Open-source spying is a term which has been around for a while, reflecting the fact that when it comes to gathering information, the web is often as good a place as going into the field. In-Q-Tel’s investments reflect a justified fascination with the social web by intelligence agencies.
Well it turns out the CIA is also interested in this kind of information. In a post about the CIA’s Silicon Valley VC firm, In-Q-Tel, the Not So Private Parts blog on Forbes found the firm…
…likes companies coming up with better ways to mine social networking sites and geospatial location data. One of its investments, Geosemble, a private spin-off from USC, estimates that “80% of online content has location information.”
“Our mission is to shine a torchlight on geographic unknowns and help organizations neutralize threats and capitalize on opportunities in their areas of geographic interest,” says its website. Another of IQT’s geospatial investments, FortiusOne, promises instant maps based on Tweets and photo uploads, for mapping election-day threats in Afghanistan, for example.
Allow me to use the word holistic. As in holistic near ‘real time sense-making‘, incorporating the internet of things, with crowdsourced data delivered through channels that encourage participation. There is an opportunity to see things dynamically and not just do after-the-fact post mortem. This could work for flash point events like the Haiti earthquake (taking data [from] Geiger counters etc + crowdsourced data like that available on the haiti deployment run by Noula.ht. It could also work for longer term events such as the BP Oil spill in Louisiana.
…the closer to real-time one can get the right answer and respond, the better. And milliseconds matter.
The concept of real time sense making offers so many tantalising possibilities, from predicting the behaviour of human social networks to helping those networks (countries, companies, NGOs) respond to emergencies and more broadly to the challenges we face globally.
If you don’t know it, Ushahidi is an open source platform for communicating in a crisis. At simplest, it is a way of aggregating text messages, emails, Tweets, blog posts and mainstream media articles to form a clearer picture of what is happening in a fast moving situation, say in a war zone or a natural disaster. It’s also been put to good use in places like the Lebanon and Mexico by people wanting to monitor the fairness or otherwise of their own elections and to help with the effective distribution of vital medicines in Malawi, Kenya, Zambia and Uganda.
So on a geeky level Ushahidi’s obviously fascinating, on a humanitarian level it’s seriously inspiring, but there are lots of other elements of the project which are useful to consider.
Listening to Juliana’s presentation (I understand the videos will be live on the Legatum site soon) and chatting to her in the break, there a few notes I made that I will share here:
Web as witness: This is my take on what Juliana was saying, but I got a sense that by managing information on Usahidi served both as resource for people involved in it but also to put things on the record. As Juliana put it: “If a tree falls in a forest and Google doesn’t hear it, does it make a sound?”. Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili – so I guess this purpose has been baked in to the development of the platform.
Spreading social web beyond developed countries: Juliana is interested in how you stop “social media becoming an enclave for developed countries”. There are so many talented developers and creative people in the developing world, and she wants “to invest in those minds”. You can see her point – a massive latent cognitive surplus, to borrow Shirky’s phrase, is in developing countries, with all its incredible potential denied to the networks for now. If I was a VC with a long view, I’d think about heading for Africa…
Mobile is key to connecting the developing world: This is not news, I appreciate, but mobile handsets and access are the way that the developing world can connect right now. As Jared Cohen of the US State Department said in his speech earlier in the day, the economy of Kenya is so reliant on mobile payments that it would collapse tomorrow if you were to remove the GSM network. The mobile is the “default device” for Ushahidi’s developers, said Juliana. She also lamented that Twitter lacks a text message interface [I paraphrase]: “With SMS Twitter could become the pulse of the whole world – not just the developed world.” Now there’s a thought…
Near-realtime filtering: A major challenge for Ushahidi is filtering information as it comes in in near realtime. There may be disinformation from antganists, but also incorrect information, and alot of echo (re-tweets count as this) and maybe spam. Ushahidi uses manual filtering, Akismet and Swift River, a kind of crowd-filtering approach which “rescues data from the river and puts it on the bank”. This process involves a lot of human intervention at the moment, but they are working on algorithms to automate a lot of this.
Realtime media with a slow news legacy?: It strikes me that the combination of fact-checking and contextualising of realtime information is an immediate benefit of Ushahidi, with emergent benefits being that complex data has been curated which can be used by journalists, NGOs and others who want to analyse and learn from a crisis later on. This model is maybe how news organisations need to think about their role. I first heard about Ushahidi via the Al-Jazeera Labs project using the platform during the recent war in Gaza. Is there a case for the BBC to run a similar model when breaking news hits, or for news organisations to cooperate with a Usahidi like model to make sense out their reports and the mix of witness accounts on the ground?
There’s more on this approach in this video, which highlights the danger of rumours in a situation like the Mumbai terrorist attacks:
Swift River looks like it could be a very important development, not just for Ushahidi, for everyone living with the explosion of data brought about by the realtime web. There are obviously lessons here for news organisations and others (i.e. most organisations and communities of interest).
: : One more thought. Friends of mine in NGOs have told me before and the theme came up again yesterday that it is impossible to micropayments efficiently online because of the cost of transactions. That is to say, if I donate £1 to UNICEF online at least 21p of that pound will be lost to the transaction cost in the *best case*. PayPal or Google Checkout should develop a charity / NGO model – imagine how much money could be freed up for NGOs they were able to ask millions of people to send a few pence or cents?
Fascinating to see how Arabic and English news service Al Jazeera is approaching the innovation imperative with its Al Jazeera Labs project.
In the first couple of months of this year the company has rolled out many deals and pilots in interesting areas, according to a great report on Journalism.co.uk. I’m especially intrigued by things like its experiments with Creative Commons licensing of content and use of data visualisation in news stories like the recent war in Gaza.
The map is using both mainstream media reports and what people are saying in social media, via Usahidi, a “platform for crowdsourcing crisis information”. It is designed to help build up a picture of what is happening in a crisis situation – be it a natural disaster or a military conflict – based on what people are saying (by text, blog, Twitter etc.) on the ground.
It’s a very interesting concept, and interesting to see serious attempts to make sense of and filter the rich information – with all the sensible caveats about reliability – that personal content from people involved or near to a crisis situation create.