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Research Could Shed Light on Messy Wars

ABU DHABI—Events can move so fast on modern battlefields that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on. With multiple warring factions, vague battlefronts, kidnapped journalists, and online public-relations skirmishes, misinformation is rife.

Is Libya in an all out civil war? Which areas of the Levant are government or ISIS controlled? Where are war crimes being committed? These questions—though important—cannot usually be answered in the heat of battle.

Now researchers are trying to answer these questions more quickly. Computer scientists far from the conflicts’ frontiers have been learning how to crowd source data from social media, news outlets and reports from NGOs. Up until now much of the crowd sourcing has relied on Internet-based data. But some research, including that done by a political scientist at NYU Abu Dhabi, has tested an alternative method, known as crowd seeding, that has been developed in the Congo and gathers large amounts of real-time data from people in the middle of conflicts.

Internet-based reporting is exemplified by an organization called CrisisNet. Jonathon Morgan is co-founder of CrisisNET—an organization that collects large amounts of data, organizes it and then shares it. He was part of the team that created the Violence Map project. It shows the intensity of reports of violence in Syria via YouTube or Facebook as it happens. Morgan uses a computer program to search social media for posts with certain key words like “Bomb” or “ISIS,” which then feed into an interactive map. Users can click on an area of the country to see recent footage of militants in that part of Syria.

Data collected in this way is strong in number but weak in quality—it’s hard for Morgan to know if what people are posting on YouTube and Facebook is factual. “I think there’s a high likelihood that people are saying untruths, it’s a fair criticism of social media data,” he says.

He also helped to develop the Syria Tracker; it too maps the country’s civil war (see below). The tracker is a humanitarian effort, which aims to document the number of Syria’s war dead and also their names. It uses not only social media to gather intelligence but also news reports and information from NGOs still operating on the ground in Syria. Morgan says that not solely relying on social media helps to mitigate against inaccuracies. “It’s like having a finger on the pulse,” explains Morgan, “The more we evaluate, the more we’ll have an understanding of the conflict as it evolves.”
Syria Tracker (سوريا تراكر)

One of the NGOs that supplies data to the Syria Tracker is the Violations Documentations Center in Syria. It’s made up of a team of 30 people, half of whom are still in Syria while the others work in exile. The center documents the names of people killed by the regime and rebel groups as well as the names of missing people, including civilians, soldiers and other combatants.

“We still have reporters in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus,” says the center’s spokesperson Bassam Al-Ahmad. “A lot of people post about violations on Facebook, but we ask our reporters to get in touch directly to verify if it’s accurate.”

That involves attending funerals, speaking with family members directly or getting hold of government papers where possible. Those outside of Syria sift through and analyze video footage. “We can’t just include every name we hear, we have to check,” he says, “We discover that not all information is true and sometimes it’s impossible to tell.”

Al-Ahmad used to be an Arabic teacher in Syria, but now lives in Istanbul. He was involved with demonstrations against Assad’s regime at the beginning of Syria’s war, but says the center isn’t political. “Our mission is just to document,” he says.

The center’s reporters still work at great risk. ISIS abducted one of them in early 2014 and no one has heard anything about him since.

Despite the dangers, in-person reporting is crucial, as studies show as many as one in four people lie on Facebook. That’s where the research at NYU Abu Dhabi could come in.

An assistant professor of political science, Peter Van der Windt, embedded cell phones in settlements in the east of the Congo and asked villagers to tell him when peacekeepers, rebel forces or government soldiers showed up and what they did when they got there. “We picked a few people, we called them our phone reporters, and we trained them extensively,” says Van der Windt.

In the Congo, just like Syria, there was a fear that government or rebel soldiers would take retribution against people telling the outside world of their actions. Van der Windt made sure that the participating villages were unaware of each other—so that if one village was compromised then the others would remain safe.

“One of our nightmare scenario was that government soldiers or rebels would walk into a village and ask who the reporters are and kill them,” says Van der Windt.

In addition to the network, he used a system of codes. That way soldiers wouldn’t know what the villagers had said if they were able to eavesdrop on the messages. “We gave them a code sheet. ‘11’ meant there were peacekeepers in the village, ‘12’ meant government soldiers, and so on,” says Van der Windt.

The question then arose with what to do with the information. Van der Windt didn’t want to publish it, fearing risk to his reporters. But, ideally, he wanted the data to be used to save lives, not just as academic research.

The importance of this question hit Van der Windt hard when he was in the Congo having dinner away from the conflict zone in an expensive restaurant that flies in its salmon. “I was sitting there having a really fancy dinner and the phone buzzed,” he says. The message he received said that the reporter could see a neighbor’s house being burned down. “I felt absolutely horrible,” he says.

Van der Windt decided to share his information with the peacekeepers. But since some Congolese were also suspicious of these soldiers, he added an extra code to the sheet, which allowed the sender to tell him whether the information could be shared.

Even though Van der Windt is able to tell the peacekeepers if government or rebel soldiers are burning villages or targeting civilians, it is unlikely that any of these war crimes will be stopped. The activities take place in a remote part of the Congolese rain forest and peacekeepers may be far away. But that didn’t stop his telephone reporters from continuing to send text messages. Van der Windt asked them why they persisted when their actions didn’t seem to improve the chance of peace or justice arriving.

He said the reporters replied that the only thing worse than being violated was if no one ever knew: “They said these awful things have been happening for generations and nobody ever hears about it.”


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