Learning From Syria
Over the past few months we have had the pleasure to be engaged in what may be one of the most impactful and important technology projects to come out of the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. In partnership with our friends at Caerus, a Washington-based strategy consultancy which focuses on fragile and conflict states, we have had the opportunity to generate high-fidelity insights from within Aleppo on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. We have seen the rise of the radicalized Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they assumed control of the city’s eastern cusp to wild fluctuations in the price and availability of staple food items. No longer is the human tragedy a fuzzy buzz of punditry; the picture can be and increasingly is a clear one.
This is not just a story about Syria, however. It is a story about how technology can bend to the realities of war. And how with those advancements, episodic journalism can give way to sustained insights that can be used to enhance and measure efforts by the humanitarian community to take action in support of our common humanity.
Insights in Conflict-Affected Areas
Research in a conflict-affected context is always a challenge, especially where mapping is concerned. Increasingly, humanitarian organizations and research shops have adopted one of the over two dozen different Android- or iPhone-enabled mobile data collection tools for capturing data. And in many contexts, this approach makes perfect sense. Going mobile means instant digitization. It’s clean. It’s straightforward.
The problem is that it can also be dangerous. Trotting around with a mobile phone to collect data can make you a target, especially where persistent data collection may be concerned. The sequence that it forces on the user (one question after another) belies the more conversational approach often employed by trained researchers in these areas. This is why we used paper. Fold it up, move about, and the methods are simple and flexible.
The challenges don’t end once data has been collected, though. Traditional methods for producing findings tend toward static tomes: 80-to-90-page reports accessible only to the few privileged with the time to navigate them. By the time that dynamics in a community shift, its findings run cold. By providing Caerus the ability to interact with the data at both the analyst level through a detailed Map Explorer and at the automated dashboard level, we enabled the data to come alive through interaction. We believe this is the future of conflict monitoring.
The challenge emerges, however: what to make visible… what to share.
Open Data vs. Do No Harm
We believe in the virtues of open data: that data itself can serve as infrastructure for not only a vast array of public goods like healthcare and public safety, but also as a mechanism for catalyzing private growth in industry. Like other public goods, data can drive value well beyond the intended purposes of its original collectors. Our friends at the World Bank have increasingly led the way in showing this for international development, as UNOCHA has shown its merit in humanitarian response.
But the principles underlying open data have their limits in conflict-affected areas, where the contest of information can—and often does—emerge more frequently to support actions that may have a deleterious effect on citizens’ safety or well being. Perhaps obvious to say, data in war can be a dangerous thing.
This introduces a second principle which, we believe, trumps the first: the humanitarian principle of do no harm. Data can always be used for good or ill. One could say the same for really any public good, whether roads or the internet. But amidst an active conflict, the stakes become all the more serious, and the weighted balance for greater good appears differently.
As we have learned from our work, however, the Syrian regime has systematically targeted citizens standing in line at bakeries to buy bread for their families. Providing the locations of each bakery and its status across the city of Aleppo to any party without due care around its use would simply be reckless and may put the lives of innocent civilians at considerably higher risk. This would flatly violate the very essence of “do no harm”.
We struggle with this challenge, balancing between the imperative to do no harm and the virtues of transparency and openness. We are not alone in this struggle. One the eve of International Open Data Day, we have made the determination—in partnership with our software’s users at Caerus—to make available the data, moderating its distribution solely to align with best efforts to do no harm. Collectively, we have chosen not to apply restrictive, proprietary standards to this initiative in the belief that transparently providing not only the findings from this work but also the underlying data on which it relies to anyone wishing to use it is in alignment with these principles to do no harm. We believe that this is the most prudent way of balancing the competing principles.
But if nothing else comes out of our experience, it surely must be that more work is need to establish clear, understood, and shared humanitarian guidelines for supporting the open data movement even amidst an active conflict.
From Analysis to Participant
One severe limitation of our work in Syria, however, is that it ends at the water’s edge. First Mile Geo and the power of connecting local insights to cloud analytics need not be used purely to support the work of seasoned researchers like those at Caerus. Rather, the power of First Mile Geo is the ability to connect local insights to local action.
Early indications from Aleppo point to the use of geospatial and other forms of data visualizations by local civil society and the ad hoc governance structures that have emerged to provide services in opposition areas. As local councils and other civil society ventures appear, the international community has an opportunity to support a commensurate effort to help them become data-driven. When local organizations begin benefitting from the data they are capable of generating beyond its use for donors and others outside the country, it provides the opportunity not only for them to optimize scarce resources smartly but to form a longitudinal baseline crucial for benchmarking and prioritization by its partners. Filling this very gap of Software as a Service in the first mile is why First Mile Geo was formed.
Have a look at our project on Syria for more.