In praise of death

This isn’t meant to be depressing, but you’ll probably find it a little depressing. You’ll find it depressing because by nature and nurture you are inclined to avoid thinking about death as nothing better than a curse, a cross that humanity must bear.

Stop for a moment. Ask yourself: is that what I really believe, or is it just what I’ve been told? Is the idea of a cross that humanity must bear a reasonable belief, or is it just the legacy of a religion that tried to take the sting of death away by putting something even worse in its place?

One of the things that we have lost is a way of dealing with death in a meaningful way. I don’t care that we’ve lost the religious beliefs that helped us to deal with death, by imagining that it was not the end, but that we’ve lost the rituals that went along with those beliefs.

Rituals are important, but you can’t create them out of thin air. Once you’ve lost the religious beliefs, death becomes utterly terrifying, and once you’ve lost the rituals, you no longer have the tools to deal with your terror. Terror becomes your only response.

You should always face your demons down, always spit in the face of fear. Some people go in the wrong direction, and start to think of death as an enemy to be vanquished. Unfortunately this also is a legacy of religious thought – death as the last enemy – rather than a rational response.

So maybe you shouldn’t anthropomorphise death, pretty as she might be. I’m in love with narrative. Treating your life as if it was a story that you’re telling is the best way to live, and death is the full stop at the end of the last sentence of the story; a vital part of the story, but not the point of the story.

That might not work for you, and there’s another way to think about this. Presumably you believe that life has value, but where does that value come from? Value comes from scarcity: if we have an unlimited supply of something, we don’t place much value on it.

Think of air. We don’t usually think of air, because there’s so damn much of it, and so we don’t value it. Take away somebody’s air supply while maintaining the same level of demand, however, and its value to them goes through the roof. The same goes for pretty much anything.

If we manage to eliminate death, then our supply of life would become infinite, and it would be worth nothing. That doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t enjoy life, although hedonic adaptation suggests that we would enjoy it precisely as much as we currently enjoy our more finite existence.

It would however mean that the joy we take in this sunset, or that friendship, would be less than it would if we knew that we only had a certain number of sunsets in our time, or that our friendship would not last forever. This is the curious paradox of immortality: not boredom but banality.

Raging against death is a war without the possibility of a real victory; indeed, the very idea of victory in that battle is meaningless. It might make you feel better about yourself, reassuring you that at least you’re doing something, but it’s no more reasonable than the religious response.

By all means we should seek to extend peoples’ lives, but more importantly we should seek to improve their quality of life. And it’s here that death plays its role, because it’s only because of death that we are able place any value on life. Embrace death, although not as a lover.

The hills were alive with the sound of 2016

I watch a lot of films. Technically it counts as work because I also write screenplays. None of my screenplays have ever been produced because I spend too much time watching films instead of working on my screenplays. Ironic, eh?

This is not a list of the best films of 2016, or even the best films that I watched in 2016. It’s a list of the films that I enjoyed the most, or that had the most impact, or that I would recommend if you asked me for something to watch this evening.

Top Ten

1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Nobody uses genre to mix humanism and humour as effectively as Taika Waititi. A deep sense that we’re all in this together underscored Boy and What We Do In The Shadows, and he carried that through into the mountains of New Zealand.

2. High Rise

At the other end of the genre spectrum, the UK’s most auteurial auteur Ben Wheatley delivered a visually astonishing adaptation of J. G. Ballard; unafraid of delivering maximum levels of alienation, but still be entertaining.

3. Toni Erdmann

The only film more alienating was Toni Erdmann, in which Maren Ade plumbed new depths of awkwardness in the service of a family drama masquerading as a social satire. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

4. Green Room

Meanwhile learning to hate neo-Nazis is the greatest hate of all. A sad farewell to Anton Yelchin, but a great outing for director Jeremy Saulnier, whose method is to inflict as much damage as possible on his characters and see who’s left standing.

5. Hail Caesar!

No Nazis but plenty of Commies towards the end of the Coen brothers rampage through the golden age of Hollywood. It’s telling that a film that’s average by Coen standards was still a ton more fun than most other directors’ best.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings

We’re in a golden age of animation, partly because the line between animation and special effects disappeared. Studio Laika keep it real with stop-motion like I haven’t seen in a long time, married to a wonderful story that feels older than it looks.

7. The Girl with All the Gifts

I discovered after watching that this was adapted from a book by Mike Carey, which explained why it had such a nice barb in the tail, and also why every character came to life even though it was clear they were all going to die. Terrifying.

8. The Nice Guys

Basically I’ll watch anything Shane Black is involved with. As he gets older, he boils his recipe further and further down to buddies and their badinage, until eventually he’ll make an action movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

9. Captain Fantastic

I wasn’t sure that another movie about Viggo Mortensen not bathing would make me happy, but the ensemble performance sold the message-without-a-message. I’m still not sure, but I’m still thinking about it months later.

10. Chi-raq / Sing Street

I’m a big fan of the musicals, and here’s two that prove there’s life in the form above Pitch fucking Perfect. Chi-raq is classic Lee – promises more than it can deliver, but does it brilliantly – while Sing Street is a love letter to everybody who ever loved pop music (or an amateur model).

Honorable Mentions

I am not a serial killer. The only reason this portrait of a monster didn’t make top ten was the third act, which couldn’t hold the tension of the first two.
Arrival. I like Ted Chiang, but I don’t share the adulation he attracts. However Denis Villeneuve did the impossible with this adaptation, and made a classic.
Popstar. I laughed, which is more than most films manage. If Lonely Island can exercise similar quality control in their next movie, I predict great things.
Train to Busan. I know, more zombies. More carnage. More sentimentality. What lifted this above the cliches was the kinetic energy of the set pieces.
Midnight Special. I’m aware that this was just genre fiction for art snobs, but it struck the right balance between 70s chase, 80s scifi and 90s paranoia.
Gods of Egypt. I knew what this was going to be like when I went in, and that made it possible to enjoy it for what it was: Clash of the Titans with Instagram filters.
Hell or High Water. Not many westerns last year, but this qualifies even though it’s social commentary. A film where everybody looks as hangdog as Jeff Bridges?
Neon Demon. Proof that you can have no plot and bad dialogue, but still be astonishing if your visual language pops with handcrafted occult symbolism.

There’s a bunch of films I failed to watch, and probably a few films that I would put in the Honorable Mentions if I could remember them. I hate these top ten type of lists, but it’s too late now.

Fallacies of Dissent

Some of us look at the outrage sparked by Donald Trump’s policies, and wonder why the same outrage wasn’t expressed when Barack Obama pursued similar policies. Obama’s expansion of surveillance powers, increased use of assassination, and refusal to accept a proportionate number of Syrian refugees; all of these should be offensive to anybody who prizes the post-WWII values that were amongst the twentieth century’s few redeeming features. Yet it’s a random executive order prohibiting a small group of foreign nationals from entering the US that spark sufficient outrage to mobilise otherwise placid citizens onto airport tarmac.

Reactionaries use this as a stick to beat their fellow citizens with. Their fallacious argument is that if you didn’t protest before, your protest now is just for show – “virtue signalling”, the bogus and meaningless accusation only ever made by the morally bankrupt. Certainly the current demonstrations are partly a function of in-group formation, as people who have a visceral objection to Donald Trump (i.e. most of those who have been paying attention) rally around the available issues to cement their political identity. Yet this doesn’t invalidate their protests either – just because you have elected to join a cause does not mean that cause is invalid.

More importantly, just because you didn’t protest yesterday does not mean that your protest today is either meaningless or superficial. Civic unrest relies on a series of tipping points. Everybody has their own tipping point for civic action – the point at which they will contact their elected representative, or join a street demonstration, or set fire to a limousine. As more people around them engage in these activities, the social cost of this type of action goes down and the social permission goes up. This type of dynamic is easy to observe; it neither validates nor invalidates the cause that is being promoted or the policy that is being pursued.

This also explains the principle behind not allowing fascists a public platform. Anti-fascists realise that every time a fascist appears in a public forum – even if they are challenged in that forum – a small minority of people reach their tipping point, and begin to actively engage with fascist activity, even if only in the tiniest of ways. Antifa policy now faces two significant problems: first, the internet makes it impossible to no-platform comprehensively; second, the current US administration and rising European far right have already reached a critical mass that provides cover for fascist ideology to flourish, even when politicians are not themselves fascist.

Personally I’m entirely sympathetic to US protests against the policies of Donald Trump, and also supportive of punching Nazis on camera. I have questions about whether people are directing their outrage in the most productive way, but I’m glad they’re directing their outrage somewhere beneficial. Attempts to delegitimize those protests as “fake outrage” are a frankly bullshit tactic, usually wielded by people who have been so atomised that they themselves feel no stake in the collective good of their country, but who would seek to denigrate (and often deny) their fellow citizens one of the key tools available to those citizens in a democracy.

What’s happening is simple: by pursuing an accelerated programme of poorly-planned executive orders without consultation, the administration pushed a large number of people over their tipping point. All three factors play a role: an accelerated programme is more shocking than gradual introduction, poor planning exposes lack of competency, and the lack of consultation reveals a disregard for the norms and laws that constrain authoritarianism. There wouldn’t be so many protestors in the street if the administration had paid attention – but none of that would mean anything if the content of those policies was not terrible to begin with.

Swimming against Brexit

Serbia’s main broadsheet newspaper Politika asked me to write something about Brexit. Since the article was published a) two weeks ago, b) in Serbian, and c) only in hard copy, I don’t think anybody will be too worried if I publish the English language version here…

I haven’t lived in the UK for a long time, but I still think of it as home. I was born and raised in England, but I don’t think of myself as English. When I’m in the UK, I think of myself as a Londoner; when I’m outside the UK, I think of myself as British. Both of those identities are wrapped up in a sense of being European – but the difference with being European is that it is something that I chose, rather than something I was born with.

A truly European identity has only really emerged since 1992, when the Maastricht Treaty established freedom of movement across the European Union. For many people younger than me, therefore, a European identity is something they were born with – and now, they have been denied that identity. One key statistic from the Brexit referendum was that 71% of 18-24 year olds voted to Remain, but only 36% of people over 65 years.

Of course, not all young people voted to Remain, and not all old people voted to Leave. The picture is much more complicated: people with more formal education were more likely to vote to Remain; people without passports were more likely to vote to Leave; people living in areas with higher numbers of immigrants were more likely to vote to Remain; people living in areas more dependent on EU funding were more likely to vote to Leave.

I’ve been living outside the UK for such a long time that I wasn’t eligible to vote. If I had been able to vote, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but many of my family and friends voted to Leave. I understood their reasons, although I didn’t agree with them. Their vote to Leave had nothing to do with evidence, and everything to do with identity. Many people in the UK feel that their sense of identity has been slowly eroded, and that the EU is at least partly responsible.

This is felt in two ways. The first is that the EU has taken political power from the UK, taking away our power to make decisions for ourselves. The second is that the EU has opened up the UK to immigration on an unprecedented scale, changing our culture. However it’s important to note that in Scotland or Northern Ireland the majority voted to Remain in the EU; the Brexit referendum was a proxy vote for an English (and to some extent, a Welsh) identity.

The vote to Leave was a protest vote, by communities that feel frustrated and disempowered and marginalised. Early signs of this protest could be seen in the rapid growth in popularity of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) from around 2008, a party formed around a single issue: taking the UK out of the EU. Despite their success, UKIP are still kept at arms’ length by other political parties, because their Euro-sceptic position has always been wrapped in a barely-disguised xenophobia.

This association of Euro-scepticism and xenophobia explains why there has been a sudden rise in the number of racist incidents since the referendum. Minorities have always faced racism in the UK, but the decision to Leave seems to have been a license for many people to express ideas that were previously unacceptable. This needs to be understood as part of the protest: people looking for somebody to blame for their problems will first attack the most obvious targets.

This is where identity becomes important. The most obvious targets are the people who don’t look like you or sound like you, but in a diverse society such as the UK, those people may still be British citizens. To me, this is the difference between a British identity – which can include anybody, no matter what their race or religion – and an English identity, which is more limited. There is nothing wrong with being English, but the way in which it is expressed now is often unacceptable.

It’s no coincidence that the popularity of UKIP rose after the global financial crisis in 2008, which hit the UK very hard. This protest vote was against political elites who have failed to listen to their constituents for many years: not just those in European institutions, but also in the British parliament. There is a crisis in democracy across Europe, and the Brexit referendum result is a clear signal that people will not tolerate it for much longer.

The European project was built on hope. It was designed to stop Europe from falling back into the horrors of the Second World War. It has been largely successful; it’s almost impossible to imagine members of the EU going to war with each other. There have been plenty of conflicts on the periphery of the EU, such as the break-up of Yugoslavia, but those smaller conflicts have not lead to wider conflicts between EU states, as they probably would have done a century ago.

It’s now likely that the UK will also break up, as Scotland and Northern Ireland have both expressed interest in leaving the union in order to remain in the EU. If that happens, then being “British” will no longer have any meaning, leaving me in a difficult position. Occasionally one of my Serbian friends will refer to me as English, and I’ll correct them: I’m British, not English. That’s because I’m not sure what being English means; but now I’m not sure what being British means, either.

Becalmed in British waters

Today my home country votes on its future. It feels strange to type that phrase “home country”, because I haven’t lived there on a permanent basis for a long time; for so long, in fact, that I am not allowed to take part in that vote, even though my future is inextricably tied up in its future. I have followed the Brexit campaign closely – the first referendum referred to by its hashtag, which is probably a sign of the apocalypse – but I deliberately avoid writing anything about it until the day of the referendum itself.

For the last few months, my friends outside the country have been asking: what will happen? I had no idea: the polls said it was increasingly an even split, but when I spoke to friends and family in the UK, I felt like an island of Remain in a sea of Leaves. I realised early on that the decision was values-based rather than evidence-based. Even I had to recognise that the best evidence the Remain campaign could muster was a case of better the devil you know, rather than something you could test against history.

Nobody knows what happens if the UK leaves, not really: I predict disaster, but I’ve been wrong before. It’s not that I don’t trust economists, exactly, it’s that nobody trusts economists after that global financial crash which none of them saw coming and all of them seem to have convienently forgotten. Economic arguments are not as solid as Remain thinks they are, but at least Remain still accept economic arguments; Leave have stopped pretending that they understand how economics works, and have just started calling economists Nazis.

That’s where my worry rests its head. There are legitimate value-based reasons to vote Leave: to rebuild a sense of identity; to renew a democratic tradition; to regain some control in a chaotic world. I think there are strong arguments against all of those, but I understand those reasons. They make sense to me. The problem is that, while those are the arguments are the port of origin for the Leave campaign, they are not the port of destination. The Leave flotilla currently moors in a harbour of desolate isolation which for some reason they believe is the gateway to the world.

The calm waters of that harbour hide serious monsters just beneath the surface. The xenophobic nature of the later Leave campaign has been well-documented, but they’re just taking advantage of what was already there. Much as I value the rich tradition of English rebellion and non-conformism and grassroots democracy – a tradition which the ruling classes have consistently written out of history – there is a sour side to it, a side that would rather retaliate against an imagined enemy rather than recognise that perhaps our generals do not have our best interests at heart.

The legacy of Brexit, I worry, is that this particular battle will continue long after the campaign itself has been lost. Half the country will be aggrieved by the referendum result, and if that half is Leave, they were already aggrieved to begin with. The leaders of Remain will forget about those people as soon as the sun sets – if they ever thought of them at all – and the leaders of Leave will be free to pursue their less acceptable agendas in the dark. The targets of their wrath will be those that they blame – not just immigrants, but also those corrupted by immigrants.

The killing of Jo Cox was shocking precisely because it an anomaly. I am barely separated from Cox in some ways: we worked for some of the same organisations on some of the same issues; we shared common friends and common views about the way the world should be. I am close to her killer Tommy Mair in a different way, a way that means that I can understand his desperation to act, the way in which his desire for the best for his country could have been polluted by drinking the waters of that harbour far too often.

There is no excuse for what he did. Despite what the more rabid portions of the old right wing believe, there is no war on. We are not enemies unless we choose to make ourselves enemies. Unfortunately some people do choose to make themselves enemies, positively relishing the role, and then they need to locate their own imaginary enemies. The Remain camp need to be aware of this – there is no equivalent group in the Leave camp, holding knife fighting classes in sweaty summer schools – and realise that this group, while useful on a tactical level, will turn on them as well as soon as they need more enemies to justify their existence.

I agree with some commentators that this referendum is about the English rather than the British, but I always relied on my British identity and I don’t know what I’ll do if it disappears like the morning mist. This is the same feeling I had when the Scottish referendum was underway: not a worry about what would happen to the UK, but what would happen to the people of the UK. The English identity never included me, because I’m not white enough. Instead I felt myself British and a Londoner, both categories that welcomed people like me, although for very different reasons. Unfortunately both of those categories are also in question now; but at least they include me.

Why do I need to be included? Because part of the problem is that elites – and I am a member of an elite – are increasingly ungrounded, living in a globalised world rather than their neighbourhood. I’m sure Jo Cox felt it, and that’s why she decided to stand as an MP in her home town. I decided to try something different: while keeping the connections to my home country, deciding to settle somewhere else and build new connections there, and to try as hard as possible to minimize the globalised lifestyle that would pull me away. It’s not been a successful experiment, but I tried.

Identity is important. European was an identity that only really emerged as I was coming of age: the year I started university was the year of Maastricht; I’d spend the first half of the year working my way around western Europe, doing odd jobs and baby-sitting and car delivery and prep chef work in different cities. That identity has been systematically eroded since then, finally worn down by the way in which Greece was dealt with by the EU – specifically by the troika, and more specifically by Germany, a country which I honestly respect for its postwar trajectory.

So today I am in a quandary: I believe the European Union is important, that its achievements far outweigh the price we’ve paid for those achievements. At the same time, I believe that the European Union has failed on a moral level, and risks failing at a political level, due to the actions of its own elites. I believe that the UK should stay in the EU; that we should take ourselves out of this poisonous harbour, steer into and tack across the winds of petty nationalism blowing across Europe, out into open waters where we can set our collective course more clearly for the future.

There’s a lot more that I could write – one thing the EU has taught me is that it’s better to spill words on the page than blood in the field – but there’s no call for more words about this damned mistaken referendum. I don’t think Europe is headed back to its old wars if the UK leaves, although there might be new wars on the horizon, just not the wars the nationalist right is preparing for. I reject their wars; I reject their words; the Europe I choose was born from the Enlightenment, and I would vote Remain, if I could vote at all.

How do we get from here to there? The Futures of Humanitarianism

Crossposted at Medium.com.

In the last ten years there has been a small explosion of forecasts seeking to identify the major trends that will affect relief and development organisations, and to describe how those organisations might prepare to address those trends. Most of these reports are very good, but all of them have a certain scent of panic about them: the sector is alarmed by its own prospects, unconvinced by its own capacity, pressured by its own stakeholders.

This sense of a sinking ship is widely shared by professional aid workers, if not widely articulated: while there is disagreement about how deep are the cracks in the foundation of the humanitarian system, one thing is universally agreed; there is tremendous stress on that system, and the current way of working is not sustainable.

The most obvious symptom of this is financial: the financial needs of the sector are growing, but are not being met. However it’s worth getting some perspective: the $20 billion spent by the humanitarian sector in 2014 might sound like a lot until you find out that the mobile phone app WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion that same year. Despite this relatively small financial presence, humanitarianism is an important part of the international community’s image of itself; it is highly visible, and therefore more important than its budget would suggest.

It was partly in response to these stresses — but more in response to the funding shortfall — that the UN Secretary-General convened the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016. I’ll let an article by OCHA explain:

“Humanitarian action has changed tremendously in the past two decades. The numbers of those in need are growing. New challenges, including climate change, resource shortages, and urbanization are placing additional demands on already-stretched resources. New humanitarian actors as well as new technologies are changing how we respond to crises. Now more than ever, we need a new humanitarian agenda for a new era in humanitarian action, one that embraces a wide range of actors, forges new partnerships and spurs more innovative and effective ways of working. How do we get from here to there?”

Now that’s a question worth asking. In this article, I want to sketch out the beginnings of an approach that might get us from here to there, if we’re courageous enough to take it. I know this article is long — most humanitarian staff barely have time to skim the headlines on the Guardian Development Professionals network, let alone battle through 5000 words — but trust me: it will be worth your time.

  • Who’s afraid of the big bad future? or, how the humanitarian community talks about the future.
  • Why is my crystal ball so cloudy? or, what stops us from talking about possible futures.
  • How to think about the Futures or, how things tend to be too near, too far, too low or too high.
  • There are no conclusions or, why don’t you tell us how to fix the humanitarian sector?

(more…)

Beating Hindsight: Forecasting for Humanitarian Planning and Preparedness

Why is the future important?

All human endeavours are based on forecasting, i.e. attempts to narrow down possible future outcomes to a manageable range. We generally find forecasting extremely challenging due to psychological biases and cultural conditioning, but recent research has shown that better forecasting can be achieved through a particular combination of mental habits and skills, which some people already possess and most people can be trained in.

The humanitarian community has recently focused on improving leadership, but leadership needs to be supported by more rigorous and strategic thinking in order to be effective. Forecasting as a discipline for predicting the future based on past events and present insight is not pursued in a systematic and coherent way in the humanitarian sector. A small number of humanitarian organisations that pursue and promote evidence-based analysis have begun to move towards forecasting based on scenarios, but these organisations are in the minority.

As a result, although individual staff and units working within humanitarian organisations are asked to make forecasts all the time for the purposes of planning and response, this forecasting is almost solely estimation based on instinct, with very little attempt to improve the accuracy of estimates based on feedback. Despite this, these forecasts form the basis of planning and preparedness activities, which then form the basis for operations when an emergency strikes; forecasts are also required to support advocacy and fundraising activities.

This note explores a specific way in which the humanitarian community might improve its capacity in this area.

Why we struggle to see ahead

The challenges to forecasting in the humanitarian sector can be divided into two categories:

1. Outside

Humanitarian emergencies are often felt to be fundamentally unpredictable, due to a combination of three factors:

  1. The perceived randomness and variable impact of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes;
  2. The complex nature of human-caused emergencies such as wars and the resulting refugee flows;
  3. The unpredictability of wider political and economic systems in which humanitarian action is embedded.

These concerns are valid, but each of them can be addressed. In the first case, floods and earthquakes are not random, although they are unpredictable. They are more usefully predicted through technical means rather than forecasting, although forecasting can provide an analytical supplement to such early warning. The impact of such natural disasters is something that can be estimated, and this is one of the areas where forecasting can effectively combine with other human-led analysis to provide better estimates.

The second two points, complex emergencies and the wider political and economic systems in which they take place, are highly amenable to human prediction. Although algorithm-based prediction is increasingly accurate, a combination of human and computer analysis is likely to remain the most reliable approach to forecasting. The Good Judgement Project has repeatedly shown that it is possible to improve forecasts of the extremely complex situations that humanitarian action responds to.

2. Inside

Internal challenges are likely to be more difficult to resolve. Evidence provided by early warning projects has historically not lead to improved response due to the lack of political will inherent in a sector where incentives to respond are poorly aligned and decisions are not evidence-based. Early warning has been of limited success for a number of reasons, including:

  1. They are necessarily limited to quite specific domains (e.g. famine early warning) and have frequently been vague in terms of predicting impact;
  2. The sector has a high barrier to entry that external experts find difficult to breach, requiring a large investment in partnership work;
  3. The community struggles to incorporate new conceptual models into its workflows, since those workflows have been developed in an ad hoc and reactive manner.

These challenges must all be addressed — particularly in communicating to the key stakeholders — but are not insurmountable. We propose to establish a forecasting tournament that would complement rather than compete with existing early warning systems; the latter would provide additional information which forecasters would draw on. A tournament would also offer an entry point for external experts (and non-experts) that would enable them to bring their expertise to bear on humanitarian problems. Forecasting can be pitched to humanitarian organisations as much as an exercise in capacity development as it is an exercise in prediction.

The third point is perhaps the most difficult to address. While the tournament approach is sufficiently novel and engaging that humanitarian actors are more likely to take an interest in it, poor organisational policies and accompanying lack of resources mean that evidence-based decision-making is still not the norm. The fact that improved forecasts will never predict the future with 100% certainty is likely to be offputting to senior decision-makers, regardless of the accuracy of their current forecasts.

This will need to be addressed by educating decision-makers in how to accept uncertainty, and to communicate that to other stakeholders (including the media). We will also need to experiment with ways of connecting forecasting directly to response, such as coordination agreements that set out clear actions once a forecast reaches a certain threshold — for example, a 90% probability of internal displacement might trigger pre-positioning of relief materials in the receiving area. Forecasting needs to be part of wider efforts such as this to move the sector towards evidence-based decision-making.

The Humanitarian Forecasting Tournament

The best available evidence suggests that forecasting tournaments are the most effective way to achieve better forecasts and improve forecasting skills. We could envision such a tournament managed by the Start Network, but developed with existing and new partners. Individual Start member agencies might wish to play a role in developing and managing the tournament, but participation would be open to staff of all agencies regardless.

The tournament itself will be a variation on the type of tournament run by the Good Judgement Project, but with a focus on topics relevant to the humanitarian sector (rather than wider political and economic developments) and on questions with a direct impact on humanitarian operations. Such forecasting seems to work best in a 6 -18 month timeframe, which is the perfect scale for decision-making the existing humanitarian programme cycle.

The first stage

will be to design such a tournament, to be tested with 4–5 Start member organisations. It is likely to be more effective if it focuses on a single response, and might be incorporated into Start’s plans for country-level consortia. We would aim to identify 4–5 national and international staff from within each participating member to take part in the initial tournament round, preferably a combination of field, regional and HQ staff.

Participants will receive full briefings about forecasting, particularly how to improve their own forecasting and work with others in group forecasting (which has been shown to improve accuracy in most cases). They will also receive ongoing support in the form of online resources to help improve their skills, as the tournament hopes to identify people with both an interest in and aptitude for forecasting who could then receive additional support to improve their skills.

The initial tournament will last 3 months (including platform development and participant training), based on 12 forecasting questions that could focus on areas such as:

  • Projected population flows under displacement scenarios
  • Damage estimates following major earthquakes
  • Likely duration of long-term crises such as droughts
  • Possible outcomes of conflict negotiations

The second stage

will expand:

  1. The Tournaments to include a wider range of emergency responses, creating national tournaments in multiple countries either in crisis or at risk. National tournaments could be aggregated to address regional issues (e.g. the Syrian war or the European migrant crisis), and a linked global tournament could potentially address high-level trends such as aid flows and policy debates.
  2. The Participants to include forecasters from outside the sector who would be interested to participate in the tournament as a way of contributing towards better responses. This expanded tournament will make it possible to test to what extent mixed forecasting groups (i.e. humanitarian professionals and non-professional forecasters) can achieve better results than solely humanitarian participants.
  3. The Audience to include decision-makers within the sector who might benefit from better forecasts. This will require monitoring and evaluation to establish to what extent such forecasts improve the quality of decisions, and gain greater insight into what organisational processes are needed to embed this type of evidence-based analysis into the sector. This will also act as proof of concept for further investment in forecasting in the sector.

The third stage

will encourage humanitarian organisations not just to use existing forecasts provided by third-party organisations, but to promote forecasting within their own organisation. This should not be limited to data or policy units, but encouraged throughout the organisation to improve the quality of decision-making more generally; it will be especially important to incorporate into monitoring, evaluation and learning processes.

Positioning the Tournament

The tournament should be positioned as complementary to other future-oriented activities. The Start Network is involved in a number of such activities, including pilots based around insurance mechanisms and future roundtables that encourage encourage discussion about the long-term development of the sector. Partnerships should be encouraged with other platforms in this space, along three main axes:

  • Platforms that collate primary and secondary data to provide situational awareness, e.g. ACAPS GEO. Launched in October 2013 by ACAPS, this provides an “easily accessible, updated snapshot of natural disasters and complex emergencies at a global level… combined with a more in-depth analysis” and has become a critical part of the humanitarian information ecosystem. ACAPS has used the GEO data to identify long-term trends and build scenarios in its Crisis Overview 2015: Humanitarian Trends and Risks for 2016. [pdf]
  • Platforms that aggregate analytical material to support better decision-making, e.g. INFORM. This was launched in November 2014 by a coalition led by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Team on Preparedness and Resilience and the European Commission. It is a “global, open-source risk assessment for humanitarian crises and disasters” that provides shared evidence from a range of partners, but does not provide any kind of forecast based on its rankings.
  • Platforms that use a similar approach to forecast in related areas, e.g. the Early Warning Project. This was launched in December 2015 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is based on a combination of statistical risk assessment and an expert opinion pool (i.e. a tournament approach). The EWP aims to forecast mass atrocities as part of wider early warning in order to prevent such atrocities from occurring. This gives it a more tightly defined and overtly political aim than a Humanitarian Forecasting tournament would have.

Conclusion: can forecasting save lives?

Forecasting offers a tremendous opportunity for the humanitarian community to increase the timeliness and efficiency of its responses, leading to improved outcomes for disaster-affected communities. Existing approaches to preparedness and planning — particularly in key areas such as logistics and security — could be improved by better forecasting, and operational responses in fast-changing environments could be made more flexible.

Better forecasting can lead to better policy and planning; not just because it gives us more information about possible future developments, but because the type of thinking required for better forecasting encourages more rigorous thinking in general. Better forecasting will benefit specific organisations and the overall sector, contributing to the gradual improvement in their use of evidence and quality of analysis. Forecasting skills are possible to identify and can be developed using a tournament-style approach, leading to improved capacity within the sector on a more sustainable basis.

Although this approach may only result in incremental improvements in the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian action, even relatively minor improvements will result in more lives saved, more livelihoods preserved or restored, and a humanitarian sector that is better prepared to meet its responsibilities.

the small print

Originally shortlisted for SFX magazine’s The Writing Dead competition last year, I tag this short story as “John Grisham with zombie subcontractors”, but feel free to disagree.


I started working at the Where Value Corporation on the same day that my first wife died. I didn’t think anything of it at the time: we hadn’t spoken directly to each other for nearly two years, and even our lawyers were sick of the sight of us.

With hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the fact that my lawyer was sick of the sight of me. I pointed out that a potent cocktail of emotional distress and legal ennui may have influenced my decision to sign on with the corporation.

“I can show you a copy of your contract,” my boss offered, “although obviously I’m under no obligation.”

“Perhaps you could read it out to me,” I suggested, “although obviously you’re under no obligation.”

As he read it out to me, my mind wandered.

*

My first day on the job, the day my wife died, the day my lawyer screwed me in the most lawyerly way you can imagine — well, that day was not so bad. Where Value is a great company to work for (up to a point, but we’ll get to that point a bit later): the work is rewarding, the perks are amazing, the buffet is satisfying. I was rewarded, I was amazed, I was sated.

“Glad to have you working with us,” my boss told me repeatedly, in that first week, and he meant it.

“Glad to be working with you all, Glenn,” I told him, and it was true. I thrived at Where Value: recruited into the Hypothetical Matter department, researching potential applications of dark fluid, promoted to the Chaplygin Modelling unit. I started dating my co-worker Crystal Haight, who was considerably more attractive and intelligent than my dead wife, and played non-Euclidean Ultimate Frisbee for the department in the company league.

“I think we should get married,” Crystal told me, exactly three months after we started dating.

“You think we should get married?” I responded, because for some reason I found the proposal (at least, I think it was a proposal — she was renowned for her diffidence) puzzling rather than alarming. “Wow.”

“I think we should get married,” she repeated, her conviction condensing like droplets on the side of a cool can of cola. We were married exactly three months later. My career within Where Value went from strength to strength. We had our first child exactly three months after our marriage. My career within Where Value faltered slightly due to lack of sleep. Crystal returned to work exactly three months after giving birth.

This was the point at which Glenn called me into his office for what was known internally as a Confidential. These briefings were a regular part of the life of a Where Value employee, a mixture of performance appraisal and electropsychometric auditing. Sometimes a Confidential could get quite dark, but so far mine had gone swimmingly.

I think this was mainly due to Glenn, who was the best boss I ever had, and a really genuine guy. “How are you feeling?”

“How am I feeling?” I replied, “I feel great. Great wife, great baby, great job. I mean, what else am I supposed to feel?”

“What else are you supposed to feel?”

“What else am I supposed to feel?” I didn’t understand the question. Glenn looked down at the papers on his desk, which were strictly ornamental, since Where Value was a completely paperless organisation. “Glenn, I feel great. Really. What’s this about?”

“What this is about,” sighed Glenn, “is Crystal.” He told me that, during Crystal’s maternity leave, Where Value had obtained evidence that she had been passing Where Value research findings to our competitors, in return for cold hard cryptocurrency. “The evidence is damning,” he told me. He showed me the evidence.

“Wow,” I said. It was damning.

“Did you know anything about this?” he asked.

“Did I know anything — Glenn, how can you even ask me that? I didn’t know anything about this until you presented me with this damning evidence.”

“I believe you. This room is one big lie detection facility, and right now it’s screaming into this earpiece that you’re innocent.” He took the earpiece out and put it on the desk in front of him.

“If you know if somebody’s lying, then why don’t we bring Crystal in here right now, and ask her what’s going down?” I demanded.

“We don’t want her to stop passing on our research,” Glenn admitted, “We just want her to pass on particular pieces of research.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Corporate counter-espionage. Whatever you do, don’t confront Crystal about this.”

I confronted Crystal about it that evening. She was cradling the baby monitor in her arms as if it was the baby. “How could you do this to me? To us? To Where Value Corporation?”

“The Where Value Corporation doesn’t care about us! Have you read the small print in your contract?”

“Have I read the small print in my contract? Of course not! My lawyer read it on my behalf, and signed in my absence!”

“Well maybe you should call your lawyer!”

“Not again,” I muttered after she had left, taking the baby with her. I sat in the black leather gamechair that Crystal had bought me for my birthday, visions of another expensive and protracted voyage of divorce scrolling down my mind.

“I confronted Crystal,” I admitted to Glenn the next day.

“You confronted Crystal?! Why, man, why?”

“It seemed like the right thing to do?” I offered.

Glenn put his head in his hands. “That explains why she hasn’t come to work today.”

He sent me back to work, but Crystal’s absence in the laboratory was like a dipole magnet missing from a particle accelerator. My mind was not on my work, and that’s why I failed to observe the necessary security protocols, sealed myself in the hazmat locker, and died from dark fluid poisoning early the next day.

*

Perhaps you remember that I told you that Where Value is a great company to work for up, to a point; it turns out that it’s a great company to work for up to the point of death.

“Wow,” I said, after Glenn had finished reading my contract, and I had realised just how badly my lawyer had screwed me. “So the life extension protocols included in my incentives package aren’t optional.”

“I’m afraid not,” said Glenn, “It’s a great offer, though. If you hadn’t died prematurely in an easily preventable industrial accident due to no fault of Where Value corporation, we would have doubled your lifespan — at minimum!”

“So what happens next?”

“Since you did in fact die prematurely &c &c, Where Value reserves the right to extract the full value of your labour.”

“I got that from the contract reading. What does that mean in practice?”

“It’s not good news, I’m afraid,” and I still believed him, because he was still the best boss I ever had, and it looked like he was going to be the only boss that I ever had ever again. “We could put you back in the lab; although, to be honest, I think team morale will really suffer, what with Crystal gone and you dead.”

“I can see that.”

“What usually happens to employees in your position is that they’re tasked with special duties. Off the books, so to speak. Dead and thus deniable.”

There’s an induction process for undead employees, but Glenn told me immediately what my first assignment was going to be. That’s why I’m sitting here now, in a darkened hotel room in another city, practising drumming my dead digits on the coffee table beside me, waiting for the door to open –

She screams when she sees me, not just because she’d already heard that I was dead, but because I look a mess. Dark fluid poisoning is no laughing matter, corruption and consumption of the flesh; and the exoskeletal armour that Where Value have provided me with is basically steampunk cosplay with a lot of gratuitous torque.

Somehow Crystal’s tremendous beauty doesn’t affect me the way it used to, nor do I feel the slightest fatherly feeling when she drops the baby. I don’t feel any fear when she scrabbles inside her jacket and comes out with a teeny tiny gun, which she waves at me like it was a cigarette lighter. My emotional landscape is a lot flatter since I died, all the hormonal ups and downs steamrollered by whatever proprietary concoction is pumping around my veins now.

The employee handbook that Where Value gave me during my induction (Welcome to your new life as a contractual zombie with Where Value!) doesn’t give you any tips on zombie etiquette. “Just be yourself,” my death coach recommended, but somehow that doesn’t work for me right now.

“Hello, Crystal,” I say as I fold myself up from the couch, although standing and speaking are a lot more difficult than I remember, “We need to talk.”

Imperial Designs

I’ve given a few talks in Belgrade this year – The Cut and Paste City and The Lonely Planet Guide to Uqbar – and most recently Imperial Designs for the Bricolage Lab series hosted at Nova Iskra. I told everybody at Bricolage that I would post notes from the talk with added links so they could follow up SO HERE WE GO.


When I first proposed this talk to Emily, I wanted to follow up on a talk I gave at Mikser House last year, after the floods in the Balkans. In that talk, I tried to talk about how we could introduce the idea of resilience to Serbia, in anticipation of future floods and other disasters. So that was the idea that appeared in the publicity notes for this talk. Unfortunately as I prepared to give the talk, I realised that it was going in a slightly different direction – not completely unrelated, but not exactly talking about the same thing. So I hope this works.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:09The quote is from Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. (Harari gave an online course based on the book on Coursera; the course is no longer running, but you can still watch the videos.) We don’t like to admit this, even to ourselves. Britain likes to think it got rid of its imperial legacy when it got rid of its colonies; Serbia likes to think it got rid of its imperial legacy when it got rid of the Ottomans and Hapsburgs. But empires have a longer shelf life than that – not least because those legacies are literally built into the world around us. In the UK, entire cities were built – paid for – by the slave trade; in Serbia, Belgrade bears the marks of both Ottoman and Hapsburg empires.

empire-strikes-back-alternative-posterIn case Slide 1 was too subtle, here’s The Empire Strikes Back again in all its poster glory. (Despite my best efforts, I am excited about the new Star Wars movie.) Because of our history, we have a romantic image of “Empire”. Empires are evil; therefore opposing empires is good. I oppose empires; therefore I am good. This version of empire is useful, even if there isn’t an actual empire to oppose. It makes it easy for us to feel like Luke Skywalker. We’ve been raised to think of empires as being inherently bad, but as Harari points out, “Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires.” Empires are usually seen as a bad deal by those that are conquered, but we soon learn to live with them. Until we don’t. Remember: it’s easy to be Luke Skywalker. Nobody wants to think that they might be Darth Vader.

I_Could_Tell_You_But_Then_You_Would_Have_to_be_Destroyed_by_Me_02 Speaking of Star Wars, the X-Wing fighter appears in this patch from Kirtland Airbase in New Mexico. The original version was hit by a legion of lawyers from George Lucas’ entertainment empire, and had to be modified so it wasn’t so obviously X-wing. Lucas’ empire is a different sort of empire, an entertainment empire. During the Cold War, this sort of empire was very important, an extension of the power of the US and the USSR. That’s what lead the CIA to its ‘long leash’ policy of funding key developments in modern art in the US. These military patches were collected as part of a project by the artist Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. The explicit violence in some of them is interesting. It’s not surprising – it’s the military, which is institutionalised violence – but the people wearing them think of themselves as good guys.

giphyThe “Nazis” comedy sketch from Episode 1 of That Mitchell and Webb Look should make all the good guys nervous. Presumably the military staff who made that patch think of themselves as the Rebels in Star Wars, the freedom fighters; but of course they are more like the Empire, complete with their own death stars. (We’re probably the Ewoks.) This is not a design error, this is what the design is supposed to do: tell your enemies that you are worse than they are. Empires in particular need to do this – to promote their own narrative at the expense of others – using violence if necessary. ‘Narratives’ aren’t just stories – stories like Star Wars – but also design. Narratives are made visible in the types of organisations that we participate in; in the build environment we move through; in the objects that we use every day.

ChandBaoriStepwell Here’s an example: the Chand Baori Stepwell in Rajasthan, built in the 8th and 9th centuries. (You can watch a video about Chand Baori, and another about stepwells, based on an article by journalist Victoria Lautman.) Stepwells were a critical part of water management, particularly in western India and other dry areas of Asia, the earliest known stepwell forms date from around 600AD. The Mughal empire encouraged stepwell construction, but the administrators British empire decided that stepwells should be replaced with pumped and piped water systems modelled on those developed in the UK – a ‘superior’ system. It was of course also a system that moved from a communal and social model of water management to a centralised model of water management – and the British loved centralised management, because it’s easier to control.

130617.twp_.laughter.01Here’s another model of water management – the Playpump, which received a lot of media attention and donor support after it was proposed in 2005. The basic idea was that kids playing on the big roundabout would pump water up from the well for the whole village. This doesn’t seem very imperial at first sight: it looks like these kids are having fun, and the village is getting water. Unfortunately it was a massive failure because it flat out didn’t work, although the Playpumps organisation is still around; if you want to know more about that failure, read this article in the Guardian and this lessons learned from the Case Foundation, and listen to this Frontline radio show on PBS. TL;DR: the Playpump didn’t work because it was designed by outsiders who didn’t understand the communities: a classic case of design imperialism. There are lots of examples just like this, where the failure is easy to see but the imperialism is more difficult to spot.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:29

About 5 years ago there was a big hoo-hah about an article called “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” by Bruce Nussbaum. Nussbaum accused people and organisations working on design that would alleviate poverty as yet another imperial effort. This depends on defining “empire” as a power relationship – an unequal power relationship, where the centre holds the power (and resources) and the periphery will benefit from those resources only when the centre decides to give it to them. At the time, there was a lot of discussion around this idea, but that discussion has died now. That’s not because it’s no longer an issue: it’s because a new imperial model, more subtle than Nussbaum’s idea, has successfully taken root, and few people in the design world even realise it.

iu1HVuHynggFTThis gif actually shows insecure nodes on the internet, but it’s a useful proxy for overall internet activity (brought to you by the Internet Census 2012). If you were born after 1990, then you were born into this empire of the world wide web; and most people in the world live under it, even if they don’t realise it. However there are actually two empires competing to design our 21st century: the first, an empire of secrecy and control; the second, one of openness and collaboration. The tension at the heart of the internet – a distributed system designed by a military-industrial complex – made them both possible. The question is, how do we know which side we’re on?

Secret_Society

The first empire is being built mainly by supervillains. Supervillains used to look this – the Secret Society of Supervillains – which meant you could see them coming a mile away. It’s more difficult these days but, thanks to James Bond movies, it’s quite easy to tell a supervillain from their plans:

  • Developing a squadron of robot attack dogs? You’re probably a supervillain.
  • Running a fleet of drones that kill anybody you don’t like? You’re probably a supervillain.
  • Planning to control all the worlds information? You’re probably a supervillain.

It’s important to remember that supervillains don’t think that they’re supervillains. Rule number one of supervillainy: supervillains often think that they’re the good guys, or at least that their plans are for the benefit of other people.

Worldwide_NSA_signals_intelligenceI have no doubt that the intelligence agencies think that they’re the good guys, even as they intrude into our lives, but the Five Eyes programme is probably the real secret society of supervillains. The little we do know about Five Eyes, the biggest surveillance network in the world, is largely because of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. I don’t want to talk about because it just depresses me.

refugees-smartphoneThe second empire is being built from below, in fragments. Here are some migrants recently arrived in Greece, taking photos of a map with their mobile phones. Some people think that these people can’t be that poor if they have mobile phones, and that’s a little bit right and a lot wrong. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works now. 85% of the global population is now under cellphone coverage: between 3.5 and 4 billion people now own phones, even amongst the poor; in India, the average monthly spend on phone credits is around $4. What’s interesting is that the smartphone isn’t really a phone: it’s a computer linked to the internet that also makes telephone calls.

static1.squarespace.comIt’s always worth considering this chart on mobile phone uptake from Benedict Evans – which, in an age of smartphones, is also a proxy for access to computing power – just to remind ourselves that we really have no idea what’s happening. The question is: what are all those migrants doing with all those mobile phones? They’re doing the main thing that access to this technology enables people us to do: to organise and collaborate.

Tahrir_Square_-_February_9,_2011Here’s Tahrir Square in Cairo, epicentre of the Egyptian revolution. Much of that revolution was orchestrated via the internet, but it couldn’t have succeeded if the design of Tahrir Square wasn’t perfect for political protest, as architecture professor Nezar AlSayyad pointed out in an interview: “Twenty-three streets lead to different parts of it… There isn’t one big boulevard that you can block off, and there are two bridges that lead to it as well… It’s also the case that all of downtown Cairo, which isn’t that big, has a street that leads to side or another of Tahrir Square.” Tahrir Square was built 140 years ago, based on the design of Haussmann’s Paris – an old imperial design exported to Egypt, from which the new empire now strikes back. The new imperial model is a lot more difficult to exploit, however:

ChartOfTheDay_1573_Top_10_Web_Properties_nWho controls the internet? These organisations own the internet. Also, big governments. Also, covert engineers. Definitely not you. If you’re a designer who thinks that design is solely about form, you might think Apple is more important than these companies, but that’s not really true. Google has a large say in the things we look at; Amazon over the things we buy; Facebook over the things we share. In any case the infrastructure of the empire is in the hands of a very small number of people, which we generally feel is a “bad thing”.

Tahrir_7_525_525The quote posted by these Tahrir Square protestors is from the excellent comic book V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. V is an anarchist whose political strategy doesn’t go beyond destroying the government, so the comic ends when (spoiler) he succeeds. Successfully toppling a government is not a common problem for anarchists, but who wants to read a comic about anarcho-syndicalists discussing agricultural policy? (Note: I do.) The protestors are likely to have seen the quote in the mediocre film that was based on the graphic novel, and they probably watched it on a pirate copy downloaded from the web. The dying American entertainment empire – that relic of the Cold War – has also become a transmission vehicle for very anti-imperial messages, but at the same time those messages depend on the the new internet empire for their dissemination. It’s confusing.

Book bloc shield smallV for Vendetta is basically about anarchy vs control, and so it feeds into the narrative of anybody who wants to protest authority. This sheet, illustrating a design for improvised riot protection, was shown at this year’s “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The exhibition examined the role of objects in movements for social change, and how political activism creates design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design. The idea of disobedient objects is an interesting one: this is homemade riot gear, designed to equalise the situation between protestors and police. They were designed in one place – based on bitter experience – and then distributed via the web to other places. The exhibition had a set of 8 instruction sheets for various objects, which you can download and make them yourselves.

WikiHouseGlobal_Village_Construction_SetHere are some more things that you can make yourself: Wikihouse and the Global Construction Set have developed blueprints for housing and farming respectively, extending the principles of open source from the intangible world of software design to the tangible world of industrial design. They draw on expert collaborations made possible by the web; the final products are distributed freely via the web on open source licenses. In fact the products are never final – because they are driven by communities, we are encouraged to adapt and update them for ourselves. These are constructive examples of how the web facilitates building the empire from below, and the vital role that design plays in that empire.

187050_183_28179_KJ9Wn56rcThe internet has made it possible not just to collaborate to bring those designs to life, but also to put those designs in the hands of people who need them, just as the technology becomes available to make them – technology such as 3D printing, one of the most exciting development in design practice in a long time.

field-ready-haiti-project-talk-at-humanitarian-innovation-conference-2015-15-638 3D printing still feels like it should be science fiction, but that medical clamp was printed by Field Ready during their pilot in Haiti, a project funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (full disclosure: I’m on the HIF grants panel). They’re experimenting right now with printing small medical devices to overcome supply chain problems.

RTEmagicC_90fe6eaf9e.jpgLooking even further ahead gives us the opportunity to imagine what the world might look like. I’m fascinated by the amount of design fiction out there, and I wonder why it’s grown so quickly in the past few years. I could give you a ton of links here, but you can do your own surfing. This is a piece of Design Fiction from the Institute For The Future: the Open Resilience Box imagines disaster relief based on free energy provided by a Tesla box, including a fabrication unit, desalination straws, wireless lightbulbs, re-purposed military robots and mesh network drones. Design fiction gives us the opportunity to think about ourselves in the future – it gives us the opportunity to imagine what we might be building today to make a better empire tomorrow.

The ReportI’m kind of a fraud: I’m not a designer, I’m a writer. This year I worked on The Report, a science fiction novella based on research into Vienna’s Smart City strategy, looking back over Vienna’s history as a source of a surprisingly large number of alternative social projects. It was commissioned as part of the 2015 Vienna Biennale; I think the Biennale organisers liked it, but it’s hard to tell. The story was partly about how ridiculous the whole Biennale concept is as a branding exercise for cities in the 21st century, using visual language to undermine that branding. The theme of the novella was similar to this talk: the continual tension between creativity and control, and the choice we might have to make between them.

Screenshot from 2015-11-10 08:32:54Another quote from Yuval Harari brings us back to where we started, but with a new question to ask ourselves: given that we have no choice but to live in this empire of the internet, which empire will we choose?

Q&A:

During the talk I mentioned that I was planning to show video of robot dogs, but I didn’t because they freak me out. They don’t really freak me out – I think they’re astonishing feats of technology – but what they say about our attitudes towards warfare worries me. They’re being built by Boston Dynamics, who started out under military contracts from DARPA, have recently been acquired by Google X, and who post a ton of promo videos. Particularly funny is this supercut video of robots falling over.

One question raised the issue of whether our education system enables people to recognise the trap that they might be in, and give them the tools to make their own way. The short answer is no. The industrial model of education is not equipped for the 21st century, although I remain hopeful that the internet will also disrupt education as it has other sectors. At the same time I am sceptical of the impact of the most-hyped projects (such as the Khan Academy and the wide range of MOOCs) – it seems to me that we need something that learns from a wider range of educational approaches.

We also discussed whether there is an underlying philosophy to the invisible empire of the internet. I believe that there is, although it isn’t necessarily made explicit. One early artefact of this philosophy is A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace; one early analysis of aspects of it is The Californian Ideology. Evgeny Morozov is interesting on this topic, but with a pinch of salt, since in a relatively short time he has gone from incisive commentator to intellectual troll. It’s interesting that a few Silicon Valley big beasts are trained in philosophy, although to be honest this training doesn’t seem to be reflected in their actual philosophy.

“If all You Have is a Hammer…” - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?

This article was originally published on MobileActive on 20 October 2010. At the time there was a lot of debate about the article because people misinterpreted it as a blanket dismissal of crowdsourcing, which it plainly was not. The MobileActive website is no longer… Active, but people continue to ask me about the article, so I am re-posting it here. I stand by most of my critique, particularly as many of the points were later confirmed by Ushahidi’s own evaluation of the Haiti project. I am not posting it to renew the discussion, but because I believe the points it makes about new technology still stand, particularly at the end of the article: For while the tools that we now have at our disposal are important, we have a responsibility to use them for the right tasks.

The original article was accompanied by an Editor’s Note: In this article, guest contributor Paul Currion looks at the potential for crowdsourcing data during large-scale humanitarian emergencies, as part of our “Deconstructing Mobile” series. Paul is an aid worker who has been working on the use of ICTs in large-scale emergencies for the last 10 years. He asks whether crowdsourcing adds significant value to responding to humanitarian emergencies, arguing that merely increasing the quantity of information in the wake of a large-scale emergency may be counterproductive. Instead, the humanitarian community needs clearly defined information that can help in making critical decisions in mounting their programmes in order to save lives and restore livelihoods. By taking a close look at the data collected via Ushahidi in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, he concludes that crowdsourced data from affected communities may not be useful for supporting the response to a large-scale disaster.

1. The Rise of Crowdsourcing in Emergencies

Ushahidi, the software platform for mapping incidents submitted by the crowd via SMS, email, Twitter or the web, has generated so many column inches of news coverage that the average person could be mistaken for thinking that it now plays a central role in coordinating crisis responses around the globe. At least this is what some articles say, such as Technology Review’s profile of David Kobia, Director of Technology Development for Ushahidi. For most people, both inside and outside the sector, who lack the expertise to dig any deeper, column inches translate into credibility. If everybody’s talking about Ushahidi, it must be doing a great job — right?

Maybe.

Ushahidi is the result of three important trends:

  1. Increased availability and utility of spatial data;
  2. Rapid growth of communication infrastructure, particularly mobile telephony; and
  3. Convergence of networks based on that infrastructure on Internet access.

Given those trends, projects like Ushahidi may be inevitable rather than unexpected, but inevitability doesn’t give us any indication of how effective these projects are. Big claims are made about the way in which crowdsourcing is changing the way in which business is done in other sectors, and now attention has turned to the humanitarian sector. John Della Volpe’s short article in the Huffington Post is an example of such claims:

“If a handful of social entrepreneurs from Kenya could create an open-source “social mapping” platform that successfully tracks and sheds light on violence in Kenya, earthquake response in Chile and Haiti, and the oil spill in the Gulf — what else can we use it for?”

The key word in that sentence is “successfully”. There isn’t any evidence that Ushahidi “successfully” carried out these functions in these situations; only that an instance of the Ushahidi platform was set up. This is an extremely low bar to clear to achieve “success”, like claiming that a new business was successful because it had set up a website. There has lately been an unfounded belief that the transformative effects of the latest technology are positively inevitable and inevitably positive, simply by virtue of this technology’s existence.

2. What does Successful Crowdsourcing Look Like?

To be fair, it’s hard to know what would constitute “success” for crowdsourcing in emergencies. In the case of Ushahidi, we could look at how many reports are posted on any given instance — but that record is disappointing, and the number of submissions for each Ushahidi instance is exceedingly small in comparison to the size of the affected population — including Haiti, where Ushahidi received the most public praise for its contribution.

In any case, the number of reports posted is not in itself a useful measure of impact, since those reports might consist of recycled UN situation reports and links to the Washington Post’s “Your Earthquake Photos” feature. What we need to know is whether the service had a significant positive impact in helping communities affected by disaster. This is difficult to measure, even for experienced aid agencies whose work provides direct help. Perhaps the best we can do is ask a simple question: if the system worked exactly as promised, what added value would it deliver?

As Patrick Meier, a doctoral student and Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships for Ushahidi has explained, crowdsourcing would never be the only tool in the humanitarian information toolbox. That, of course, is correct and there is no doubt that crowdsourcing is useful for some activities — but is humanitarian response one of those activities?

A key question to ask is whether technology can improve information flow in humanitarian response. The answer is that it absolutely can, and that’s exactly what many people, including this author, have been working on for the last 10 years. However, it is a fallacy to think that if the quantity of information increases, the quality of information increases as well. This is pretty obviously false, and, in fact, the reverse might be true.

From an aid worker’s perspective, our bandwidth is extremely limited, both literally and metaphorically. Those working in emergency response — official or unofficial, paid or unpaid, community-based or institution-based, governmental or non-governmental — don’t need more information, they need better information. Specifically, they need clearly defined information which can help them to make critical decisions in mounting their programmes in order to save lives and restore livelihoods.

I wasn’t involved with the Haiti response, which made me think that perhaps my doubts about Ushahidi were unfounded and that perhaps the data they had gathered could be useful. In the course of discussions on Patrick Meier’s blog, I suggested that the best way for Ushahidi to show my position was wrong would be to present a use case to show how crowdsourced data could be used (as an example) by the Information Manager for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Coordination Cluster, a position which I filled in Bangladesh and Georgia. Two months later, I decided to try that experiment for myself.

3. In Which I Look At The Data Most Carefully

The only crowdsourced data I have is the Ushahidi dataset for Haiti, but since Haiti is claimed as a success, that seemed like to be a good place to start. I started by downloading and reading through the dataset — the complete log of all reports posted in Ushahidi. It was a mix of two datastreams:

  • Material published on the web or received via email, such as UN sitreps, media reports, and blog updates, and
  • Messages sent in by the public via the 4636 SMS shortcode established during the emergency.

I was struck by two observations:

  • One of the claims made by the Ushahidi team is that its work should be considered an additional datastream for aid workers. However, the first datastream is simply duplicating information that aid workers are already likely to receive.
  • The 4636 messages were a novel datastream, but also the outcome of specific conditions which may not hold in places other than Haiti. The fact that there is a shortcode does not guarantee results, as can be seen in the virtually empty Pakistan Ushahidi deployment.

I considered that perhaps the 4636 messages could demonstrate some added value. They fell into three broad categories: the first was information about the developing situation, the second was people looking for information about family or friends missing after the earthquake, and the third and by far the largest, was general requests for help.

I tried to imagine that I had been handed this dataset on my deployment to Haiti. The first thing I would have to do is to read through it, clean it up, and transcribe it into a useful format rather than just a blank list. This itself would be a massive undertaking that can only be done by somebody on the ground who knows what a useful format would be. Unfortunately, speaking from personal experience, people on the ground simply don’t have time for that, particularly if they are wrestling with other data such as NGO assessments or satellite images.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that I somehow have the time to clean up the data. I now have a dataset of messages regarding the first three weeks of the response. 95% of those messages are for shelter, water and food. I could have told you that those would be the main needs even before I arrived in position, so that doesn’t add any substantive value. On top of that, the data is up to 3 weeks old: I’d have to check each individual report just to find out just whether those people are still in the place that they were when they originally texted, and whether their needs have been met.

Again for the sake of argument, let’s say that I have a sufficient number of staff (as opposed to zero, which is the number of staff you usually have when you’re an information manager in the field) and they’ve checked every one of those requests. Now what? There are around 3000 individual “incidents” in the database, but most of those contain little to no detail about the people sending them. How many are included in the request, how many women, children and old people are there, what are their specific medical needs, exactly where they are located now — this is the vital information that aid agencies need to do their work, and it simply isn’t there.

Once again for the sake of argument, let’s say that all of those reports did contain that information — could I do something with it? If approximately 1.5 million people were affected by the disaster, those 3000 reports represent such a tiny fraction of the need that they can’t realistically be used as a basis for programming response activities. One of the reasons we need aid agencies is economies of scale: procuring food for large populations is better done by taking the population as a whole. Individual cases, while important for the media, are almost useless as the basis for making response decisions after a large-scale disaster.

There is also this very basic technical question: once we have this crowdsourced data, what do we do with? In the case of Ushahidi, it was put on a Google Maps mash-up — but this is largely pointless for two reasons. First, there’s a simple question of connectivity. Most aid workers and nearly all the population won’t have reliable access to the Internet, and where they do, won’t have time to browse through Google Maps. (It’s worth noting that this problem is becoming lessimportant as Internet connectivity, including the mobile web, improves globally — but also that the places and people prone to disasters tend to be the last to benefit from that connectivity.)

Second, from a functional perspective, the interface is rudimentary at best. The visual appeal of Ushahidi is similar to that of Powerpoint, casting an illusion of simplicity over what is, in fact, a complex situation. If I have 3000 text messages saying “I need food and water and shelter”, what added value is there from having those messages represented as a large circle on a map? The humanitarian community often lacks the capacity to analyse spatial data, but this map has almost no analytical capacity. The clustering of reports (where larger bubbles correspond to the places that most text messages refer to) may be a proxy for locations with the worst impact; but a pretty weak proxy derived from a self-selecting sample.

In the end, I was reduced to bouncing around the Ushahidi map, zooming in and out on individual reports — not something I would have time to do if I was actually in the field. Harsh as it sounds, my conclusion was that the data that crowdsourcing of this type is capable of collecting in a large-scale disaster response is operationally useless. The reason for this has nothing to do with Ushahidi, or the way that the system was implemented, but with the very nature of crowdsourcing itself.

4. Crowdsourcing Response or Digital Voluntourism?

One of the key definitions of “crowdsourcing” was provided by Jeff Howe in a Wired article that originally popularised the term: taking “a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.” In the case of Haiti, part of the reason why people mistakenly thought crowdsourcing was successful, was because there were two different “crowds” being talked about.

The first was the global group of volunteers who came together to process the data that Ushahidi presented on its map. By all accounts, this was definitely a successful example of crowdsourcing as per Howe’s definition. We can all agree that this group put a lot of effort into their work. However, the end result wasn’t especially useful. Furthermore, most of those volunteers won’t show up for the next response — and in fact they didn’t for Pakistan.

The media coverage of Ushahidi focuses mainly on this first crowd — the group of volunteers working remotely. Yet, the second crowd is much more important: the affected community. Reading through the Ushahidi data was heartbreaking, indeed. But we already knew that people needed food, water, shelter, medical aid — plus a lot more things that they wouldn’t have been thinking of immediately as they stood in the ruins of their homes. In the Ushahidi model, this is the crowd that provides the actual data, the added value, but the question is whether crowdsourced data from affected communities could be useful from an operational perspective of organising the response to a large-scale disaster.

The data that this crowd can provide is unreliable for operational purposes for three reasons. First, you can’t know how many people will contribute their information, a self-selection bias that will skew an operational response. Second, the information that they do provide must be checked — not because affected populations may be lying, but because people in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale disaster do not necessarily know all that they specifically need or may not provide complete information. Third, the data is by nature extremely transitory, out-of-date as soon as it’s posted on the map.

Taken together, these three mean that aid agencies are going to have to carry out exactly the same needs assessments that they would have anyway — in which case, what use was that information in the first place?

5. Is Crowdsourcing Raising Expectations That Cannot be Met?

Many of the critiques that the crowdsourcing crowd defend against are questions about how to verify the accuracy of crowdsourced information, but I don’t think that’s the real problem. It’s the nature of an emergency that all information is provisional. The real question is whether it’s useful.

So to some extent those questions are a distraction from the real problems: how to engage with affected communities to help them respond to emergencies more effectively, and how to coordinate aid agencies to ensure and effective response. On the face of it, crowdsourcing looks like it can help to address those problems. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Disaster response on the scale of the Haiti earthquake or the Pakistan floods is not simply a question of aggregating individual experiences. Anecdotes about children being pulled from rubble by Search and Rescue teams are heart-warming and may help raise money for aid agencies but such stories are relatively incidental when the humanitarian need is clean water for 1 million people living in that rubble. Crowdsourced information — that is, information voluntarily submitted in an open call to the public — will not ever provide the sort of detail that aid agencies need to procure and supply essential services to entire populations.

That doesn’t mean that crowdsourcing is useless: based on the evidence from Haiti, Ushahidi did contribute to Search and Rescue (SAR). The reason for that is because SAR requires the receipt of a specific request for a specific service at a specific location to be delivered by a specific provider — the opposite of crowdsourcing. SAR is far from being a core component of most humanitarian responses, and benefits from a chain of command that makes responding much simpler. Since that same chain of command does not exist in the wider humanitarian community, ensuring any response to an individual 4636 message is almost impossible.

This in turn raises questions of accountability — is it wholly responsible to set up a shortcode system if there is no response capability behind it, or are we just raising the expectations of desperate people?

6. Could Crowdsourcing Add Value to Humanitarian Efforts?

Perhaps it could. However, the problem is that nobody who is promoting crowdsourcing currently has presented convincing arguments for that added value. To the extent that it’s a crowdsourcing tool, Ushahidi is not useful; to the extent that it’s useful, Ushahidi is not a crowdsourcing tool.

To their credit, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by at least some of the Ushahidi team, and there seems to be something of a retreat from crowdsourcing, described in this post by one of the developers, Chris Blow:

“One way to solve this: forget about crowdsourcing. Unless you want to do a huge outreach campaign, design your system to be used by just a few people. Start with the assumption that you are not going to get a single report from anyone who is not on your payroll. You can do a lot with just a few dedicated reporters who are pushing reports into the system, curating and aggregating sources.”

At least one of the Ushahidi team members now talks about “bounded crowdsourcing” which is a nonsensical concept. By definition, if you select the group doing the reporting, they’re not a crowd in the sense that Howe explained in his article. This may be an area where Ushahidi would be useful, since a selected (and presumably trained) group of reporters could deliver the sort of structured data with more consistent coverage that is actually useful — the opposite of what we saw in Haiti. Such an approach, however, is not crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing can be useful on the supply side: for example, one of the things that the humanitarian community does need is increased capacity to process data. One of the success stories in Haiti was the work of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project, where spatial data derived from existing maps and satellite images was processed remotely to build up a far better digital map of Haiti than existed previously. However, this processing was carried out by the already existing OSM community rather than by the large and undefined crowd that Jeff Howe described.

Nevertheless this is something that the humanitarian community should explore, especially for data that has a long-term benefit for affected countries (such as core spatial data). To have available a recognised group of data processors who can do the legwork that is essential but time-consuming would be a real asset to the community — but there we’ve moved away from the crowd again.

7. A Small Conclusion

My critique of crowdsourcing — shared by other people working at the interface of humanitarian response and technology — is not that it is disruptive to business asusual. My critique is that it doesn’t work — not just that it doesn’t work given the constraints of the operational environment (which Ushahidi’s limited impact in past deployments shows to be largely true), but that even if the concept worked perfectly, it still wouldn’t offer sufficient value to warrant investing in.

Unfortunately, because Ushahidi rests its case almost entirely on the crowdsourcing concept, this article may be interpreted as an attack on Ushahidi and the people working on it. However, all of the questions I’ve raised here are not directed solely at Ushahidi (although I hope that there will be more debate about some of the points raised) but hopefully will become part of a wider and more informed debate about social media in general within the humanitarian community.

Resources are always scarce in the humanitarian sector, and the question of which technology to invest in is a critical one. We need more informed voices discussing these issues, based on concrete use cases because that’s the only way we can test the claims that are made about technology. For while the tools that we now have at our disposal are important, we have a responsibility to use them for the right tasks.