Sunday, October 7, 2012

Developing a Comprehensive Information Network for Eastern Congo

Once again eastern Congo is being torn apart by armed conflict—and once again, we have at best a partial and fragmentary sense of what’s going on. To the extent that international attention is being paid, most of it is focused on the depredations of a rebel group called the M23, a Rwandaphone militia which fell out with the Congolese government in April over terms of their incorporation into the national army. While evidence of their brutality--and their links to Rwanda--continue to pile up, other militia are also on the rampage, including a group called Nyatura and another called Raia Mutomboki (more here); altogether, the latest violence is estimated to have displaced more than 300,000 people.

Yet we have only the most partial understanding of who is fighting whom and why. A few researchers and journalists are bravely venturing out to remote villages to chase down the latest developments.[i] But their reports are flashlights of information on a vast and dark plain. It is almost impossible to know what is happening from day to day outside of the major towns. NGOs and the UN are hard-pressed to respond in a timely way when it can take days or weeks for news about mass killings or rapes in remote areas to reach them. At a policy level, I suspect part of the reason that the international community pays so little attention to the region—despite it being home to the deadliest conflict since World War II—is that we remain woefully ignorant about the ongoing details of the conflict.

That is why I was particularly impressed by a recent paper written by Peter van der Windt and Macartan Humphreys at Columbia University. Building on der Windt’s 18-month experience directing Voix des Kivu (VdK), a USAID funded project in eastern Congo, the paper shows how feasible it is to set up a regional information network with a little training and such readily available tools as phones, sms tabulation software, and cheap solar generators.

The results were impressive. During the life of the project, Van der Windt’s village-based collaborators sent thousands of pre-coded and text messages on events that affected their daily lives, from disease outbreaks and crop failures to population movements and conflict incidents. More than that, the project gave local communities a system for communicating with the rest of the world.

Previous efforts to map developments in the Congo have not been especially successful.[ii] In 2008, Ushahidi itself tried to map the conflicts in eastern Congo. But the coders never generated the response rate they had achieved in Kenya, and eventually abandoned the effort. A volunteer-led program to map electoral problems during the 2011 presidential election foundered in part due to inadequate preparation but mostly because Kabila ordered the telephone companies to cut SMS messaging in the country during the critical period. The impression I got during my last trip to Bukavu (July 2011) was that the UN and most NGOs were in need of greater data and a platform by which to share it, yet lacked the time and technical expertise to properly develop the system themselves.

The desire for more comprehensive reporting is clearly there. Various organizations—most notably the Belgian International Peace Information Service (IPIS)—have conducted some excellent one-time surveys of the territory. Dodd-Frank 1502, the so-called Conflict Mineral legislation, calls for the State Department to produce a map of the region’s “mineral-rich zones, trade routes, and areas under the control of armed groups” every six months. To date, the department has produced three such maps, most recently this one
Unfortunately, the department has been unable or unwilling to conduct its own on-the-ground research and has instead relied on the now-dated IPIS maps and supplementary information from the UN peacekeeping force, Monusco. (Although I have heard rumors that IPIS will be working with the Congolese government on developing more robust and current maps in the future.)

So Van der Windt’s achievement is especially remarkable. In my reading, there were three keys to its success. The first is the astonishing spread of mobile telephone coverage, which in the last few years has reached into villages in eastern Congo that still take days to get to overland. Equally important were two of Van der Windt’s own innovations. Instead of trying to “crowd source” the information, Van der Windt went out to villages and provided training and phones to three people in each: a traditional chief, the head of a women’s group, and a third person elected by the village itself. Then he provided each person with a small weekly allowance to make the calls. (Later on, he realized that villagers had trouble recharging their phones because the villages often lacked electricity, so he gave each village a $25 solar-powered charger) [iii] He calls this process "crowd-seeding," in contrast to crowdsourcing. 

Van der Windt is a doctoral student in political science, so a lot of his paper deals with the robustness of the data and the possible academic uses to which it can be put. For non-academics, the main lesson is that it provides a proof-of-concept.  As Van der Windt writes, “obtaining verifiable, high-quality data in real-time from these hard-to-reach areas is not only possible, but needs much less expense and oversight than previously thought.” In short, we now know that it is possible to develop a comprehensive information network across vast reaches of eastern Congo,[iv] and that we can do so cheaply, reliably, and safely.[v]

If a scaled-up version of this project ever gets funded, I would suggest adding three elements. First, I would uplink the data to a mapping program such as Ushahidi. Van der Windt used a free program from the American NGO Frontline SMS to auto-generate reports, graphs and tables, which he then distributed to relevant organizations. I suspect, however, that layering the data onto maps would provide the intelligence in a more actionable-ready format. Elsewhere in Africa, mapping reports have shown where and how crop diseases are spreading, revealed the paths taken by rampaging militia, and helped improve the overall situational awareness of humanitarian organizations.[vi]

Second, I would do more to make sure that the information flow is bi-directional, and that it is both embedded in and eventually owned by the Congolese. If it’s important for the UN and humanitarian organizations operating out of provincial capitals to learn which way a militia group is moving—and it is—then certainly it’s even more important for local radio stations to have this information, because they can get the word out to affected populations. The Humanitarian Innovation Fund has recently introduced a crisis mapping project for the Central African Republic. While the project has only been operational for a few months, its emphasis on sharing data with local journalists and the communities they serve strikes me as a logical and commendable extension of the Van der Windt's work.

Third, I would hope that the project gets greater buy-in and use from the relevant actors, including humanitarian organizations and the UN peacekeeping force. Van der Windt acknowledges that the project elicited more curiosity than action from the relevant actors: “At the scale in which we have been operating many organizations expressed great curiosity in the concept and the data; but we do not know of any serious reactions from international actors to the messages coming in, including real time reports of attacks and abuses. Phone holders have continued to engage with the system despite the poverty of reactions, but we cannot expect that to continue forever.” I think that’s exactly right. At some point, if the exercise is not going to be solely academic, the information it gathers can and should be used in real time by a variety of actors, including Western NGOs and the UN peacekeeping force, to develop strategies, plan operations, and assess and reconfigure missions. 

[i] Among them: Simone Schlindwein, of the German newspaper TAZ (Tageszeitung); Jason Stearns, of the Rift Valley Institute; and freelancers Melanie Gouby and Christophe Ethuin.
[ii] I have been calling for a real-time mapping project on the conflicts in eastern Congo since 2003, when I worked with a couple of internationally recognized Congolese journalists on a proposal to map the presence of armed actors and incidents of violence (including rape and pillage), against mining sites and arms deliveries in the region. Needless to say, we got nowhere. 'Who cares about nobodies in a place nobody gives a shit about?' was the attitude we generally encountered, its millions dead notwithstanding. Do I send cynical? Angry? Shucks.
[iii] Van der Windt writes: “Crowdseeding has three main advantages for data quality: 1. The data is received from a representative set of areas; 2. All senders are known to the system and are in a  long term relationship with the Voix des Kivus program; 3. Because more than one holder is selected in each village “internal validation” is also possible.” It also overcomes the main problem with crowdsourcing: the weak supply incentive.
[iv] An area larger than the United Kingdom, but with fewer kilometers of paved roads than Oxford.
[v] The safety of his collaborators was a paramount priority for Van der Windt, and he took several measures to minimize the possibility that they might suffer reprisals for reporting sensitive data. None did, but he warns that the risks might increase if the program is ever scaled up and used to plan or design counter-operations.
[vi] Police departments in this country began using mapping programs in the 1990s to track crime and plan counter-measures; many criminologists say that crime’s sharp decline in that decade is to some significant extent attributable to those real-time tools. This suggestion is far from my area of expertise, but I would think peacekeepers could use real-time maps to similar effect.

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