The Fog of War Is Patchy

Over at Foreign Policy‘s Peace Channel, Sheldon Himmelfarb of USIP has a new post arguing that better communications technologies in the hands of motivated people now give us unprecedented access to information from ongoing armed conflicts.

The crowd, as we saw in the Syrian example, is helping us get data and information from conflict zones. Until recently these regions were dominated by “the fog war,” which blinded journalists and civilians alike; it took the most intrepid reporters to get any information on what was happening on the ground. But in the past few years, technology has turned conflict zones from data vacuums into data troves, making it possible to render parts the conflict in real time.

Sheldon is right, but only to a point. If crowdsourcing is the future of conflict monitoring, then the future is already here, as Sheldon notes; it’s just not very evenly distributed. Unfortunately, large swaths of the world remain effectively off the grid on which the production of crowdsourced conflict data depends. Worse, countries’ degree of disconnectedness is at least loosely correlated with their susceptibility to civil violence, so we still have the hardest time observing some of the world’s worst conflicts.

The fighting in the Central African Republic over the past year is a great and terrible case in point. The insurgency that flared there last December drove the president from the country in March, and state security forces disintegrated with his departure. Since then, CAR has descended into a state of lawlessness in which rival militias maraud throughout the country and much of the population has fled their homes in search of whatever security and sustenance they can find.

We know this process is exacting a terrible toll, but just how terrible is even harder to say than usual because very few people on hand have the motive and means to record and report out what they are seeing. At just 23 subscriptions per 100 people, CAR’s mobile-phone penetration rate remains among the lowest on the planet, not far ahead of Cuba’s and North Korea’s (data here). Some journalists and NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been covering the situation as best they can, but they will be among the first to tell you that their information is woefully incomplete, in part because roads and other transport remain rudimentary. In a must-read recent dispatch on the conflict, anthropologist Louisa Lombard noted that “the French colonists invested very little in infrastructure, and even less has been invested subsequently.”

A week ago, I used Twitter to ask if anyone had managed yet to produce a reasonably reliable estimate of the number of civilian deaths in CAR since last December. The replies I received from some very reputable people and organizations makes clear what I mean about how hard it is to observe this conflict.

C.A.R. is an extreme case in this regard, but it’s certainly not the only one of its kind. The same could be said of ongoing episodes of civil violence in D.R.C., Sudan (not just Darfur, but also South Kordofan and Blue Nile), South Sudan, and in the Myanmar-China border region, to name a few. In all of these cases, we know fighting is happening, and we believe civilians are often targeted or otherwise suffering as a result, but our real-time information on the ebb and flow of these conflicts and the tolls they are exacting remains woefully incomplete. Mobile phones and the internet notwithstanding, I don’t expect that to change as quickly as we’d hope.

[N.B. I didn't even try to cover the crucial but distinct problem of verifying the information we do get from the kind of crowdsourcing Sheldon describes. For an entry point to that conversation, see this great blog post by Josh Stearns.]

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6 Comments

  1. For an interesting discussion of how to use cell phones and frontlines to track conflict developments in eastern Congo see here: http://cu-csds.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/pwmh_crowdseedingconflictdata.pdf
    And for my write-up, see here: http://www.congoresources.org/2012/10/developing-comprehensive-information.html

    Reply
  2. Reblogged this on Brittius.com.

    Reply
  3. Really great post, thanks Jay!
    As you said, C.A.R. might be an extreme case, but even for the Syrian conflict, our record-linkage of five data sources shows that the density of casualty reporting shifts considerably across both time and space (see https://hrdag.org/how-we-estimate-casualties-in-syria-part-1/ and https://hrdag.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HRDAG-Updated-SY-report.pdf). I think what this tells us is that even conflicts as closely monitored as the Syrian case (with incredible human rights work being done on the ground) only allow for us to see certain fragments of what is actually happening. Exploring how those fragments are a function of technology changes is high on the to-do list :-)

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  4. Another reason the fog of war is patchy: in conflict zones, journalists may become targets:
    http://www.cpj.org/blog/2013/12/reporting-on-south-sudan-crisis-difficult-dangerou.php

    Reply
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