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Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass

Winter 2012 Features

Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass

Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical CompassThe recent global heroics of digital dissidents and witnesses betray a larger kink in their armour – a desperate need for standards and professionalism

In 2011, civilians using communication technologies to obtain information and to coordinate political action defined the year more than any other development in foreign affairs. Time magazine chose “The Protester” as its 2011 Person of the Year, noting how last year’s protest movements made use of Twitter hashtags and digital platforms in order to share imagery and map locations, and to spread their messages around the world.

Individuals using smartphones and social networks sparked and sustained the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement in North America, as well as the Russian Winter that gripped Moscow. Maps displaying near real-time data collected from the ‘crowd’ aided the response to a devastating earthquake in Japan. And DigitalGlobe’s commercial satellites monitored violence along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, allowing Harvard analysts as part of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) – funded by actor and activist George Clooney and the charity Not On Our Watch – to capture evidence of war crimes hours after alleged mass atrocities occurred. For example, SSP documented the razing of towns and villages and the bombardment of civilians in Sudan’s border areas of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state.

These new uses of crowd-sourced data, the rise of social networking, and the integration of geographic information systems with satellite imagery have not only transformed rapid responses to political unrest and natural disasters, but have in fact begun to fundamentally alter the very nature and arc of the emergencies themselves. And yet the continuing rise of crisis mapping – the rapid deployment of the aforementioned capabilities to identify and mitigate threats to vulnerable populations – as a global, transformational force began only a few years before the tumultuous events of 2011. Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced platform for placing reports received by text message and email on a map, was launched during the 2007-2008 election-related violence in Kenya. By fusing data from mobile phones, the Internet and digital maps in near real-time, Ushahidi aided both civilians in harm’s way and policymakers several time zones removed from the chaos as they attempted to make sense of events.

Crisis mapping also helped to inaugurate an era in which information communication technologies in the hands of both large crowds and small groups of experts are shaping and reshaping the world more quickly, kinetically and emphatically – one could argue – than nuclear weapons did during the Cold War. This is a cause for celebration and also concern. For the evolution of this digital toolbox – part crowd sourcing, part field reporting, part social media, part digital cartography, and part data mining – has to date outpaced the development of widely accepted doctrine for responsible use thereof. And crisis mappers, who already commonly use a set of digital platforms and tools, now urgently need a shared set of ethical and technical standards for how to use these safely and strategically. In other words, crisis mappers require an ethical compass.

As mentioned, the work that this sector does is vital – even groundbreaking – and will only grow to be more crucial. However, because of the remote places and exotic situations in which many crisis mappers operate, their work is consistently precarious and often dangerous. Crisis mappers are this era’s first responders, as it were, but they operate – it must be conceded – without the benefits of standardized training, technical benchmarks, field-tested equipment or peer-reviewed codes of ethics.

In particular, there is an urgent need to create shared mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation, guidelines for guaranteeing the safety of informants, and frameworks to hold practitioners responsible for adherence to ethical and technical standards that, to be sure, first need to be written. More than simply lacking a code of ethics or an accrediting body, no mediator has been designated to convene and organize the crisis mapping community – along with other key stakeholders – in order to build these standards and reach a reasonable degree of consensus.

Moreover, the field is at present more accountable to its private and public donors than to the communities of people that are directly affected by the data it enables and creates. Crisis mapping is no longer just about aggregating tweets from election observers and participants in political protests, or placing dots on a map to describe an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Japan. It is increasingly about going head-to-head with hostile intelligence and security services intent on obstructing, co-opting and distorting the data that crisis mappers gather. In these new, tense circumstances, the consequences of action, inaction and indecision all carry weight. When violent regimes assume that the world is watching, they do act differently – and crisis mappers must prepare for that reality.

As crisis mappers seek to report existing and emerging threats, they often risk inadvertently creating new perils for those whom they strive to help. As such, some of the pressing questions facing the field of crisis mapping that have yet to be answered in a generalizable way include: What information should be shown publicly, and when and how should it be shown? When should it not be shown? Do crisis mappers sometimes unintentionally provide bad actors with very useful intelligence? Are at-risk populations endangered by sharing information with crisis mapping initiatives and/or social media – even when this is done remotely and with the use of encryption? What happens to vulnerable civilians if crisis mapping data is wrong? What happens to them if the data is right? What responsibility does the crisis mapping community have to report and share mistakes transparently? If crisis mappers are the first to spot an emerging threat, then what is the most ethical and effective way to alert people on the ground who may be in imminent danger? How can sensitive data be kept more secure from hackers? When is the level of risk to vulnerable populations – or to the crisis mapper – too high to engage in crisis mapping? Who is ultimately accountable for measuring, evaluating and mitigating these risks? How can evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity best be documented and preserved for possible use in future domestic and international prosecutions?

Experience delivers answers to some of these questions, but crisis mappers are not the only ones learning from the events of 2011. As the ongoing unrest in Iran, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Syria and other theatres shows, repressive governments have not had to work hard in order to figure out where some of the most crucial open-source data comes from during a crisis. While organizers and crisis mappers adapt to overcome intentionally blacked-out phone systems, unsecured servers and disabled power grids, despots are adapting, too.

In Sudan, armed forces under surveillance by SSP try to hide by camouflaging, covering or concealing their vehicles soon after their position is revealed. In 2011, for example, helicopter gunships captured by DigitalGlobe satellites at a particular airbase in Sudan took off and were apparently moved elsewhere within three hours of one report’s release – and this on the same day that the Sudanese government twice denounced the project. Eyewitness accounts gathered by the Enough Project for SSP, combined with details in a UN report, led SSP to uncover the alleged concealment of a mass grave under a water tower – an apparent effort to escape remote and ground detection.

In Syria, protesters paid a brutal price when intelligence teams connected names to faces shown in video footage. In Egypt, social media accounts were traced, and Facebook’s anti-pseudonym policy came under fire as a security hazard. These tactics are hardly new – as any human rights advocate in Myanmar can confirm – but they have a clear chilling effect on those in the field and would-be allies from abroad. Mapping the locations of even the most innocuous human actors, such as the World Food Program distribution points or the clinics of Médecins Sans Frontières, can attract the violent attentions of armed actors. Crisis mappers learned that lesson well when Pakistan-based Taliban forces threatened to attack foreign aid workers responding to the 2010 floods and food crisis.

Indeed, the more crises are mapped, the more sophisticated armed actors will become at evading monitors and distorting crowd-sourced information. By way of response, there is only one recommended course of action: the field of crisis mapping must quickly and comprehensively develop widely accepted technical standards, professional ethics and centres of excellence for learning and evaluation. This must be done before people who are at risk suffer harm due to a dangerous mismanagement of data.

If, however, crisis mappers do not develop a set of best practices and shared ethical standards, they will not only lose the trust of the populations that they seek to serve and the policymakers that they seek to influence, but, as discussed below, they could unwittingly increase the number of civilians being hurt, arrested or even killed without knowing that they are in fact doing so.

In the field of humanitarian aid, the flawed response to Africa’s 1994 Great Lakes refugee crisis – spawned by the Rwandan genocide – provides a clear example of what can happen when a profession fails to mature in a proactive manner. The Rwandan genocide caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee Rwanda to neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Tanzania and Burundi. Among those who fled were thousands of Hutu soldiers and civilians who had perpetrated the genocide. The refugee camps – most notably the Goma camp in Zaire – became places where Hutu forces involved in the genocide were able to rearm and regroup, while being fed by the international aid community.

The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (JEEAR), which was undertaken by donor governments beginning in November 1994, was a watershed moment for the humanitarian community. The JEEAR found grievous failures in the technical standards, coordination and – most of all – ethical guidelines available to humanitarian actors responding to the crisis. It was out of one of the humanitarian community’s darkest chapters that the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, known as the Sphere standards, emerged.

The Sphere standards set forth what populations affected by disasters have a right to expect from humanitarian agencies in terms of protection, assistance and life with dignity, as well as universal minimum standards for water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion, food security and nutrition, shelter, settlement and non-food items, and also health services. The standards are widely available in multiple languages, and are broadly accepted by the humanitarian sector as a whole.

Crisis mapping must not wait for its ‘Goma moment’ to arrive before choosing to self-regulate. Given that crisis mapping is a realm in which NGOs, affected communities, individuals, academic institutions, governments, donors and corporations all play a role, an inclusive process is needed in order to first identify the stakeholders in this field. The crisis mapping community then needs to deliberate, adopt, translate and widely disseminate its own versions of the Humanitarian Charter and the Sphere standards, and it needs to encourage their practice by stakeholders.

The humanitarian aid agencies that responded to the Great Lakes crisis in the mid-1990s largely knew the identities of the other actors in their field. Yet many crisis mappers may not even know that the work that they do is considered crisis mapping. The field’s stakeholders can only be convened when there is an agreed and widely shared definition of crisis mapping and the crisis mapper. Only then can there be a start to the hard work of establishing which laws, treaties, rights and obligations should inform and bind the professional and volunteer crisis mappers.

When creating the Humanitarian Charter, the humanitarian aid personnel drew upon the aspirations of the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, codes of ethics regarding humanitarian impartiality, and other cornerstones of international humanitarian law in order to shape their efforts. In the case of crisis mapping, similar legal precedents and academic pedagogy do not yet exist. For example, it is yet to be formally determined whether vulnerable populations have an inalienable right to certain forms of information from NGOs, governments and corporations about threats to their lives and livelihoods. When Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, described the Internet as “an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights,” he emphasized its role in facilitating free speech. But the Internet is not only a place to organize people and project ideas – it is also the world’s portal for learning about threats to human security. Even if there is no ‘right to the Internet,’ access to information – leading to decisive action in order to mitigate these threats – can be a question of life or death.

It must also be determined whether experimental projects that use satellite surveillance, crowd sourcing and interactive map-making in new ways during a crisis constitute human subjects research, and thus require institutional review board approval and oversight. What may sound like an esoteric academic concern is a very tangible concern, as mappers struggle to find an appropriate balance between acts of rescue and acts of research and development.

Correspondingly, governments, donors and corporations – those that control access to satellites and cell phone grids, and also the servers that capture and communicate crisis data – must understand and comply with any binding legal obligations either to protect or release crisis data, especially individually identifiable information. Currently, they do so either unevenly or not at all, because these rights and obligations have not been specifically articulated or codified. These varying levels of transparency and resistance make it difficult for first responders – cloud-based or on the ground – to deploy rapidly and effectively without having to reinvent their information streams for each crisis. When action is at a premium, time spent negotiating access to data carries a cost in human life.

The availability and application of new technologies has indeed brought about a brave new world – but bravery and novelty are not enough. A regime intent on displacing, detaining and killing its own people never stops at the first sign of resistance. It learns, adapts and grows bolder. This new world of crowd sourcing, social networking, remote sensing and data fusion must be more than courageous, innovative and well-meaning – it must be educated, ethical and as able and prepared to evolve as the forces and actors against which it works. We would be very wise to capitalize on the 2011 triumphs of crisis mapping through the development of comprehensive standards and ethics. If the field does not do so, these triumphs may quickly turn into tragedies in the months and years ahead.


Nathaniel A. Raymond is Director of Operations for the Satellite Sentinel Project, and is based at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

Caitlin N. Howarth is a Harvard Kennedy School student and human security analyst for the Satellite Sentinel Project.

Jonathan J. Hutson is Director of Communications for the Enough Project, which provides field reports, policy analysis and communications strategy for the Satellite Sentinel Project.

(Illustration: Gordon Wiebe)

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