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Data, conflict, disaster…and democracy?

March 5, 2012

This weekend I attended an extraordinary workshop, “Data-Driven Conflict,” featuring digerati from organizations like Ushahidi, Associated Press, Global Voices, Citizen Lab, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the SecDev Group, and others, as well as a smattering of faculty and graduate students from the UBC School of Journalism and the Liu Institute. We met in the Liu Institute “Caseroom”, whose circular, tiered levels give it the feel of miniature UN General Assembly crossed with mission control from Dr. Strangelove. There we explored the intersection of big data, real-time conflict and disaster analysis, new forms of information, and the interactions between disruptive technologies and ‘legacy’ institutions like the United Nations, foreign ministries, and mainstream journalism outlets. The workshop was kicked off on Friday by an intellectually-rich talk by Ron Deibert on big data, big consumer desire, big states, and big security, later followed by a dinner talk by former CBC and Al-Jazeera news head Tony Burman.

Today, my brain hurts from the mash of hopeful and dystopic visions of the future described. Not the future, exactly, because it’s happening now in various trials. As William Gibson famously put it, ‘The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

Compared to most academic conferences, the workshop was refreshingly action-oriented: How do we better link real-time digital maps of disasters with responder organizations? How do we amplify low-intensity signals of future crises – like disease epidemics or food shortages – so they pop out above background noise and enable earlier detection and action? How do we figure out how accurately voices in cyber-space represent people in “meat-space” (formerly known as ‘real life’), especially during dynamic and unstable situations like protests and conflicts? How do we get longstanding institutions to adopt new applications of big data and open communication, given the culture and skill sets of their employees. In short: How do we get stuff done?

While there was much talk of the uses and abuses of big data, there was little discussion of the normative implications.** As someone who studies democratic theory and global governance, it’s clear that the technologies and practices we discussed will have huge consequences for the future of democratic citizenship. I’m going to sketch out a couple ideas along those lines now, which I might further develop at a later date. I’ll organize these thoughts by referencing three issues or tensions for democratic citizenship: citizenship as institutional vs. agentive, citizenship as national vs. transnational, and citizens’ data as private vs. public.

Being citizens or practicing citizenship: democracy beyond institutions?

Crisis Map of Haiti

Patrick Meier of Ushahidi told us the powerful story of the crisis mapping response to the Haiti earthquake. With a hastily-assembled volunteer team in Boston, assisted by colleagues around the world, Patrick had a real-time, granular map of disaster-hit areas in Haiti up and running within hours. The map pinpointed with where people were and what assistance they needed, based on information coming from cell phone SMS, radio, email, the web, Facebook, and other feeds. Because much of the information was in creole, the project drew on members of the Haitian diaspora to help with translation. That map helped to save hundreds of lives. The director of FEMA in the US called the Crisis Map of Haiti the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community, better than those produced by agencies like the ICRC or the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Meier’s story spoke to dynamic technological and social solution to a problem, which allowed a flexible network of skilled individuals to do what large and highly-resources bureaucracies couldn’t. But it was also a story about civic action, or democracy in practice. Individuals acted out of solidarity rather than profit, pleasure, or institutional obligation. They didn’t vote or protest or litigate, asking others to make decisions on their own behalf. They worked together to get stuff done for the good of others. And the experience, from what I have heard, was incredibly positive. For those who have read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, subject of a previous post, all of this will sound very familiar. She describes how disasters provoke individuals to work together in ways that are not only effective and life-saving but also profoundly positive—it is the kind of engaged, meaningful citizenship that many crave but rarely experience.

James Tully has called this civic citizenship, which he contrasts to the institutional- or status-based kinds of citizenship that have come to dominate our understanding of democracy. Civic citizenship is born from the practices we use to engage other people in the pursuit of civic goods. It is not limited to the rights of individuals to be free from government interference in our speech, property, consciences, etc., or the ability to elect our governors. Civic citizenship can be seen at work in co-ops, consumer boycotts, non-violent movements, and so on.

But there is a tension between the kinds of things we can do as active citizens helping others in a voluntary fashion, and the kinds of things that huge bureaucracies and complex legal systems can achieve. For that reason, we frequently want to bring the ethos of active citizenship into big institutions, along with new ideas and practices. Many of the participants in our workshop talked about the frustration of doing so, whether at the United Nations or the Canadian government or big media organizations. We did, however, hear examples of big institutions supporting and paying attention to civic action taken by crisis mappers and others. That’s good news.

For those interested in joining this online civic action, take a look at the Standby Volunteer Task Force — a distributed network of people waiting to lend others a hand in crisis mapping when disaster strikes.

Global Citizenship or Re-territorializing Cyber-space?         

Crisis mappers in Boston helping people in Haiti also illustrates the possible transnationality of online networks. In addition to democratic civic action across borders, big data users and online networks can also promote basic liberal rights. For instance, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have been monitoring and documenting violations in Syria, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere. Media outlets like Global Voices, Al-Jazeera, Associated Press, and others seek to create a global public sphere in which individual voices are valued and broadcast for the validity of their perspectives, not only for their status as citizens of particular countries. Global Voices in particular shows this divorce from the conventional ‘foreign correspondent model’ in which stories from outside a state’s borders are brought to citizens ‘back home’ for their use and amusement.

Ron Deibert told a different story of the gap between territory and cyber-space. During the brief conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Georgian government and military sites came under distributed denial-of-service attacks. To avoid being incapacitated, the Georgian government mirrored some of their sites on servers inside the United States, including a company in Atlanta. These American servers became the target of attacks. It was eventually discovered that many of the botnet attacks came from compromised computers in the US. In other words, one flank of the Russia-Georgia conflict involved American computers attacking other American computers!  Bye bye, Westphalian order.

But Deibert and several workshop participants suggest that future cyber-space may be very much more territorialized—or, more accurately, that states with significant resources will clamp down on internet liberty. The know-how to do so is quickly developing. Deibert and others spoke of the massive migration of talent and technology from military and intelligence services to other government departments and private industry. The pressure to do so comes from corporations, from non-liberal governments that want to restrict information and association (including China and Iran), but also from liberal states seeking to securitize the Internet. Indeed, the move to securitize the internet is consistent with a classic aim of liberal states—to guarantee the security of the private lives and private property of their citizens. In North American we’ve seen two recent pieces of legislation that show this pairing. Both Bill-C30 in Canada and SOPA in the US are intended by simultaneously protect us from criminals (including child pornographers and foreign thieves) and protect the intellectual property of corporations. Both bills were hammered by defenders of freedom in cyber-space. This is clearly a debate that will occupy democratic citizens for years to come.

Data and citizenship

Various workshop contributors referred to private and public data, but we didn’t get into the complex area of data ‘ownership’. Our personal control over the data we produce is continually decreasing, both because we produce more and more and because so many powerful entities are bribing and tricking us into surrendering it (including Facebook, Google, police and intelligence, telecoms, hackers, criminals, etc.).

This debate goes far beyond the issue of privacy or personal control of data. In addition to rewards of faster searches and more targeted ads, there are other reasons why we might want our data to be public or available to institutions. We might want a thick description of our socio-economic conditions in the hands of government to design better policies (this was one argument against the Conservative government’s termination of the “long form census”, which decreased the reliability and extensiveness of data produced by Statistics Canada). More to the point of our workshop, people in humanitarian crises might very much want their data made ‘public.’ Getting their location and health status to a humanitarian organization quickly might mean the difference between life and death, as it did for many after the Haiti earthquake. And people under attack by state or rebel forces, or oppressed by government security apparatus, may indeed want such data made public—particularly if it contributes to decisions taken by international actors.

In addition to the question who can access our data, we might also think about which people or institutions have the capability to interpret and mobilize it. During the workshop we heard repeated stories of the incredible resources that military and intelligence services have devoted to the acquisition and analysis of public data (in addition to their ability to access our ‘private’ data). Similarly, private companies like Facebook and Verizon not only “own” data, but have tremendous resources to make it work for them. The workshop participants gave inspiring examples of how more public institutions can use big data, from NPR journalists foregrounding and fact-checking claims on social media during the Arab Spring to crisis mappers helping locate those in need of aid. But most citizens or even citizen associations don’t have the skills and resources to do so.

Here, I would suggest, universities have a huge role to play in democratizing big data. At their best, universities bring together resources of talent and funding at a long-lasting institution, together with (one hopes) a public ethos. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab seems a great example of this.

Those are my quick thoughts for now. Thanks again to Mike Ananny and Taylor Owen for organizing this stimulating event and inviting me to participate.

** Footnote:  Normative considerations they weren’t totally absent from Saturday’s workshop. First, there was a background nod to ‘humanitarianism,’ with its ethos of impartiality and the need to just ‘save lives.’ Second, there was talk of Castell’s power and counter-power framework. That helps us understand relations in networks, but it is more social theory than normative evaluation. After all, Occupy, al Qaeda, and the maker movement are all counter-powers. Third, distinctions were often made between elite and non-elite voices in mainstream and social media. These terms have long been used to describe news sourcing (the tendency of journalists to collect information from political, economic, and cultural elites); it too is associated with Marxian or Gramscian ideas of status quo and revolutionary classes. But again, this is more social theory than normative evaluation. If some of the workshop participants elaborated on normative issues in their papers, my apologies for not including their input–I received the papers Saturday and haven’t given them a good read.

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