Far From the Madding Crowd

Can ordinary citizens armed with technology change the way we make and manage peace?

On Saturday, Nov. 23, for the third evening in a row, the website Aymta.com sent a text message and e-mail blast to its subscribers, saying that a scud missile had been launched from Damascus, on its way to the northern Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah. Residents there had about ten minutes to shelter themselves however they could.

Aymta.com, designed by a 27-year-old software designer and former Syrian army conscript who is now in the United States, is an open-sourced warning system that relies on the reporting of volunteer spotters -- that is, ordinary citizens -- and a series of formulas that calculate a missile's trajectory and probable target. When it's locked on the probable destination, the site (the name of which means "when" in Arabic) automatically sends information to subscribers as a warning.

The site doesn't catch every launch, and it's hard to tell just how accurate its predictions are -- but it's something. And it exemplifies how people are using technology to save lives in war zones.

Pundits and researchers alike have focused recently on the role of technology in social-media-fueled political and social change movements, with headlines proclaiming a "Twitter Revolution" in Iran's 2009 election protests and "Facebook Revolutions" in the Tunisian and Egyptian overthrow of entrenched regimes. And the Syrian conflict is the most socially and technologically mediated conflict in history, according to experts, with an exceptional amount of what the outside world knows -- or thinks it knows -- about the three-year-old war coming from videos, blogs, and commentary circulated through social networks.

But this is only part of the new story of technology and conflict. "Crowdsourcing" is the other part. The term, which refers to the practice of soliciting services, ideas, or content from a large group, often online, was coined in 2006 (according to the world's first crowdsourced dictionary, Wikipedia). Yet it has already taken on several important functions with respect to the peacebuilding field.

First, the crowd, as we saw in the Syrian example, is helping us get data and information from conflict zones. Until recently these regions were dominated by "the fog war," which blinded journalists and civilians alike; it took the most intrepid reporters to get any information on what was happening on the ground. But in the past few years, technology has turned conflict zones from data vacuums into data troves, making it possible to render parts the conflict in real time.

Activists, citizen journalists, and ordinary folks armed with mobile phones and social networks, have come together to create real-time crisis maps and documentation of violence as it happens.

One of the early examples of this was the Libya Crisis Map -- a crowdsourced map of events unfolding throughout the rebellion that was commissioned by the U.N. -- which was put together by a loosely affiliated but committed global group of volunteer techies, called the Standby Taskforce. By sifting through social media, news reports, YouTube postings, and blogs for verifiable data, they were able to assemble a valuable picture of the unfolding crisis. They mapped where armed confrontations, humanitarian relief efforts, and other relevant activities were taking place. In Syria, a parallel effort led to the Defections Map, chronicling members of the regime who had defected based upon information from networks of activists and video announcements on YouTube. These defections were then widely reported in the offline media, such as Al Jazeera and others.

The second way technology has changed the business of peace is dollars. In the same way that entrepreneurs and young filmmakers are using sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to fund their work, so are peacebuilders. For example, Bilal Ghalib, an Iraqi-American web developer, and Mitch Altman, co-founder of Noisebridge, one of the first hacker-community workspaces in the United States, turned to Kickstarter to bring community "hackerspaces" to Baghdad. They funded tools, computers, and lounges to recreate a temporary Silicon Valley-esque atmosphere where tech geeks and entrepreneurs can collaborate and work on innovative, open-source projects -- and, in turn, create jobs for young people trying to rebuild their post conflict economies. Bilal and Mitch raised almost $30,000 to bring a community hackerspace to Baghdad, in addition to the five they have started in Egypt and two in Lebanon.

We hear stories like this all the time, where the crowd is both funder and peacebuilder, as in the Indiegogo campaign that raised enough money to enable a group of young volunteer tech activists called "PeaceGeeks" to work with grassroots organizations in conflict zones to promote peace, or HarrassMap in Cairo, which tracks and maps reports of sexual harassment.

The crowd isn't just offering new dollars for peacebuilding -- it's also generating new ideas for peacebuilding tools. Most recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development partnered with Humanity United to announce The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. Prize money was awarded for the best ideas to address problems ranging from documenting the evidence of atrocities to alerting vulnerable populations. And it was another crowdsourced venture -- the $5 million Knight Foundation's News Challenge -- that produced "Activist-in-a-Box," which not only allows a phone to be used as a data-entry tool (for instance, used to gather election- or violence-monitoring data) but also provides a secure platform for pushing out vital information to citizens in harm's way.

Yet for all the potential good that this new technology can do in terms of empowering the crowd as peacebuilders, there are, predictably, reciprocal opportunities for malice. Much of the time, they involve governments applying the old tricks of surveillance and repression to new mediums.

Perhaps best known is China's 50 Cent Army, the group of pro-government bloggers who are paid to blog regime propaganda and disrupt social networks with misinformation. And in Tunisia, activists found their computers infected with "key-logging" software that can communicate what they are typing.

But the Syrian conflict, once again, may be the most instructive of the dangers we see at work in times of war. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) was recruited to hack and infiltrate activist's websites and social networks, which they have done with success, in addition to attacking critics of the regime abroad. Last October, a 21-year-old activist named Hadeel Kouki, told a panel at the U.S. Institute of Peace a chilling story of how her Facebook group was infiltrated by an undercover member of the regime. When they agreed to meet at a particular place, the police were there too. Hadeel was put in jail for nearly three months.

Despite the dangers involved, the technology-enabled crowd is only growing, and it's fed by the recent, massive spike in cell-phone ownership. Phones have become so cheap and so pervasive that even people living in abject poverty and war situations have them. In Afghanistan, for example, ranked 175 out of 182 countries in the U.N.'s 2013 Human Development Report with an illiteracy rate of about 70 percent, a 2012 survey showed that the number of people with access to mobile phones had gone up from 1.7 million in 2006 to over 17 million in 2012 -- a penetration of around 63 percent. In the field, we often hear stories about people feeding their cell phones before they feed their stomachs, and with over 6 billion in circulation world-wide, phones have actually become more numerous than toothbrushes.

Cell phones have also been changing to meet the new, subversive tasks they're being used for. New phones are being adapted with a "panic button" to allow activists to delete contacts and information that could land their peers in jail, or worse. Circumvention technologies like TOR, which reroutes internet connections through a web of users to obscure users' identities, have been developed to enable anonymity online. Secure text message services are being developed to protect both communications and databases, while others are rolling out mesh network devices that let the crowd continue to communicate, even after a regime has shut down the Internet, as we've seen happen in both Egypt and Iran.

The big question for these "peacetech" solutions is whether they truly can enable the crowd to stay one step ahead of its detractors. (On Dec. 2, Aymta.com was down, with no explanation for its disappearance.) Yet already, they have given the people a nimble set of tools that have fundamentally changed how we can see peace and conflict. If the past decade is any prelude for the next one, then we have every reason to believe these technologically enabled networks -- these crowds -- will only play an ever greater role in conflict management and peacebuilding.



Longform's Picks of the Week

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A Lost Boy Grows Up, by Kevin Sack, the New York Times Magazine

Jacob Mach, one of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" granted refugee status in 2001, is learning the hard truth about social mobility in America.

It did not take long for Jacob to realize that the streets were not, in fact, paved with gold. "All I knew was that America was the greatest thing in the world," he recalled. "Nobody knew how people struggle in America."

This new life would require new thinking. There was no such thing as ambition back in the village, where each generation of boys tended their families' cattle and crops just as the last did. But in Georgia, Jacob felt he had little choice but to buy fully into the American dream. Traversing Atlanta's sprawl by bus and train and foot, he worked the evening shift at a Publix, unpacking produce, and then the night shift at a Hilton, stocking minibars, at $7.50 an hour. He often found no more than four hours for sleep and snatched naps when he could. Once, regrettably, it was while he was stopped at a red light behind a bus, and his foot slipped off the brake.

God delivered him through all of this, Jacob believed. And while he often questioned why he had been chosen for such testing, he now had a degree of confidence that God would reward his faith by steadying his quivering trigger finger. In Philippians 4:13, it says that all things were possible through Christ, and so between rounds, he bowed his head. "God, you are the powerful God that gives us strength and abilities," he prayed in the clipped, formal English he learned in the camps. "I am going to do this in your name." 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Passion of Dan Choi, by Gabriel Arana, American Prospect

He was the poster boy for the movement to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Now what?

With the plastic animal balanced on his head, Dan grabs the microphone from the corner and holds it close. He pulls back his shoulders and raises his chin, his square jaw protruding over the mic, gaze locked in as if he's standing at attention. Thirty-two years old, he's not as jacked as he was during his Army days, but he's still fit-muscular shoulders and a broad chest that tapers into a narrow waist. In the lambent glow of the blank television screen, he's striking. His hair is shaved on the sides military--style, his expression grim. It's easy to see why, four years ago, Dan Choi may have been the most famous gay person in America. But then the spell breaks. "Welcome to the Delilah show!" Dan exclaims as the plastic hippo falls to the ground, and he breaks out into a parody of Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

For 21 months-between his debut on The Rachel Maddow Show in March 2009 and the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2010-Dan Choi was not just the best-known spokesperson for the movement to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." He was its emblem. A West Point graduate, a combat veteran, a fluent Arabic speaker, he was the kind of soldier the military should have been promoting instead of kicking out. In interviews and at press conferences, he was articulate and passionate, charming and funny.

"The issue needed a voice and a face to get the attention of the media, the military, and Washington," says Nathaniel Frank, a historian at New York University and author of Unfriendly Fire, the pre-eminent account of gays serving under "don't ask, don't tell." "Dan Choi had a good understanding of political theater, a passionate attachment to his role as an activist, and a strong sense of righteous anger that he was unwilling to let go of."


Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets, by Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone

How two alienated, angry geeks broke the story of the year.

"There are few writers out there who are as passionate about communicating uncomfortable truths," Snowden, who was one of Greenwald's longtime readers, tells me in an e-mail. "Glenn tells the truth no matter the cost, and that matters."

The same, of course, could be said of Snowden, who, from the moment he revealed himself as the source of the leaks, has baffled the mainstream critics who've tried to make sense of him. "The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks, who held up Snowden as one of "an apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

To the likes of Brooks, Snowden was a disconcerting mystery; Glenn Greenwald, though, got him right away. "He had no power, no prestige, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family, totally obscure, totally ordinary," Greenwald says. "He didn't even have a high school diploma. But he was going to change the world - and I knew that." And, Greenwald also believed, so would he.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images

The AIDS Granny in Exile, by Kathleen McLaughlin, Buzzfeed

In the '90s, a gynecologist named Gao Yaojie exposed the horrifying cause of an AIDS epidemic in rural China - and the government's cover-up. Now 85, she lives by herself in New York.

In April 1996, Gao, then 69, was called from retirement to consult on a difficult case. A 42-year-old woman, Ms. Ba, had had ovarian surgery and was not getting better: Her stomach was bloated, she had a high fever and strange lesions on her skin. She grew sicker and her doctors were stumped. After finding no routine infection or illness, Gao demanded an AIDS test for the young mother.

Gao knew from her work that AIDS had entered Henan, the heartland Chinese province. Yet her colleagues scoffed: How could a simple farmer have AIDS? China had only a handful of confirmed cases. The government said AIDS was a disease of foreigners, spread through illicit drugs and promiscuous sex.

Gao insisted on a test. The results came back; Ms. Ba had AIDS. Her husband and children tested negative, which puzzled the doctors further. The patient was not a drug addict nor a prostitute, so Gao began to investigate. She determined the source was a government blood bank - Ms. Ba's post-surgical blood transfusion infected her with HIV. "I realized the seriousness of the problem," Gao later wrote. "If the blood in the blood bank carried the AIDS virus, then these victims would not be a small number."


Hack Tibet, by Jonathan Kaiman, Foreign Policy

Welcome to Dharamsala, ground zero in China's cyberwar.

Welcome to Dharamsala, population 20,000 and one of the most hacked places in the world. This small city in India's lush Himalayan foothills is home to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader; the Central Tibetan Administration, or CTA (formerly called the Tibetan government in exile); and a host of Tibetan media outlets and nongovernmental organizations, some of which the Chinese government classifies as terrorist groups. The Dalai Lama fled here in 1959 after communist troops violently suppressed an uprising in Lhasa, now the capital of western China's Tibetan Autonomous Region. India embraced the Dalai Lama as a token of religious diversity, and tens of thousands of refugees followed suit. About 130,000 Tibetans live in exile, according to a 2009 census; Dharamsala is the closest thing they have to a political capital.

Illustration by Josh Cochran