Crisis Mapping Syria: Automated Data Mining and Crowdsourced Human Intelligence
The Syria Tracker Crisis Map is without doubt one of the most impressive crisis mapping projects yet. Launched just a few weeks after the protests began one year ago, the crisis map is spearheaded by a just handful of US-based Syrian activists have meticulously and systematically documented 1,529 reports of human rights violations including a total of 11,147 killings. As recently reported in this NewScientist article, “Mapping the Human Cost of Syria’s Uprising,” the crisis map “could be the most accurate estimate yet of the death toll in Syria’s uprising […].” Their approach? “A combination of automated data mining and crowdsourced human intelligence,” which “could provide a powerful means to assess the human cost of wars and disasters.”
On the data-mining side, Syria Tracker has repurposed the HealthMap platform, which mines thousands of online sources for the purposes of disease detection and then maps the results, “giving public-health officials an easy way to monitor local disease conditions.” The customized version of this platform for Syria Tracker (ST), known as HealthMap Crisis, mines English information sources for evidence of human rights violations, such as killings, torture and detainment. As the ST Team notes, their data mining platform “draws from a broad range of sources to reduce reporting biases.” Between June 2011 and January 2012, for example, the platform collected over 43,o00 news articles and blog posts from almost 2,000 English-based sources from around the world (including some pro-regime sources).
Syria Tracker combines the results of this sophisticated data mining approach with crowdsourced human intelligence, i.e., field-based eye-witness reports shared via webform, email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and voicemail. This naturally presents several important security issues, which explains why the main ST website includes an instructions page detailing security precautions that need to be taken while sub-mitting reports from within Syria. They also link to this practical guide on how to protect your identity and security online and when using mobile phones. The guide is available in both English and Arabic.
Eye-witness reports are subsequently translated, geo-referenced, coded and verified by a group of volunteers who triangulate the information with other sources such as those provided by the HealthMap Crisis platform. They also filter the reports and remove dupli-cates. Reports that have a low con-fidence level vis-a-vis veracity are also removed. Volunteers use a dig-up or vote-up/vote-down feature to “score” the veracity of eye-witness reports. Using this approach, the ST Team and their volunteers have been able to verify almost 90% of the documented killings mapped on their platform thanks to video and/or photographic evidence. They have also been able to associate specific names to about 88% of those reported killed by Syrian forces since the uprising began.
Depending on the levels of violence in Syria, the turn-around time for a report to be mapped on Syria Tracker is between 1-3 days. The team also produces weekly situation reports based on the data they’ve collected along with detailed graphical analysis. KML files that can be uploaded and viewed using Google Earth are also made available on a regular basis. These provide “a more precisely geo-located tally of deaths per location.”
In sum, Syria Tracker is very much breaking new ground vis-a-vis crisis mapping. They’re combining automated data mining technology with crowdsourced eye-witness reports from Syria. In addition, they’ve been doing this for a year, which makes the project the longest running crisis maps I’ve seen in a hostile environ-ment. Moreover, they’ve been able to sustain these import efforts with just a small team of volunteers. As for the veracity of the collected information, I know of no other public effort that has taken such a meticulous and rigorous approach to documenting the killings in Syria in near real-time. On February 24th, Al-Jazeera posted the following estimates:
Syrian Revolution Coordination Union: 9,073 deaths
Local Coordination Committees: 8,551 deaths
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: 5,581 deaths
At the time, Syria Tracker had a total of 7,901 documented killings associated with specific names, dates and locations. While some duplicate reports may remain, the team argues that “missing records are a much bigger source of error.” Indeed, They believe that “the higher estimates are more likely, even if one chooses to disregard those reports that came in on some of the most violent days where names were not always recorded.”
The Syria Crisis Map itself has been viewed by visitors from 136 countries around the world and 2,018 cities—with the top 3 cities being Damascus, Washington DC and, interestingly, Riyadh, Saudia Arabia. The witnessing has thus been truly global and collective. When the Syrian regime falls, “the data may help sub-sequent governments hold him and other senior leaders to account,” writes the New Scientist. This was one of the principle motivations behind the launch of the Ushahidi platform in Kenya over four years ago. Syria Tracker is powered by Ushahidi’s cloud-based platform, Crowdmap. Finally, we know for a fact that the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Amnesty International (AI) closely followed the Libya Crisis Map last year.