Don’t share, just listen: bringing Silicon Valley tech to the Syrian conflict

The phenomenon of big data, both generated through online user-end activity and ‘farmed’ on a large scale for research purposes, has irrevocably become a part of the way both government and non-governmental agencies research, implement and gauge reactions to their policy choices. Within this context, the wave of discontent that began and continues to rip through the Arab world has exhaustively been dubbed the ‘social media’ revolutions, whilst statistics pointing to the enormous amount of data being generated are abundant but often overstated or misunderstood.

All manner of organisations that are some way involved in matters of foreign policy seek to portray a culture that is switched on and tuned into the pulse of a connected – and often frustrated – generation. Naturally, references to the ‘social’ were hastily scrawled across beautifully redesigned, scrollable webpages. Times New Roman was out and Sans Serif was in, interns were hired, Instagram and Twitter accounts created. As the excitement tapered out however, these platforms had the potential to be – and often did become – little more than additional channels adding to the mountains of digital noise.

Employing a ‘social media manager’, especially in older firms, is often a reactive and reluctant choice, an attempt to cultivate or maintain a ‘connected’ image. Many have become social over sharers, whilst analysing and interpreting valuable, specific and current data has been pushed aside. It is here that the real power of the social is found, and it is within that sphere that enterprising young individuals have identified and filled an important niche.

Instead of liking or posting, they are listening. Listening, in this context, involves a two-pronged approach of artificial and human analysis, teaming people up with algorithms to translate this data into actionable policy, aid or disaster responses. A unique combination of low-tech data entry and tailored research methodologies has drawn out sophisticated and often unexpected conclusions. This has important implications for the way we respond to humanitarian disasters, and has equally brought a set of unique of linguistic and security challenges, especially in the Arab world. We spoke to Rachel, an Arabic scholar, and analyst at one such start-up, Humanitarian Research Services (hrs-i.org), about the niche they have identified in responding to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria.i

The Internet connection is intermittent at best in a café in downtown Amman, Jordan and I’m struggling to hear Rachel over No Doubt’s Don’t speak. “I think this is the loudest café in the world,” she apologises. We are, appropriately, conducting this interview remotely via Skype, oblivious to the multiples links in the chain between London and Amman. At the London premier of The Idol this week in Leicester Square, director Hany Abu Assad describes the process of casting four lead roles via video link to the besieged Gaza strip. “Thank God for technology,” he exclaims to an enthralled audience, quoting a line from the film. We are only just beginning to discover the potential of these technologies as they’re released into the public domain, from art to medicine, free from the constraints of their creators as they take on unexpected roles in an exhausting number of applications.

A poster child of the millennial generation, Rachel speaks fluent Arabic, among other languages, with distinct Egyptian twang, and manages HRS’s research of the Idlib Governorate in Syria. In her words, HRS is “a consultancy that conducts remote based research in Syria for humanitarian organizations that are providing aid to civilians in the conflict.” Remote, here, is the operative word. The firm works closely with a network of roughly 600 sources, across multiple governments in the war torn country, and is in contact with them on a daily basis despite their limited workforce.

There is nothing particularly new about the technology HRS researchers are using; most often analysts and sources communicate via the same platforms we use on a day to day basis to keep in touch across the globe, such as Skype or Whatsapp. Their innovation lies in identifying a particular gap in the field of humanitarian research, and marrying established, widely used platforms with new, scalable research methodologies.

Despite the conflict, Internet access in Syria remains widespread and relatively affordable, even in areas controlled by armed opposition and cut off by the regime. These areas are increasingly interconnected via long range wireless networks, bouncing data between access points inside the currently, eventually funnelling traffic to Turkey and on to the global web.ii

The resulting methodology developed by HRS has allowed researchers to efficiently gather information from multiple sources, cross check this information across their network of contacts, and store current, detailed data in a centralised system. Analysts enter information into a custom built MediaWiki, the same platform that makes Wikipedia tick, with a twist – the Semantic extension. This is an additional piece of software that allows plain text, normally only understood by humans, to be marked up in such a way that it becomes machine readable. All the relevant data are given particular, machine-readable properties, known as semantic annotations. It then becomes possible to run seemingly limitless amount of high detailed smart searches, using a syntax and vocabulary humans are familiar with. An analyst could, for example, plot the daily fluctuation of fuel prices in one locality with corresponding conflict events on a particular transport route. This can be taken further to examine effect such fluctuations might have on electricity supply, and in turn, medical and water access in the surrounding area. This particular type of data collection and categorization is challenging the way we investigate and interact with such data, providing an incredibly detailed, yet holistic understanding of humanitarian crises and political events. The implication for future researchers is also important to consider; post conflict, these resources will prove invaluable for those studying methods to predict, prevent and respond to such crises.

Rachel describes the alternative as potentially dangerous trips between camps for displaced persons in country, or refugee camps in nearby states, conducting long interviews in person, and only then combing through and inputting information retroactively. Before HRS started conducing remote research on a large scale, researchers gathered information by interviewing people who had already left the country. The narrative being fed to organizations providing aid was thus no longer current, making the possibility of responding to time sensitive situations even less likely. “The idea is to get rid of the middle man in the data collection process,” Rachel explains “in order to improve that quality of information humanitarian organizations are working with.”

Although only in their third year of operations, the team at HRS are already considering the future implications of their methodologies. Whilst difficult to imagine given the current situation, researchers are looking at how this kind of enquiry can adapt as the country eventually, and hopefully, moves towards a post conflict state. Rachel tells me about the on going conversations surrounding the needs of humanitarian actors post conflict, as the team tries to pre-empt the data sets and insights that will be of most use. “There’s a particular interest in youth education and mental health programs,” she says, as researches try to draw insights from the data currently being generated and how it might facilitate a deeper understanding of the human needs surrounding a potential future transition.

i In the interests of security of the researchers and their sources, HRS have requested that we not use their staff’s real names.

ii Al Khatieb, Mohammed. ‘Seeking Internet Access, Syrians Turn to Turkey’s Wireless Network.’ Al-Monitor. 14.4.2015. Web. 13.10.2015. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/04/aleppo-rebel-control-internet-networks-syria-turkey.html.

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Published by AsfarEurope in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)