Digital mapping is now an integral part of emergency response. Can internet-based digital crisis maps also help to document or even prevent war crimes?
As the political uprising in Syria escalated towards conflict in 2011, a group of internet activists and volunteers calling themselves ‘Humanitarian Tracker’ created the digital crisis map site called ‘Syria Tracker’. Based on a platform developed by the crisis-mapping pioneers Ushahidi, the Syria map charts the location of violent events and allows viewers to read first-hand accounts and watch videos of incidents uploaded by witnesses in the field.
Culled from Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, emails and other first-hand sources, the reports tell of gun-fights, attacks on civilians, arrests, air raids, bombings, executions and the destruction of religious centres — some of which may be violations of international humanitarian law. Could this kind of first-hand, digital reporting create a public record that might ultimately discourage violations of the rules of war? To learn more, Red Cross Red Crescent magazine spoke with Hend Alhinnawi, one of the co-founders of Humanitarian Tracker.
Hend Alhinnawi: We’re talking about very simple technology here. If you have access to a cell phone and the internet, you can report what is happening to you. And that’s a very powerful tool because now, the power is back with the people on the ground.
RCRC magazine: Where do the reports come from?
About 93,000 people have filed reports that we have published. Each one of those 93,000 is a person who has been verified. However, we’ve only published about 6 per cent of the reports we’ve received over the last three years. We are very conservative in terms of what we publish because we’d rather grossly underestimate than publish things we can’t verify.
In addition, we have mined information from more than 50,000 news reports — from official media sources, as well as blogs and social media — so that people coming to the website can have a holistic view of what is happening on the ground. We have also established partnerships and trusted relationships with people we’ve worked with over the past three years. When we get reports from them, we know they are accurate. But we corroborate these reports with other sources as well.
In the meantime, the reporting has also gotten better. People are sending videos or photos that include much more information that helps us verify the report. Sometimes, they include a landmark to verify the location or a photo that shows this is the person who been killed, his name, etc. Usually, the victim’s age is the hardest thing to verify.
How do you maintain credibility with all sources in a conflict that is so polarized?
Humanitarian Tracker has no political or religious affiliation. The cause is purely humanitarian. The goal is simply to make sure that no victim and no crime goes unrecognized. We maintain that this website is not a place for a political discussion.
But how can you ensure that digital crisis maps do not become another battlefield in a propaganda war?
The whole point of the forum is that anybody can submit a report. You could be government affiliated or you could be an average citizen. You have a voice and you have the ability to submit a report about what is happening to you.
It’s true that the overwhelming majority of reports we get tend to be from one side. But we were one of the few who published reports about allegations of rape, a series of attacks on women, by the Free Syrian Army. The decision to publish these reports was unpopular. People asked us, “Why are you taking sides?” But the whole point of Syria Tracker is that we don’t take sides. If these people are committing crimes, we want to make sure it is documented.
Do you have any sense of whether or not the reporting you are doing has an effect on the behaviour of combatants?
We hope so. But I’m not really sure that a report might prevent something on the ground. But if that information was brought to an organization that is responsible for bringing people who’ve committed war crimes to justice, then those reports become very valuable. There is evidence to bring people to justice on both sides. So perhaps accountability later on could be a deterrent.
Have you had any interest from organizations which want to look at the data for evidence of war crimes?
Yes. If there is a crime and we are able to verify it, we have an interest in the people who are responsible being brought to justice. But our main job is just to make sure the data are available to the public, whether it’s a humanitarian group that wants to know where there is the most need or someone who wants to know more about a massacre that has taken place.
Can this kind of platform also play a role in protecting civilian populations?
Definitely. For example, we talked to one organization that is interested in setting up a rape shelter in an area where there were definitive cases of targeted rape. So Syria Tracker is taking the information we have been given and other organizations are able to pinpoint the information and take it from there.