by Barbora Holicka
Humanitarian Tracker is a forum dedicated to providing citizens with methods, tools and an online platform, offering the opportunity to tell their story to the world rather than have it told for them. Being more than an information outlet the initiative also offers training to its members creating a global base of citizen journalists able to produce accurate, unbiased and contextualised reports and collaboratively crowdsource data, often playing a role in challenging official distortion and securing information that can help save lives of civilian population. Such practice has proven to be increasingly important for instance, in Syria where a set of videos filmed by eyewitnesses and distributed by the Shaam News Network finally confirmed the suspicion about chemical weapons being used on the ground.
By providing an alternative to the official news and keeping the events in the spotlight when the mainstream media look away, crowdsourced data can help us see what we might otherwise overlook. Apart from government officers and militaries, staff of large international agencies have been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses, especially sexual violence in conflict zones. In past it has been difficult to bring the criminals to justice especially because it was easy for big organisations to supress the stories from getting out. Due to the unrestricted flow of information generated by projects such as the Humanitarian Tracker it might now be harder to hush up scandals and controversies such as the one concerning the French peacekeepers in the CAR in which the UN officer who decided to inform relevant authorities in France of child abuse perpetrated by the blue helmets ended up being unlawfully suspended for his action. This was after the UN failed to address the issue of child abuse internally.
Crowd-sourced data has number of other benefits. Knowing where, how and when certain events take place can play a crucial role in identifying patterns and outbreaks of epidemics or violence. This knowledge can then help plan adequate and timely response as well as redirect the relevant and available resources in the right way. The Syrian Tracker, one of the projects run in collaboration with Humanitarian Tracker and the crowdmapping platform Ushahidi, have for example identified several incidents where more than dozen women were killed outside the battle zone which might indicate massacres. Other similar projects Humanitarian Tracker collaborates on include mapping epidemics or sexual violence. For gender-based violence in particular it has always been a great challenge to track the cases in a situation of ongoing conflict as a result of a breakdown of traditional reporting systems. Targeted crisis mapping can help us deliver vital care when and where needed while fast and secure ways of collecting forensic evidence would help persecution of the perpetrators. Cases of sexual violence in conflict regions and refugee camps occur with alarming frequency and regularity, requiring a dynamic, fast and innovative approaches of dealing with the crisis.
To prevent frauds and misinformation the training provided by the Humanitarian Tracker to the citizen journalists involves long-term relationship and trust building. In past there have been cases where videos and pictures supposedly taken in war zones and on more than one occasion picked up by the mainstream media without appropriate verification, turned out to be fake. Apart from creating trustworthy relationships the projects run under Humanitarian Tracker have other various protocols for dealing with the difficulties of verifying the incoming reports. The Syrian Tracker team employs assiduous process of contextualizing the data, proof-checking and confirming the stories with other agencies on the ground to secure credibility for their research. At the end of the day they only publish about 6% of the incoming data. Another initiative working with the Humanitarian Tracker, Women Under Siege project, publishes practically all data they receive however they also always state the source of the information they report in order to remain entirely transparent.
Even with all the diligence the fact remains that it’s never possible to entirely eliminate the risk of false reporting especially in a situation of conflict where the safety of those reporting has to always come first. Frequently, it is necessary for the informant to remain anonymous for the fear of being socially stigmatized, rejected by their family or community or persecuted by the government. Social capital in a form of mutually trusting relationships is therefore crucial for this work while in the same time it is extremely challenging to develop these kinds of relationships with someone you often cannot meet in person.
Despite the challenges it is absolutely crucial that the work continues. The Syrian Tracker currently has data on over 100,000 deaths that can be freely mined by anyone who is looking for patterns. Large data such as this can have important implications on how we approach and deal with crises in the future. Innovative approaches to data collection are currently being quickly followed by innovations in the area of data analysis and verification meaning that soon we might be able to create not only unrestricted but also trustworthy flow of information. For the time being, however, there is something encouraging about the mutual trust and dedication to reveal the truth that brings together the citizen journalists, digitalists and data analysts, creating the foundation that the Humanitarian Tracker stands on.
Barbora Holicka is based in London where she works as a freelance researcher and writer with a particular interest in nutrition, food security and human rights. She holds a BA in Development Studies & International Relations and had previously worked on public health related projects for local NGOs in the slums of Colombo, Sri Lanka and Nairobi, Kenya.
Forbes (2014), Big Data for Social Good: 5 Ways to a Higher Purpose, Available here, Accessed August 2015
HPCR (2012) Humanitarianism and New Technology: Challenges and Opportunities, Available here, Accessed August 2015
IJNET (2013), How Syria’s Citizen Journalists Are Developing Their Skills, Ethical Standards, Available here, Accessed August 2015
Mashable (2014), How Data Scientists Are Uncovering War Crimes in Syria, Available here, Accessed August 2015
Syria Tracker (2012), Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Available here, Accessed August 2015
The Guardian, UN Aid Worker Suspended for Leaking a Report on Child Abuse by French Troops, Available here, Accessed August 2015