where local resources are concentrated.
“You can actually see fault lines on the maps they draw — where the potential for conflict is greatest,” Meier says. A common crisis fault line features a few scarce watering holes near the border of a traditional trading area. One response, based on what the map shows, might be to beef up conflict-mediation programs in that area.
Of course, the people of northern Sri Lanka did not need a map to figure out they were in the middle of a terrible fire-fight. They did not consult cell phones or crisis-maps when several tens of thousands decided to flee the quickly shrinking rebel areas across a lagoon to government-controlled land during the last desperate days of fighting.
“In most cases, people decided for themselves to come out after they realized that the LTTE could not hold the areas,” Hemantha Bandara of the Colombo-based Foundation for Co-Existence wrote in an e-mail. They literally took their lives into their own hands.
More GlobalPost dispatches about health:
Fighting malaria: The bug wars
Turning worthy causes into real jobs
Meningitis plagues Africa, but now there's hope