(The following is a guest blog entry by one of the key folks involved in AtrocityWatch, a not-for-profit which is trying to use big data to prevent atrocities. AtrocityWatch is co-hosting a hackathon at Cloudera’s offices, 1001 Page Mill Road, Palo Alto, CA 94305 on Friday, June 6th, from 3.00pm PT to Midnight).
A big THANK YOU to Cloudera for hosting the first Humanitarian Hackathon!
At its heart, AtrocityWatch is both a big global idea and a personal motivation.
Allow me (Vin Siegfried, Chief Ops and Tech, AW) to share a little bit about why I am involved.
I grew up in the Bronx in NYC in the sixties and seventies. Like most kids of the era, I spent my spare time on the streets, playing typical New York street games, Skelly, King Queen, Ringolevio, and Stickball. Being a small boy on the streets made me virtually invisible to adults and I got to see and hear a lot of things perhaps not meant for someone my age—but the experience was invaluable in terms of giving me “radar” related to the surface and the sub-surface of things.
It put me in touch with two very different messages: First that it was normal for a lot of people of different backgrounds to live together. The Bronx at that time was truly a melting pot of ethnicities and religions. This was a great message. The second message, unfortunate and dark, was that people can be really clannish and hateful. As a small boy walking the streets, I witnessed countless racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, anti-African-American, anti-everything conversations. Bigotry and racism were not as underground in America then as now. Many people would express their distastes for the “others” in between complaining about the weather and planning the family event for the weekend.
In school, I learned about the atrocities that have taken place in the world, and somewhere along the way I made the connection between the hateful things I had heard in the streets and the horrible things which have happened in history. It seemed to me that at some point along the way in each mass genocide there was probably a small group of ignorant hateful people speaking to each other about why “the others” were such an inconvenience to have around.
When I got a little older I started to read science fiction—Arthur C. Clarke was a favorite. The Sci-Fi books I liked the most were all about transcendence, the human race getting to a different and better level. I think the books influenced my interest in technology as well, so I wound up pursuing a career in operations and technology for banks. It also seemed that not exterminating each other over some trivial difference would be a good aspirational goal for all of us. Maybe transcendence did not necessarily require meeting an alien species; maybe it was more centered in simply treating each other better.
Many years later I met Geoff Green in a business meeting in the cafeteria of a bank where I was working. He started to talk about his plans for AtrocityWatch. Since AtrocityWatch needs to manage a lot of data, it became clear that my background managing data in tech could be useful to the organization. For me, AtrocityWatch is about using technology to help us all get to the next level of taking collective responsibility. To date, we have gathered a few people and groups to support our cause: Tom Plunkett, noted Big Data author; the Deloitte Organization, who conferred their first Humanitarian award on us; and a number of others. Geoff has done a great job of driving this concept towards reality, with both passion and awesome management skills.
What do we mean when we say use technology to prevent atrocities? Well, we mean a few things. First, you need to know that there are very good people who have devoted their lives to studying atrocities and helping populations who are subjected to them. The United Nations Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is a good focal point for these activities, and a good site to refer to to get a sense of what is going on in the humanitarian community. The most common label used is “humanitarians.” Second, you need to know that humanitarians do not have a cohesive set of tools which would allow them to understand what is going on, though there are some tools available. The community is still evolving and working in the field trying to meet global needs. For example, there are YouTube channels for the Syrian conflict, but there is no easy way to see the patterns in all that the videos that can tell us. For example, it is often difficult to tell whether the videos are all from the same place and around the same time period, or whether there is a cohesive and systematic pattern discernible from the YouTube channel that would indicate a group in power is using brutal force against a whole class of people. It is also difficult to tell if the videos are real. These are all challenges we want to take on as part of AtrocityWatch.
Those of you reading this are aware of the power of big data and the power of the solutions Cloudera and others have enabled: to know what consumers want, to know what risk factors are emerging in an enterprise. Doesn’t it make sense to use the same powerful capabilities to prevent atrocities? This is at the heart of our mission. And we could use your help! This is a big problem, one of the biggest. We are humbled by the scale and complexity of this challenge.
Where are we? We are heading towards our first fully functional prototype, ideally this year. We are working with a number of organizations (notably, Deloitte) to marshal resources to get to the scale we need to be successful. The hackathon at Cloudera is an important step for us, in terms of getting the word out and seeking innovation in this space. If you are interested, drop by. If it does not work for your schedule but you want to help drop us a note.
Here is some more information:
If you want an example of the power of a humanitarian analyst to save lives, look here. Eliot Higgins lives in England, and being a humanitarian analyst is something he decided to do on his own. He did analysis of social media to definitively identify that the bombs being lobbed in Syria were a specific design capable of holding chemical weapons.
And the simple idea that someone could let you know if they are safe (or not) and that information could be tracked to judge if some concerted effort at elimination is taking place in a region, is very powerful.
There are groups which are using Big Data and innovative social media techniques to deal with crises. One person I admire in this space is Patrick Meier. His excellent blog, iRevolution, offers great examples and some open source solutions.
Thanks for reading, see you at the hackathon!