Mobile crowdfunding for the unbanked

Last week I was in Khartoum, delivering a training course that was part of SUDIA‘s National Youth Democracy Leadership Program. The training brought together 24 young activists from across Sudan, exposing them to new methods, tools, and ways of thinking. They were an inspiring group, you can get a glimpse of their energy here. Whenever I work with activists in Sudan, I am amazed at their creativity and resilience in the face of a tough, unforgiving environment for civic participation. Of the many stories I heard this past week, there’s one I am particularly intrigued by: it’s the story of how you run a crowdfunding campaign without a credit card.

The Statue of Liberty

Thanks to Rodrigo Davies who first told me about it, I always explain crowdfunding by telling the story of the pedestal of the State of Liberty. This was a great entry point in Sudan too, many of the activists at the training have collected micro-donations for their projects in some way, mostly through membership fees or by organizing a performance / event. From there, it’s easy to understand how the mechanics of crowdfunding build on traditions of community micro-donations, and capitalise on online communications to give rewards and recognition, and to build a community around a project.

So with that basic understanding, I told them about Indiegogo, Kickstarter and other similar platforms. They were interested, but the platforms are of limited use to them. Sudan is subject to economic sanctions from the United States that make it impossible for Sudanese banks to interact with international payment systems. Credit cards don’t work in Sudan. You can only access PayPal via a VPN. Some Sudanese banks issue debit ATM cards, but they are still quite rare and wouldn’t work for online payments anyway. Besides, the vast majority of Sudanese don’t have a bank account at all.

We still talked about how they could use crowdfunding platforms to gather funds from people outside Sudan – diaspora or foreigners with a connection to Sudan – as long as someone could receive funds in a foreign bank account and then bring them to Sudan. I showed them three successful campaigns that have done this (here, here and here). There can be some legal difficulties, but it works. Other than that, I told them, there is no way to run a civic crowdfunding campaign in Sudan.

But there is another way: phone credit.

Sharia AlHawadith

Over the course of several conversations, I learned that Sudanese civic activists regularly use phone credit to gather micro-donations. How they do this, and why it resembles online crowdfunding platforms so much, is best illustrated through a group that is using this process very successfully.

Sharia AlHawadith (Emergency Street) is the popular name for the street in Khartoum outside the Gaafar Ibnauf Children’s Specialised Hospital, the leading referral hospital for children’s health issues in Sudan. Over the past decade, the Sudanese government has been cutting back funding to the public healthcare system. The Ibnauf Hospital is one of many that has been seriously affected by these cuts. Although many consultations are still free, thousands of families with limited income now have to find ways to pay for basic tests and medicine to treat their children. In response to this situation, a group of young people (who call themselves Sharia AlHawadith) began to organize support for families in need.

The basic mechanics of their support for treatment go like this. Sharia AlHawadith volunteers sit on the street outside the hospital. A family comes by and requests a specific treatment they need (proven with the note from the doctor). The volunteers take their details and post them on a dedicated Facebook page, together with a phone number that people can send phone credit to. Once they have enough credit, the volunteers go to a local mobile kiosk and exchange credit for cash at a small fee. They then accompany the family to pay for the needed tests (to make sure the money is spent on the stated purpose). They often post the final outcome (test funded, child receiving treatment) as a comment to the original Facebook post. Contributors will sometimes also post comments of support.

So there you have it: specific ask, limited timeline, public recognition (though no rewards as such), community building – a crowdfunding campaign.

(On top of crowdfunding for treatment, Sharia AlHawadith also post requests for blood donations when there is a shortage following an emergency or accident. If you want to learn more about their remarkable work, AlJazeera has written about them.)

Mobile crowdfunding for the unbanked

Other civic groups in Sudan are also using Facebook pages and phone credit to raise funds, and this is becoming increasingly common. I haven’t done the research to back this up, but I’m going to guess this is not just a Sudan phenomenon. True, Sudan is an extreme case because of sanctions, but there are plenty of other countries where large parts of the population (not just low income, also middle income) do not have access to credit cards. Leveraging phone credit to raise funds makes a lot of sense – and it’s part of the mobile money revolution that is giving access, opportunities and power to people who have been left out of banking systems. (For more on this topic, take a look at GSMA’s blog on mobile solutions for the unbanked.)

So if micro-donations using phone credit are happening already, what’s the point in giving this process a name that originates in a different context? I think what intrigues me is how much the mechanics of the process resemble the structured campaigns of online crowdfunding platforms. It makes me wonder whether a platform for mobile crowdfunding could support the work of activists in places like Sudan. The platform could mirror the components that make up an online crowdfunding platform – pitch, rewards, donation tracking, updates to donors / the community – but with SMS / IM functionality that allow for no-internet or low-bandwidth interactions. Payments would happen via phone credit and would be automatically tracked in the platform.

If anyone has heard about a platform like this that already exists, I’d love to hear about it.


Digital activism and the strategic use of new media in Sudan

This week, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published an ebook – Global Dimensions of Digital Activism – that is also the start of a project to examine and understand why and how activists campaigning for social change make use of digital tools. The book and project are led by Ethan Zuckerman and Lorrie LeJeune, the director and assistant director of the Centre, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing a chapter on digital activism in Sudan. Other case studies in the first release include in Russia, the Opposition Coordinating Committee in Russia and Light Up Nigeria.

Another book on digital activism? Here’s why you should read this one.

There’s no dearth of books and articles about digital activism – whether arguing the revolutionary power of digital tools or on the contrary attempting to demonstrate that digital activism is weak and inefficient. What I appreciate most about this project (and why I think you should read the book!) is that it goes beyond an artificially polar debate of cyber-utopians versus cyber-pessimists. The book engages with the complex reasons that lead activists to engage with digital tools, explores the risks they consider taking and tries to track the evolution of strategies and tactics over time. By putting the experience of digital activists around the world (not just in Taksim and Tahrir) at the forefront, the book provides a richer, deeper understanding of how digital activism plays out in social change movements. Ethan does a great job of explaining this approach in the introduction (and he also puts out a call for activists / supporters who are interested in writing additional case studies).

I initially had many reservations about writing a piece on Sudan. I’m not Sudanese, not an activist in the social movements I describe. My knowledge and access are the product of personal contact, professional interest and what technical support I could provide my friends. It was only through the kind persuasion of my friend Rodrigo Davies, and later Ethan and Lorrie that I agreed to write a piece. They suggested that telling the story of a place that is not often written about and where activists themselves have a limited ability to report was important. Their intuition was later confirmed by the people I interviewed (some anonymously), and by the reactions once it was published.

Sudanese activists: want a user guide not a research piece? Go to

So I’m glad to have told this story, and it’s a great way for an external audience to see into Sudan in a new way (it’s not all Darfur, oil and Muslim-Christian fighting, you see). But its use to Sudanese activists looking to use digital tools is limited, for two reasons. First, the chapter is in English and we currently do not plan on translating it to Arabic (although it is published under a Creative Commons license, so feel free). Second, the chapter provides an interesting retrospective look at what digital tools have and have not worked in Sudan social change actions, but it does not provide guidance or best practices tailored for Sudanese activists.

If you are looking for a more practical resource tailored to Sudan, make sure to visit

Sawtna_logo-EN_250px.fw_This online platform designed by and for Sudanese civil society activists explores strategies for using ICTs and social media for advocacy, campaigning, mobilization, dissemination of information, crowdsourcing and more. It combines information from global best practices and useful adaptations for the Sudanese context. And it is available in Arabic and English!

Re-thinking conflict early warning: participatory polling in the Somali Region

[This post is part of a series on re-thinking conflict early warning.]

Sometimes our perceptions of what people in post-conflict societies think or worry about are way off the mark. As policy makers and program designers, we may attribute a general view to a population, imagine an intent or assume a lack of interest. Very often, these perceptions are based on a common narrative put out by more vocal parts of society or on conditions that were true but have changed. Hardly ever are they based on evidence, much less recent evidence. How could they be? Depending on the context, it can be dangerous to ask about certain sensitive topics, logistically complicated to canvass the views of a population, or simply beyond the technical capacities of many peacebuilding groups.

In many situations, polling can provide better information than an early warning system. It can lead to evidence-based interventions that address the real concerns of people and that can be targeted to particular groups whose concerns are different. In contexts where there is sufficient digital data exhaust, it may be possible to undertake “passive polling”. But where people don’t Tweet or Google, that’s not really an option. Besides, this kind of passive data mining misses the opportunity of using the poll as a way to start a dialogue and change public perceptions.

This potential for evidence-based decisions coupled with an opportunity to change the conflict dynamic through dialogue is why Interpeace has become interested in participatory polling. For more on the general methodology of participatory polling, check out this briefing. In this post, I’m focusing on a particular application still in its pilot phase. It’s of interest to me because it combines a robust polling for peace methodology with innovative uses of technology. And it does all that in an unlikely setting: the Somali Region. With the support of Interpeace, three local research organizations – the Academy for Peace and Development (APD), the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) and the Puntland Development Research Center (PDRC) – will be piloting their first polls in March and April of 2014. Since this is a pilot, the polls do not follow the participatory polling methodology strictly, but they have been designed to include strong participatory elements (co-design of questionnaires, feedback on analysis, etc) as well as some deliberative elements. They are also making use of new technologies to make their data collection, processing and analysis more efficient.

Polling and technology workshop in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Polling and technology workshop in Hargeisa (February 2014)

The primary platform that all three organizations are using is First Mile GEO. First Mile GEO provides the teams with tools to develop a paper survey, which then needs to be entered manually on the platform. Having a digital platform that is optimized for low bandwidth environments and collecting data on paper was key for these teams. Some of the teams are also testing whether they can combine paper surveys with digital surveys. Some PDRC enumerators will be using Magpi to collect data on smartphones or tablets. HIPS will be using FrontlineSMS to receive coded text messages from some enumerators. In both instances, data received will be exported to a spreadsheet by the system administrator, formatted to fit the First Mile GEO requirements and then imported into the platform.

Once data is entered, First Mile GEO automatically produces a series of map and graph visualizations of the data, providing the team’s analysts with an intuitive tool to explore patterns. The analysts can create standard “dashboards” (curated collections of maps and graphs) for sharing with partners and with the public. Most importantly, the platform is very intuitive, making its adoption by the teams straightforward. It’s exciting to see their data come to life. They can already see the potential for expanding their evidence base and combining it with other sources in the future.

Testing First Mile GEO in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Testing First Mile GEO in Hargeisa (February 2014)

As well as doing a poll with a traditional sampling methodology, APD and PDRC also wanted to experiment with crowdsourcing on a sub-set of questions from their poll. If it works out, crowdsourcing on some questions can be a faster way to get a reaction, real-time testing of the current pulse of an issue they are doing more in-depth analysis of through the full poll. First Mile GEO doesn’t offer a simple solution for crowdsourcing, that’s not what it has been built for. Instead, the teams will be using the Elva platform. The platform offers the teams solutions for both SMS and online crowdsourcing. As with Ushahidi, an online form with poll questions can be easily created in the administrator dashboard. What makes Elva special is its SMS function – the online questionnaire is turned into a step-by-step SMS questionnaire. All the teams have to do is advertise a phone number (we’re hoping for a shortcode from the local telecoms) on various media. Members of the public interested in participating in the poll can then text the number, and the system will automatically begin a question-response over SMS with them, delivering each question in the poll as one SMS. In case that’s not impressive enough, people can reply a number of different things (defined by the administrator) that the system will recognize. For example, for “What is your gender?”, the administrator can stipulate that “M”, “male”, “man” and “boy” will all be recognized to mean “male”. Responses arriving in the platform are automatically mapped onto pre-designed choropleth maps (heatmaps), and a series of pre-designed graphs automatically produced. The platform also has a neat timeline function that shows changes in responses over time.

Testing the Elva platform in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Testing the Elva platform in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Elva takes a lot of the manual work out of SMS crowdsourcing. Of course, whether or not crowdsourcing will work depends mostly on how the crowd will react to media adverts soliciting their participation in a poll. APD and PDRC are not sure how this will work out, but they are certainly keen to try it and use their extensive local relationships to promote it. (Incidentally, Elva also has a great function that would allow for enumerators to collect survey data via SMS, but this works better for shorter surveys than the ones the teams are working with. You can read about how this function has been used in Georgia here.)

Beyond what this pilot results in, using First Mile GEO and Elva has catalyzed thinking among the partners and Interpeace about how to better collect and visualize data, and how the use of technology can inform and improve their work. What’s really exciting about working on a tech-enabled project with Interpeace is that you know they’re in it for the long run. In the Somali Region, Interpeace has been working with many of the same organizations for decades, really investing in their capacity and developing a strong partnership. This is not a quick gimmick to please a donor, it’s part of a grounded strategy that incorporates global excellence in peacebuilding and local knowledge of the region and its conflicts.

New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict (paper summary)

UNDP, USAID and the International Peace Institute recently published a report on uses of technology for the prevention of violence and conflict, exploring global trends and drawing from examples in Kenya, Latin America, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and South Sudan. The full paper is available here, below is a summary of highlights from my reading. It’s not an attempt to summarize the full contents, only the points that stood out. (Also, full disclosure! I wrote the chapter on Sudan and South Sudan.)

Drawing by Emanuel Letouze (

Drawing by Emanuel Letouze (

In summary…

This report explores the ways in which ICTs and the data they generate can assist international actors, governments, and civil society organizations to more effectively prevent violence and conflict.

The report opens with a set of recommendations that emerge from the exploration in its later chapters. One overarching theme is the need to remain practical: examine all tools (rather than get carried away by fads), consider the context (rather than accept pre-made solutions from the outside), and integrate technology into existing initiatives and partnerships (rather than create technology-centred projects). There is also an important  emphasis on considering conflict sensitivity and privacy. There aren’t that many tools available to practitioners looking to act on such considerations, but it’s well worth taking a look at this recent paper. The summary also includes a recommendation that special attention should be given to encouraging horizontal information flows. It’s a welcome statement, but I wonder whether in practice implementers are willing to give up that much control.

Introduction (Francesco Mancini)

How can new information and communication technologies (ICTs) aid international actors, governments, and civil society organizations to strengthen their voice and action in order to more effectively prevent violent conflict?

Francesco introduces the question that all case studies are organized around. He points to two over-arching issues that I find particularly useful in thinking about this top. One is the warning-response gap: a reminder that we may collect a lot of data, but it’s the actions with regards to this data that will prevent conflict. The second is the distinction between operational conflict prevention (immediate, affecting direct causes) and  structural prevention (longer term, concerned with underlying causes).

Big Data for Conflict Prevention (Emmanuel Letouze, Patrick Meier, and Patrick Vinck)

As a field of practice in the making, what we term here “Big Data for conflict prevention” is best characterized by its potential rather than by its track record.

This first chapter is a thoughtful  exercise in providing a framework to think about big data and conflict prevention, defining terms and setting the scene. The authors explore several taxonomies of big data. One important point they draw out is that big data refers to traces of human actions picked up by digital devices. They distinguish these traces from data that may be more or less exogenous to human actions (prices, climate), but is not a direct digital expression of human actions.

Drawing by Emanuel Letouze (

Drawing by Emanuel Letouze (

The authors make two concrete suggestions for uses of big data in conflict prevention that, though largely speculative at this stage, are compelling. One is the use of data to understand population movement, mainly through CDRs (if that means nothing to you, check this out). In situations where migration patterns or group movements are known to affect conflict dynamics, such data provided in real-time could be very valuable to operational conflict prevention activities. Second, big data can help understand sentiment in a population by providing a source of perceptions data. UN Global Pulse has piloted a project to analyse perceptions expressed on Twitter in Indonesia. Their implementing partner, CrimsonHexagon, did something similar in Egypt too. There are some concerns about data bias in countries with low Twitter use; they are  noted with respect to Egypt here. Perceptions data can also be analysed manually, as was recently done in Kenya in relation to hate speech prior to the elections.

The authors also quote six “provocation” for big data that are interesting:

1. Automating Research Changes the Definition of Knowledge
2. Claims to Objectivity and Accuracy are Misleading
3. Bigger Data are Not Always Better Data
4. Not All Data Are Equivalent
5. Just Because it is Accessible Doesn’t Make itEthical
6. Limited Access to Big Data Creates New Digital Divides
(Source: Boyd, Danah and Crawford, Kate, Six Provocations for Big Data)

Quoting Alex de Waal, the authors also remind us that technology cannot replace politics. Difficult decisions will continue to have to be made; big data can’t give us the answers because the answers are fundamentally political. Linked to this reminder, they hone in on a possible unintended consequence:

There is a real risk that Big Data may undo years of efforts to try and use technology to put affected community at the center of conflict prevention, on both the demand and supply sides.

In other words, as practitioners we should be wary of facilitating a situation where people can say that “the data tells us” anything definitive about conflict. Data may tell us that conflict is likely to happen, but will shed much less light on why it will happen.

Violence Prevention in Latin America (Robert Muggah and Gustavo Diniz)

Given the sheer scale and demographics of Latin America’s digital natives, it is hardly surprising that they are among the world’s most active users of social media. Indeed, six Latin American countries are included in the top ten most actively spending time in web-based social networks.

This chapter begins with a review of research on the negative uses of technology in Latin America. One example (in Spanish) describes how community organizing to share information on safe areas in Monterey was infiltrated by gangs. This paper uses social media trends and in particular Twitter hashtags to examine the drug war in Mexico.

The examples of ICT use in Government and civil society focus on tools for data collection and sharing. In their framing discussion, they make a clear distinction between these data gathering tools and data analysis ICTs, and pose an important general question (that they unfortunately don’t have the space to answer here):

As more and more data exists online—referred to in some circles as “digital exhaust”—there are emerging questions about what types of ICTs will prevail. Put another way, will horizontal approaches be in a position to analyze data at scale, or will only centralized organizations using vertical approaches and sitting on large regularized datasets be in a position to meaningfully engage with it?

The government initiatives examined focus on data gathering platforms. Most are modeled after NYPD’s COMPSTAT, and are a combination of data centralization through a powerful, well-structured database, with the ability to view data summaries in graphs and on maps. Discussion of the use of technology for dissemination is limited to how  social media is used (e.g. in Mexico via @PGJECoahuila).

The section on community initiatives is more interesting, covering uses of technology to report crime and to shift the discourse on crime. The authors give two examples of bounded crowdsourcing to report crime. Unidos Pela Seguranca is a pilot initiative in Brazil that collects information from reporters via an online form, maps it publicly and provides verified information to the police. An initiative of Citivox to track electoral violence sounds like an effective early warning – early response system, but not enough background is provided and there is no further information available online.

Even more interesting are community initiatives to shift the discourse on crime. The simplest ones describe the importance of internet media in providing alternative journalism on crime, such as El blog del narco or Notinfomex. Others go further and actively promote messages of peace, like Nuestra Aparente Rendicion, which even includes a peace map.

Two of the examples provided, however, may be misleading. The paper mentions WikiNarco, but neither nor the wikia link provided seem likely to be the site referred to by the authors. The WikiNarco twitter handle has had no activity since September 2011. The authors also report that the Tehuan platform run by Center for Citizen Integration is an example of crowdsourcing violence data. However, the platform appears to be used mainly for citizen reporting on governance and local priorities (most reports on the platform are about traffic and public services, only a handful about public safety).

Early Warning in Kenya (Godfrey M. Musila)

The Kenya example is interesting because technology has been introduced to a well-structured, existing conflict prevention body: the National Steering Committee for Peace Building and Conflict Management (NSC).

The NSC has divided the country into three clusters—urban, rural, and pastoral—reflecting the broad categories of conflict areas and types of conflict. Each of these clusters has different conflict dynamics and indicators. Conflict-early-warning information is collected in each of the clusters by peace monitors and members of District Peace and Development Committees who report directly to the NSC. Each of the forty-seven counties in Kenya is manned by at least one peace monitor.

The author describes two ICT efforts linked to the NSC. The Uwiano Platform was originally set up to monitor violence in hotspots during the run-up to the 2010 referendum on the constitution. The platform received SMS and internet reports from the crowd. Based on analysis of these reports, District Peace and Development Committees could request funds from a rapid-response mechanism to take action at the local level. As a result of its succes, the platform continues to operate after 2010 in the same areas. Kenya’s National Conflict Early Warning and Early Response System also receives crowdsourced information via a web-report (Amani 108 online reporter) and an SMS shortcode (108). The system integrates these reports with field reports from District Peace and Development Committees, and publishes a map of all reports. The author offers no assessment of the success of this initiative.

The assessment of CEWARN’s ICT4Peace initiative is interesting, and points largely to a disappointing attempt at introducing radios (the wrong technology) to an already overly complicated reporting process (via the CEWARN Reporter, a network software program used by CEWARN country coordinators to enter and store the standardized field reports submitted to them by CEWARN field monitors). The author reports that CEWARN currently holds ten years worth of data that has not been analyzed.

ICTs in Kyrgyzstan (Anna Matveeva)

The punch-line at the end of this chapter is well worth the read:

There is no evidence that ICT expedited the response to the June 2010 conflict by the government or the international community. However, mobile phones and interaction on popular websites played a role on the community level in fostering group action toward fight or flight.

To arrive at this conclusion, the author starts by looking at negative uses of technology during conflict events in Kyrgyzstan in 2010:

A common view in Kyrgyzstan is that mobile technology worsened the situation in the June clashes. This is because oral transmission of information through cell phones is susceptible to distortion and can be easily put to negative use.

This common view is only partially correct, since most villages affected were outside the mobile network. Nonetheless, mobiles were used to convey threats, organize violent acts and spread negative propaganda. Online discussion forums and YouTube videos tended to polarize the debate. But not all was negative. Neutral information sources became the early warners: the Ferghana website was trusted by people from both communities, who read its updates and spread messages through mobile phones on crowd movements and on which neighborhoods were under attack.

The role of social media in the run up to the power change in April 2010 is also informative:

The young men who rallied in the streets of Talas and Bishkek did not do so because of Internet postings. Rather, it was witnesses like journalists, students, and NGO representatives posting their impressions in real time on the web who created the effect of a general politicization.

This comment about the difference between offline and online actors is important, and provides a key to understanding the impact of technology that is valid for other contexts (certainly for Sudan). It also leads to this general point:

ICTs need to be considered not in isolation but in how they relate to conventional, face-to-face social interaction: they magnify the messages already in public domain.

The author then discusses an early warning systems using SMS in 2011 run by the Foundation for Tolerance International, suggesting it largely failed due to barriers to accessing SMS. Similarly, UNDP’s electoral violence system (also using SMS reporting) was not very effective, receiving few reports on violations of the Electoral Code of Conduct (most messages were voting-related inquiries). The system worked better during the 2012 local elections, when it was used only by NGO partners to report on specific issues. ACTED also produces a map of potential points of conflict in the Ferghana Valley. (The author couldn’t make it work; I had no problem with it – it’s powered by ArcGIS and not dissimilar to the CRMA initiative in the next case study.)

Keeping in mind her earlier appraisal of how ICTs should be understood in a conflict context, the author makes the following comment about the Foundation for Tolerance, UNDP and ACTED initiatives:

The ICT projects did not pay sufficient attention to the way ICTs and other communication flows were already playing out in the local context during crises.

Based on this assessment, she makes three recommendations that I think are of particular interest. First, we should focus on understanding the fight or flight patterns generated by ICT during an active conflict, and intervening accordingly to mitigate negative effects. Second, it is more effective to integrate conflict prevention initatives in the mainstream websites already used by people, rather than creating new websites. Finally, we should acknowledge that with certain technology will only reach elites – and that in some situations, reaching elites may be a legitimate tactic for conflict prevention.

Sudan and South Sudan (I wrote this one!)

I cover three initiatives that used technology for conflict prevention in Sudan and South Sudan in this chapter. I’ve blogged about two of them before: the Sudan Vote Monitor here and SUDIA’s Community Communications System here and here. My friend Margunn and I both talked about the third project, the Crisis and Recovery Mapping and Analysis, here and here.

There are some obvious shortcomings to these three initiatives. Access to ICTs in Sudan and South Sudan is limited. Government buy-in is difficult to maintain – in fact, since the case study was published, SUDIA has been asked by the authorities to stop this particular activity. Writing this paper reminded me again that the potential of ICT for conflict prevention will be determined mostly by these two issues.

The one take-away point from the analysis of these initiatives that I hadn’t formulated in my mind before is a distinction regarding the use of crowdsourced data. I see little or no evidence that the collection of crowdsourced data for early warning is likely to enable faster  and more effective responses to drivers of larger conflicts. However, crowdsourced data can and does help governments and communities better respond to ongoing, low-level, localized disputes, and avoid their escalation. The distinction here is on two aspects: the timing of the response (crowdsourced data helps understand patterns after the initial peak, not prior to it) and the scale of the response (crowdsourced data works best closer to local contexts).

ICT 4 War

“We can never prevent war or speak sensibly of peace and disarmament unless we enter this love of war.” (A Terrible Love of WarJames Hillman)

To make peace, first understand war. A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Alex DeWaal at Khartoum University. DeWaal was speaking about rebel groups and armed movements in the Sahel, describing how the dynamics that determine the ability of these groups to control large areas is crucially linked to the revenues they are able to command through smuggling cigarettes, cocaine and people. (I am vastly simplifying his discussion for expedience, and ignoring for example his explanation of the ability of a Government to retain legitimacy through the provision of services, and thus also through the collection of taxes or extraction of natural resources to fund such services. For more details on his research, check out this blog.) As he was explaining this smuggling trade, DeWaal mentioned that the ability of local armed leaders to make deals had vastly improved since satellite phones and mobile phones had become widely available. The point stuck in my mind because it opens the door to thinking of how ICT is changing war at the grassroots.

ICT for peace, ICT for war. There are a number of excellent development programs that help African farmers negotiate better deals to market by giving them access to information on prices via SMS. It’s about empowerment at the community level. ICT can change dynamics of power by giving access to information and a voice to many more people. Is it such a stretch to think that similar dynamics are at play when it comes to the organization of war? What individual acts enabled by technology can shape how we experience war?

When first approaching this topic, it’s tempting to think about how ICT is changing the dynamics of intelligence gathering. This paper, also criticized here, argues that NATO planners could have used the Libya Crisis Map as tactical military intelligence. More broadly, the paper suggests that crisismaps can be used as effectively by armies and armed groups as by peaceful protesters and relief workers. This paper, also summarized here, explains how terrorists during the 2008 Mumbai attacks used twitter, live TV and internet searches to improve their situational awareness and help make tactical decisions. The paper explains that remote handlers in Pakistan with access to the internet and live TV were in contact with terrorist commandos in Mumbai via satellite phone to deliver such information.

This may sound alarming at first, and put you off ever tweeting or crisismapping again. That would be an over-reaction – as Patrick Meier explains, censoring crisismaps because they may help the ‘wrong’ people would be akin to banning travel guides for the situational awareness they provide. That is not to say that a careful consideration of conflict sensitivity in crisismapping or social media use is not important. The groups I have worked with in Sudan, Iraq and Libya are acutely aware of these dynamics, and make do no harm calculations continuously. I have written about conflict sensitive crisismapping before, and consider it an important subject, but intelligence gathering is only one part of the story.


To stop at the conflict sensitive considerations of intelligence gathering is to miss the more complex dynamics that are at play in ICT for war. Technology has changed and continues to change the way we communicate, and that in turn is changing the way we wage wars. War propaganda is an old art that has used spoken and written rhetoric, posters and songs, TV and cinema. Social media is being adopted by war propagandists too: most armies in developed countries have a strong social media presence. In the 2011 Gaza War, the Israeli Defence Forces used their official twitter feed to declare war and send intimidatory messages to Hamas. Again, it’s easy to go down an alarmist route: what can be done by an army can be done by a rebel armed group. Could Twitter, Facebook and Ushahidi be used to intimidate and spread rumours by tech-savvy armies and militias? It’s very possible, and not dissimilar to how newspapers, radio and TV have been coopted in the past by non-state armed groups. So is this new technology really going to change war?

The critical difference with previous communications technologies is that new ICTs make it much easier for users to generate, organize and propagate their own content. It is this grassroots access, which DeWaal’s talk hinted at, that may change war dynamics. I would like to better understand not so much how armies use new ICTs, but how soldiers, rebels and war-affected civilians use them. During the 2011 Gaza War, IDF soldiers Instagramed pictures of themselves ready to go to war. Speaking to a Burmese friend recently, she explained that rebels in Northern Myanmar will often use anonymous Facebook profiles to post information or messages supportive of their cause. In Mumbai after the 2008 terrorist attacks, false rumours about blood banks spread across Twitter. Soldiers in the DRC and Syria can’t stop checking their phones. I have no evidence to back it up, but surely the advent of mobile and satellite phones has changed not only smuggling patterns across the Sahel, but more broadly power dynamics between armed leaders, affecting hierarchies and personal incentives.


If we are serious about finding ways for ICT to promote peace, then we must get better acquainted with this new ICT of war at the individual level. To understand war, we must understand the individual’s role in war. Tolstoy in the postscript to War and Peace writes: “Why did millions of people begin to kill one another? Who told them to do it? It would seem that it was clear to each of them that this could not benefit any of them, but would be worse for them all. Why did they do it?” And so, to get to the heart of ICT for war we should look not at how organizations can leverage new technologies, but at how individuals use them.

Hillman again, unwittingly echoing John Paul Lederach’s theory of conflict transformation through moral imagination: “No syndrome can be truly dislodged from its cursed condition unless we first move imagination into its heart.” Are we able to imagine how ICT is used in war by individuals? And if we can, can we turn these same tactics to the advantage of peace? Another theorist of war, Barbara Ehrenreich, offers an interesting perspective: we have to understand how it is that war takes on a life of its own, becomes a self-replicating pattern of behavior. Borrowing from Richard Dawkins, Ehrenreich suggests war may be a “meme”, a cultural entity whose interests (like a gene’s) are only its own perpetuation. Meme is also what we call the catchy messages that spread over internet and mobile phone social networks.

I have more questions than I have answers, but that’s always a start. If we can unpack ICT-enabled memes of war, can we counter-act with ICT-enabled memes of peace? That is a peacebuilding tactic I would like to delve deeper into, articulate and discuss with other peace activists and peacebuilding practitoners.

Peace Attack Cyprus

Here’s a dream job: support the conceptualization and visualization of a digital hub for civil society practitioners working to promote peace and social cohesion. Now make it better: the project has the support of a very dynamic office (UNDP Cyprus), contributions and leadership from a flexible and experienced network of practitioners (Peace it Together), and I get to collaborate with an inspirational colleague and great friend (Michaela Ledesma). That’s what the past week has been about, and it’s been awesome.

A bit of background: UNDP Cyprus and Peace it Together share a vision of how Cypriot civil society can contribute to peace on the island and in the region. This vision is grounded in decades of experience in mediation, reconciliation and social cohesion work between the two main communities on the island – Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots – which have been divided for over 40 years. The Peace it Together network partners  (and their supporters: UNDP and USAID) understand that their efforts are not only important for Cyprus, but can also make a significant contribution to advancing peacebuilding practice in the region. The Cypriot context, largely absent of violence and with strong civil society capacities, provides an ideal incubator for innovative approaches to programming. The network hosted the Power of One conference last October, with the dual aim of sharing best practices from Cyprus and establishing collaborations with organizations doing similar work in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Nicosia buffer zone

Buffer zone in Nicosia.

The conference was a great success, but the momentum of one-off events is hard to sustain. That’s where the digital hub comes in. UNDP and Peace it Together want to create a digital headquarters for civil society to share and build on their experience. “A digital hub for civil society practitioners working to promote peace and social cohesion”? Huh? Yeah, we’re still figuring out exactly what that means. I can tell you what it’s definitely not: a static repository of best practices and resources. The Peace it Together and UNDP teams are serious about innovation, and we spent the past week reviewing a broad range of technology tools, platforms and use cases. We drew inspiration from OpenIdeo for collaborative project formulation, Duolingo for gamified language learning, “The Team” for social cohesion messaging, Soliya for integrating digital communications and mediation, the Peace Factory for linking online and offline campaigning, Gapminder for awesome data visualization, Ushahidi for crowdsourced mapping, SlaveryFootprint for digital awareness raising, Ning for online networking and Fitocracy… well, mainly because the robot is cute.

Screen Shot 2013-01-12 at 9.23.35 PM

This inspiration resulted in some very energetic brainstorming to narrow down and begin to define the elements that will make up the digital hub. (And yes, we also need a name, coming soon!) We’re not done designing, but so far we have sketched out five key elements:

  1. The hub will be structured around a historical repository of Cypriot experience in reconciliation and social cohesion programming, tagged by type of contribution, and (probably) visualized as a river with different colored streams. Organizations accessing the hub will be able to review past experience and also to add their own, keeping the stream alive through moderated crowdsourcing.
  2. A networking and collaboration space for civil society organizations that will include a roster of experts and (perhaps) a toolkit for online project formulation and collaboration.
  3. Data and visualization (most likely an interactive map) of the SCORE Index to provide objective measures of social cohesion and reconciliation,
  4. An online survey-game, a peace app for the general public to measure their contribution to reconciliation and social cohesion.
  5. A space for interactive peacebuilding products, which will initially host seven products developed by Cypriot civil society, including a children’s online game to promote the idea of a unified Nicosia, a game to learn Turkish and Greek through recognizing common words and an interactive webinar on inter-communal collaboration.

These elements are brought together by two guiding principles. First, the notion (based on Reflecting on Peace Practice) that peacebuilding should both engage key people already active in the peacebuilding space and reach out to the general public in order to bring more people into a discourse of peace. In the hub, key people will be engaged through the use of tags that will weave together all the different elements: past experience, experts on the roster, project collaborations and interactive products will all carry a tag related to what type of contribution they make to social cohesion and reconciliation. These tags will help experienced key people navigate directly to the area of practice they are interested in. The hub will use games to draw in more people, with the peace app as the main hook. Once a user completes the app survey and gets a picture of their personal contribution to peace, the app will make personalized recommendations of other interactive products that might be of interest.

The second guiding principle (based on methodology developed by MIT) is the idea that identifying critical moments can help a community of practice understand how change happens.  The hub brings together diverse historical sources of quantitative and qualitative data, and will aim to continue to gather data on social cohesion in near-real time. All the quantitative data components of the hub have strong visualization components that will allow users to interact directly with the data. The qualitative data will not be presented in traditional reports, but rather in multi-media format that will incorporate (moderated) personal contributions. But visualization tools and creative media only go part way to making sense of this vast resource of past and present information. They need weaving together into one (or several) stories, and the hub will do this by identifying the critical moments that these individual experiences contributed to, and which together tell the overall story of changes in social cohesion.

This may all be sounding very theoretical… but it makes sense. Even before we draw any prototypes or build any components, there is an overall theory of change that is emerging. It goes something like this: there are different dimensions of action that have contributed to the story of social cohesion and reconciliation in Cyprus. In the hub, these dimensions all come together: the “streams” in the historical repository match the indicator buckets of the SCORE index that in turn match the personal contributions to peace measured by the peace app. The interactive products, the experts in the roster and the projects organizations collaborate on are linked to these dimensions too. Together, all contribute to critical moments that result in change, working towards greater reconciliation and social cohesion.

This overall story goes much beyond Cyprus, and makes clear the potential for this hub to catalyze innovation for peacebuilding in the region. It’s a big vision, and one that both Peace it Together and UNDP should be proud to be championing. And it has technology at its core. What I personally find most exciting about this venture is that we are starting to define a theory of change for the technology of peacebuilding and social cohesion. If you have any thoughts on this (or any ideas for the hub!), please feel free to add a comment to this post.

Low tech adaptations for a community communications system

For the past month, I’ve been in Sudan working to set up the information flows and tech that will support SUDIA’s Community Communications System. From the tech and information management perspective, SUDIA’s System is interesting because it adapts to a low tech environment by integrating SMS and radio, and processing information largely offline. The System collects and disseminates information useful to communities that live along the migratory routes in Blue Nile State. It focuses on information that communities themselves can use to make their livelihoods more sustainable and more peaceful. In other words, the System is not aimed at organizations (Government or non-Government) that can use information to provide services or design interventions. Rather, it is aimed at communities helping themselves, and provides information that is useful to community leaders in organizing local community responses to livelihood challenges.

Integrating SMS, Radio and Outreach

The System will use a combination of crowdseeding and crowdsourcing, receiving reports from four sources: SMS from the public, SMS from selected trusted reporters, call-ins to a bi-weekly community radio program and feedback from monthly outreach meetings run by the SUDIA team. All reports coming in will be tagged by source, location, date, topic, and verification status. There are 20 topics in the System, grouped under four broad categories: livelihoods, herding / farming, disagreements, and peace. Verification of reports will follow a standard protocol whereby a report is verified if the following conditions are met: (i) report from a trusted source is supported by two or more reports from any source; or (ii) a report from a public source (SMS, radio call-in or outreach meeting) is supported by four or more reports from two or more different sources.

Everyone who sends an SMS to the System will receive in return three weekly SMS summarizing important information on livelihoods, herding / farming and peace. Every two weeks, the Blue Nile Community Radio will broadcast a one-hour program about issues related to migration. The program will be based on a bi-weekly summary prepared by the SUDIA team using information from the System. The radio broadcast will invite listeners to call in and comment on the summary. SUDIA’s Media Monitoring team will listen to these calls and record relevant information that will then be input to the System. SUDIA’s trusted reporters in each community will organize radio listening groups, which will not only encourage call-ins, but also provide a forum for discussion of community responses to challenges identified in the radio program.

Every month, the SUDIA Outreach Team will visit two of the communities participating in the System. During this visit, they will present a summary monthly report to a focus group, and then facilitate a discussion on possible community responses to emerging livelihood and conflict challenges. The meeting will also provide an opportunity for the community to give feedback on reports (verifying or denying information) and on how the System can be made more useful for them.

Offline and low bandwidth data processing

The System uses Frontline SMS to receive messages from community members and send summary messages to community members. Messages are sent to a dedicated modem using a standard Sudanese SIM card, which is connected to a laptop running Frontline SMS. We initially explored using an Ushahidi deployment (connected to Frontline SMS) to process the messages, run some basic analysis and publish them to an online map. However, the team was concerned about depending on an online platform, given the irregular and low bandwidth internet they work with.

Instead, we went for a solution that combines processing messages offline and uploading them in one go to an online map. Messages received in Frontline SMS are exported as a CSV file. In Excel, messages are manually processed, adding verification status and topic. Only one report per story is recorded, all information from additional reports on the same story is used to confirm or deny the original report. Information collected from the community radio program and from monthly outreach meetings is manually added to the same Excel spreadsheet.

Adding location for each story is a semi-automated process. People sending messages to the System are taught to format their SMS so that it reads “[location]# [message]”. This allows us to split the messages quickly in Excel. The location column is linked with a look-up function to a spreadsheet containing GPS coordinates for over 800 villages in Blue Nile State (more than any of the online mapping platforms offer). In our test runs, we have found this system picks up most of the locations automatically.

The SUDIA team will process reports in this way every two weeks, adding them to a master spreadsheet, which is then used to produce graphs and sorted tables for summaries. The spreadsheet is also imported to a public, online map. The map is run on the open source platform that powers Google Crisis Maps, which was recently released. This mapping platform is a useful tool for anyone wanting to display mapped data online while operating in a low bandwidth environment. The platform allows you to create map layers from different sources (KML, GeoRSS, Fusion Tables, Tiles, etc). In SUDIA’s System, the master spreadsheet is uploaded to a Google Fusion Table, and then added as a layer to the map. With the table properly formatted, this process requires one upload and one easy step on the mapping platform. This means that we can minimize the amount of time the SUDIA team spend waiting for a website to refresh or save changes. Working offline and then uploading sporadically fits our purposes better than a system that is fully online.

The Google Crisis Map platform also has some neat features. Viewers looking at the map can click on individual reports to view a pop-up window with details. They can also click to view the entire data set in the Fusion Table, and use filters to explore the data further. Adding background layers (rivers, roads, land cover, boundaries, etc) is very straightforward. So is creating customized layers that show only a subset of reports (water shortages reported in the past two weeks, peace agreements signed in the past month, etc).

With that, the information flow and tech are ready! Over the coming months, the SUDIA team will roll out a pilot of this Community Communications System, and (inshallah) contribute to community-based sustainable solutions to livelihoods challenges and peace along the nomadic routes in Blue Nile State.