How to Crowdsource the Syrian Cease-Fire

Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy: “Can the wizards of Silicon Valley develop a set of killer apps to monitor the fragile Syria cease-fire without putting foreign boots on the ground in one of the world’s most dangerous countries?

They’re certainly going to try. The “cessation of hostilities” in Syria brokered by the United States and Russia last month has sharply reduced the levels of violence in the war-torn country and sparked a rare burst of optimism that it could lead to a broader cease-fire. But if the two sides lay down their weapons, the international community will face the challenge of monitoring the battlefield to ensure compliance without deploying peacekeepers or foreign troops. The emerging solution: using crowdsourcing, drones, satellite imaging, and other high-tech tools.

The high-level interest in finding a technological solution to the monitoring challenge was on full display last month at a closed-door meeting convened by the White House that brought together U.N. officials, diplomats, digital cartographers, and representatives of Google, DigitalGlobe, and other technology companies. Their assignment was to brainstorm ways of using high-tech tools to keep track of any future cease-fires from Syria to Libya and Yemen.

The off-the-record event came as the United States, the U.N., and other key powers struggle to find ways of enforcing cease-fires from Syria at a time when there is little political will to run the risk of sending foreign forces or monitors to such dangerous places. The United States has turned to high-tech weapons like armed drones as weapons of war; it now wants to use similar systems to help enforce peace.

Take the Syria Conflict Mapping Project, a geomapping program developed by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to resolve conflict and promote human rights. The project has developed an interactive digital map that tracks military formations by government forces, Islamist extremists, and more moderate armed rebels in virtually every disputed Syrian town. It is now updating its technology to monitor cease-fires.

The project began in January 2012 because of a single 25-year-old intern, Christopher McNaboe. McNaboe realized it was possible to track the state of the conflict by compiling disparate strands of publicly available information — including the shelling and aerial bombardment of towns and rebel positions — from YouTube, Twitter, and other social media sites. It has since developed a mapping program using software provided by Palantir Technologies, a Palo Alto-based big data company that does contract work for U.S. intelligence and defense agencies, from the CIA to the FBI….

Walter Dorn, an expert on technology in U.N. peace operations who attended the White House event, said he had promoted what he calls a “coalition of the connected.”

The U.N. or other outside powers could start by tracking social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, for reports of possible cease-fire violations. That information could then be verified by “seeded crowdsourcing” — that is, reaching out to networks of known advocates on the ground — and technological monitoring through satellite imagery or drones.

Matthew McNabb, the founder of First Mile Geo, a start-up which develops geolocation technology that can be used to gather data in conflict zones, has another idea. McNabb, who also attended the White House event, believes “on-demand” technologies like SurveyMonkey, which provides users a form to create their own surveys, can be applied in conflict zones to collect data on cease-fire violations….(More)