Wilson Center’s Science & Technology Innovation Program

Tracking the Revolution

In Commons Lab, Crowdsourcing, Governance on September 21, 2012 at 10:41 am

With the Syrian revolution having claimed more than 21,000 lives, policymakers and foreign affairs pundits from around the world have been making the case for intervention into the war to minimize casualties and ease the cost of rebuilding after hostilities cease. Last month, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a piece in the Financial Times about how the United States should form a coalition of countries to provide direct military aid to the Syrian rebellion. While this is not a new idea, Prof. Slaughter also noted that, among other things, the coalition should set up and maintain a system by which citizen journalists in Syria can upload reports of what they witness — effectively crowdsourcing human intelligence.

While crowdsourcing is one of the most efficient ways to collect information about events in real time and to effectively respond to a crisis, if this coalition were to ever form, it should know that the group Syria Tracker has been forming a crowdsourced crisis map in Syria for well over a year, to good effect. Syria Tracker is a crisis mapping system that uses crowdsourced text, photo and video reports to form a live map of the Syrian revolution, while also leveraging a data-mining tool that scans English language sources on the web for reports about human rights violations in Syria. Since its website launched in April 2011, Syria Tracker has received more than 2,000 geo-tagged reports from citizen journalists and over 30,000 official news reports, which provide a living record of the progression of the revolution over time.

With a user base spread throughout the country and robust software powering it, the question is, would Syria Tracker be a good partner for an international coalition interested in crisis mapping the war in Syria? A case could be made both ways.

Syria Tracker has managed to build a tool for crowdsourcing intelligence that tackles the two biggest concerns of citizen journalism in a war zone: protecting the identities of its reporters and ensuring the accuracy of its reports. Syria Tracker’s website has a page detailing several ways to securely and anonymously submit reports, as well as providing tips to citizens on how to protect their identity — vitally important when there is fear of reprisal from the al-Assad regime. When citizen reports are submitted, Syria Tracker volunteers verify the report by corroborating it with either official media reports or other citizen reports, making for a simple, effective way of ensuring a report’s accuracy.

On the other hand, Syria Tracker still suffers from one fundamental issue: It is not owned and operated by a transparent entity or NGO, but by an anonymous consortium of mostly Arab-Americans living in America. The loose, informally governed nature of crowdsourcing communities such as this have always posed a problem for the government entities that would make up a coalition — government agencies typically do not have good policy and administrative interfaces to coordinate with such communities. Without the means to quickly forge a formal partnership with Syria Tracker, I expect that any collaboration done with Syria Tracker would be brokered informally, at the tactical or operational level, rather than by strategic directive from high-level officials.

Whether or not a coalition of nations forms to engage the Syrian revolution directly, it is important that the international community take note of Syria Tracker’s efforts and encourage the project to grow, if not provide resources and personnel. Prof. Slaughter’s suggestion of using crowdsourced intelligence to track and understand the progress of the Syrian revolution should not be dismissed as an afterthought, but should be the backbone of any true engagement with the Syrian people.

Jason Kumar is a Masters of Public Policy candidate at Georgetown University and a former intern at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Science & Technology Innovation Program. He previously worked in supply-chain consulting and has a background in industrial engineering. He is interested in the effects of new technologies and tactics on national security policy.

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