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I’ve been following debates on Global Voices Online and early warning systems, between Paul Currier and Patrick Meier. Some comments on that dialague.

Paul and Patrick,

Interesting dialogue you’ve got going. I’d like to throw in a few points. I watched Ushahidi’s work with a great deal of interest and considerable admiration throughout the post-election crisis. I was especially interested in their verification claims, and hence was a bit surprised, at the GV Summit, to hear Ory Okolloh and Daudi Ware acknowledge that their verification methods were almost entirely ad hoc. I wouldn’t, in this case, expect a project like Ushahidi to be able to create verification standards that could hold up in a courtroom, but I would have liked to see evidence of some system at work.

Ad hoc data collection, together with a lack of clarity on Ushahidi’s site about how they verify, shifts the project from a usable data set for researchers to a starting point requiring more evidence about how the conflict played out. It may turn out that their data are largely accurate – it would be a really interesting study for someone to do, to see what the ad hoc approach netted, what worked, and what didn’t.

This isn’t a reason to dismiss Ushahidi, but to acknowledge where they are. Even thinking of it as a pilot project, it teaches us a great deal about what can work at an entirely ad hoc level, and what it might become with a bit more preparation and experience. The key, I think, is that Ushahidi and similar projects have incredible potential, and should be evaluated from that perspective.

For a participatory media project focused on mob violence, it’s difficult to expect a citizen’s monitoring group to attain standards that could hold up in court – at least at this stage in Ushahidi’s development. It is reasonable, however, to shoot for the equivalent of journalistic standards of evidence. And journalism/media may be the more apt point of comparison in the early warning context.

I say equivalent, because participatory media attain verification through a different process than traditional journalism. Traditional journalism relies on trusted, known researchers working within a rigid, closed hierarchy, with verification of facts along each level of that chain. Its hallmark is a brand – a shortcut for the audience to know that there is an epistemology behind any given claim. At its best, traditional journalism’s authority can be very strong.

Participatory journalism uses a different set of values – values that are part of GVO, but extend well beyond that, because GVO is permeable and elastic. Participatory media values include: transparency, congruence, accuracy, passion, and community. Such values allow for vetting of data to the degree possible in any given situation, and a space for gray areas regarding verification. An epistemology based on them can handle multiple interpretations of events because of its transparency function.

That said, there is room for improvement. I’m very interested to see how Ushahidi and like-minded projects approach the following:

Anonymity v. transparency. In covering conflict, security should always be the first consideration. Both journalism and humanitarian early warning approaches have established methods for anonymous reporting – what’s the trusted equivalent in the participatory media context?

How to encourage learning with the journalism and humanitarian communities. In the Kenya example, both those communities were having similar challenges and discussions. From Ory’s and Daudi’s remarks, it became evident that they weren’t completely aware of them, and vice versa. For instance, the community radio community in Kenya was generally unaware of Ushahidi – see this post for details. Daudi likewise, in his comments at GV Summit, claimed the media failed to cover the conflict because of self-interest. But the media community has another interpretation: they pin their failure on lack of resources, lack of security, and lack of experience. See IMS and BBC reports for a window into that perspective.

How will participatory media projects approach different kinds of problems? It’s one thing to cover mob violence, another to monitor an election, a third to track disappeared people, etc. CMEV’s project in Sri Lanka, which Sanjana Hattottuwa was very involved with, recently tackled the election monitoring challenge using digital media tools; it would be interesting to hear what worked and what could be better, from their perspective.

Finally, a comment about mission creep and GVO. It seems to me that thinking about GVO as an organization with a set mission misconstrues how they work and grow. GVO is very driven by the interests and passions of its community. It hasn’t developed on the basis of a top-down, institutionally driven strategy. If its community members find citizen activism, early warning monitoring, and election monitoring compelling, then it will be up to them to define whether and how it’s part of GVO’s world.

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