Big Data, ICTs and New Media in Times of Crisis: Presentation at ETH, Zurich

On March 28 2014, as part of the cooperation between the ICT4Peace Foundation and the ETH International Security Network (ISN), the ISN hosted a Roundtable Discussion on “Big Data, ICTs and Social Media in Times of Crisis,” which featured Sanjana Hattotuwa of ICT4Peace Foundation.

Sanjana’s complete presentation and the Q&A session with participants which followed is now on ISN’s website, which among other things focuses on how web-and mobile-based media have enhanced our ability to respond to complex emergencies and political processes.

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In the first segment on ISN’s website, Sanjana Hattotuwa outlines how Big Data, as disseminated by ICTs and social media, is increasingly functioning as the “nervous system of the world.” In the second segment, Mr Hattotuwa performs two tasks – he elaborates on the links between Big Data and traditional media reporting, and then details how data derived from ICTs has been increasingly used to cope with natural disasters and other complex emergencies. In the following segment, Mr Hattotuwa concludes his presentation by outlining how Big Data can influence policymaking at all levels of government. In doing so, he also explores the accompanying challenges and unresolved questions associated with this mountain of information, which include the safeguarding of human rights and privacy, and the concept of ‘sunset clauses’.

In an extract from the question and answers session, Mr Hattotuwa revisits the question of whether Big Data does provide added value for policymakers, particularly given its ability to lead them astray on the conclusions they draw. He also considers the impact this aggregated form of data is having on institutional transparency and accountability, and the extent to which these norms are being incorporated into the operational DNA of government agencies.

In the final video segment, we see Mr Hattotuwa grapple with other important data-related questions. For example, how will Big Data and the new media that disseminates it impact the legitimacy of states and international institutions? And furthermore, are these political entities agile enough to respond to the anti-institutional sentiments that have spread as a result of new media and the information it shares?

The question and answer session was chaired and moderated by Peter Faber, Head of ISN Strategy and Operations.

ICT4Peace Foundation would like to thank Julia Kreienkamp and Piotr Switalski of ISN for the preparation of this meeting.

Humanitarian Drones: New magazine on FlipBoard

To complement the launch of the UAViators platform and network, the ICT4Peace Foundation started to curate a FlipBoard magazine on the use of UAVs and drones for non-lethal purposes, with a particular focus on humanitarian use-cases.

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Subscribe to the FlipBoard magazine via your tablet or smartphone here.

To download the FlipBoard app, click here.

The ICT4Peace Foundation also maintains FlipBoard magazines, with hundreds of subscribers, around Big and Open Data, Crisis Mapping and the use of Technology in Peacebuilding.

UAViators: Exploring the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes


Photo credit: Pia Zaragoza, via UNICEF

In March 2014, Patrick Meier invited the ICT4Peace Foundation to give input into what at the time was a draft note around creating a global network of civilian UAV pilots to support humanitarian efforts. The draft concept note was a compelling call to focus on what is already a growing practice of using UAVs for non-lethal purposes, ranging from post-disaster needs assessments to their use in development programmes. The stigma justifiably associated with and perception of UAVs as vehicles of lethal harm is rooted in, to date, their predominant real-world use as offensive machines of war, anchored to discourses on terrorism. Meier’s vision, as we saw it, was to create the space and a platform to study, explore, champion and critically analyse examples where UAVs were used “in a safe and ethical way that gains public acceptance and trust” by creating “a global volunteer network of responsible civilian and hobbyist UAV pilots to facilitate information sharing, coordination and operational safety in support of humanitarian efforts.”

The Foundation’s feedback, by its Special Advisor Sanjana Hattotuwa, flagged the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s reference to UAV’s at  the Human Rights Council’s 25th Session in March this year, and was anchored to,

  • Issues of spectrum management, so as to avoid mid-air collisions and radio frequency interference that in high density operations, can lead to inadvertent harm to operators and others in and around flight paths,
  • The pre-dominant need for ethical frameworks to govern the use of UAVs in humanitarian domains and contexts, and a rights based approach to their introduction, including the information collected as a consequence of their operation.
  • To create a global forum for an open, civil discussion on the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes
  • The need to differentiate (in terms of operational ceiling but also based on intent) UAV operations in humanitarian contexts with UAVs that provide Internet access, for example, as mooted by several companies to date.
  • Working with existing groups and platforms like Crisis Mappers, OpenStreetMaps and Tomnod to see how UAV derived imagery could be used to crowdsource and expedite analysis.
  • How higher frequency of image gathering along with better resolution, the greater possibility of community ownership of and access to UAV acquired information, far lower operational costs in comparison to satellite image acquisition and analysis, faster capture to delivery mechanisms and other factors position UAV imagery as that which can complement (not replace) traditional satellite imagery based analysis and responses around disasters.
  • The challenge of regulating or governing UAV use around disasters, and despite these challenges, the need for some sort of regulation and governance around their use via a Code of Conduct and other enabling legislation on international and domestic levels
  • The need to proactively generate ideas and critically analyse use cases around UAV use in non-lethal contexts, so that best practices can be drawn up from their increasing use globally

Subsequent to this feedback and the launch of, the Foundation was invited by Patrick Meier to become one of the network’s founding advisors, comprised of some of the world’s leading thinkers, researchers and operators of UAVs in non-lethal domains.

We are particularly pleased at the launch of UAViators (pronounced wavy-ay-tors), and recognise the thought-leadership of Meier and others who have contributed to this global effort at envisioning, and indeed, hopefully directly shaping the future of UAV operations in humanitarian and other peacebuilding, peacekeeping and conflict transformation contexts. 

The Foundation will continue to work with UAViators to provide, first and foremost, a rights based and ethical perspective on operations - both current and planned - and also work with others in further developing a Code of Conduct. We invite you to contribute, and join this unique network.

Don’t lose sight of the people behind big data: Article on

Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation, Sanjana Hattotuwa, writes to on the importance of maintaining a rights based perspective when dealing with and understanding ‘Big Data’.


“These questions pose a central challenge for civil society in post-war Sri Lanka and similar settings: to convince fellow citizens that data in the public domain can strengthen democracy post-war — but also alert them to the fact that no matter how benevolent data systems seem, any platform that hordes information without meaningful accountability or oversight endangers peace and courts violent conflict.

Simple measures can help meet that challenge. Compelling data driven journalism initiatives that use big data to interrogate social and political issues can help flag trends and patterns around governance.  And civil society can use big data to strengthen its own research and advocacy, without relying on anecdotal evidence alone.

Civic education, for one, can alert people to both the benefits and dangers of big data. Global institutions like the UN have a role in this, and through big data they could even improve their effectiveness.

Importantly, these conversations need to put a human face to big data — to treat the datasets not as de-personalised information seen in the aggregate but as vast collections of individuals, who all have rights. If we lose sight of this, big data risks becoming a tool of and for the worst of us, when it should give life to and strengthen a more democratic future.”

Read the full article on here, which is part of a special edition looking at big data for development.

Innovation in UN peacekeeping: Discussing the state-of-the-art and the future

On April 7th a high-level panel with the two UN Under-Secretaries for Peace-Keeping, Ameerah Haq and Hervé Ladsous was organized at IPI in New York focusing on advances in technologies and other innovations in peacekeeping that have the potential to make operations more effective and adaptable as well as make peacekeepers safer and more efficient were organized at IPI. The panel focused inter alia on the recent deployment of the UAVs as part of the UN Peace Keeping Mission in DRC and its political opportunities and challenges. See their presentations here.

During the Q&A Daniel Stauffacher of ICT4Peace commented as the first speaker from the floor that a well performing Crisis Information Management System (UN CiMS) has to be in place at the Mission level, to make efficient use of the data and information obtained with such as tools as UAV, but also new media, crisis mapping and crow-sourced data. See his intervention here and the response of USG Haq here and USG Ladsous here.

A second panel with representatives of DPKO and DFS and the private sector discussed specific technological solutions and their operational challenges. See the presentation of Ms. Suzanne Shanahan, Chief Field Information Solutions Section, United Nations Department of Field Support (DFS) here.

Crisis Management: Understanding the Real Impact of ICTs, Social Media and Crisis Mapping

The idea of trying to better understand the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in promoting and building peace emerged, at a policy level, in the context of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)[1]. In preparing for the first phase of the Summit, held in Geneva in 2003, it was recognized that the scope of what was considered primarily a technical matter of communications and infrastructure needed to be enlarged to encompass content, development, socio-political goals and emergent fields such as e-health, e-education, and e-government. Information and communication technology has become a societal issue presenting both opportunities and challenges. The WSIS “Geneva Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action” consequently emphasized the central role of ICTs in many areas of economic and social development. The risk of a growing ‘digital divide’, where ICTs could reinforce rather than reduce inequalities was acknowledged, and recommendations were made in order to turn the digital divide into a digital opportunity for all.

Read the article in full here.

Presentation at The Crisis Management Centre (KMZ) of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On 25 March 2014, The ICT4Peace Foundation was invited to make a presentation at The Crisis Management Centre (KMZ) of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs on big data and social media’s role and relevance in crisis management, with a special focus on emergency and crisis response from a governmental perspective.

The Foundation’s presentation, made by Sanjana Hattotuwa, focussed on how big and often open data already in the public domain could in most cases give digital smoke signals around crises just after, or sometimes, just before they occurred, and moreover, help in relief and response efforts as well. Sanjana gave examples from the developed world, but also from countries and regions that had less developed web architectures, but comparably, if not more developed mobile web frameworks and smartphone usage patterns. Speaking to the growth of digital humanitarians and a global volunteer and technical community, with examples from the Philippines and elsewhere, Sanjana flagged key concerns around the use of big data, including algorithmic bias and importantly, the governance and rights framework around this data, which could in some cases place communities at greater risk. Given Switzerland’s commitment to human rights, Sanjana introduced the need to critically embrace the power, reach and potential of new and social media, and at the same time, develop internal capacities to ensure veracity and operational effectiveness wasn’t hostage to the volume and variety of data streams.

Contributing to the ensuing discussion, former Ambassador and President of the ICT4Peace Foundation, Daniel Stauffacher, noted how the UN system itself had changed since Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 to more fully embrace social and new media, and how Switzerland’s funding, inter alia, had directly contributed to efforts around, for example, the population and updating of the vital Common Operational Datasets around UN member states, through the good offices of OCHA.

The discussions also covered the use of cartography and data visualisation to concrete examples of how social and new media could aid specific challenges faced by the Ministry.

OHCHR meeting in Geneva: Using ICTs to strengthen human rights

On 26 March 2014 Sanjana Hattotuwa and Daniel Stauffacher from the ICT4Peace Foundation continued its ongoing engagement with the Peace Mission Support and Rapid Response Section and the Methodology, Education and Training Section at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights around the need to embrace new media and ICTs to strengthen High Commissioner’s mandate. For several years, these consultations focused on two key aspects: The need to critically observe and engage with developments in social and new media and secondly - given the increasing surveillance of human rights defenders and the myriad of ways through which ICTs can be used to spread hate, hurt and harm - how new tools can aid vital communications in fragile and violent contexts. 

Given the ICT4Peace Foundation’s considerable field level experience in using new media and ICTs to strengthen human rights, our engagement with OHCHR’s important mission is to strengthen its effectiveness in a complex world, and place help those in charge of rapid response and commissions of inquiry make a better use tools that can help in information gathering, sharing, dissemination and archival. The meeting on the 26th in Geneva focused also on ways key ICT tools, that could help OHCHR’s internal workflows, could be prioritized and adapted.

ICT4Peace briefs the UN in Geneva on the cyber security challenge and what can be done

On 21 March 2014, former Ambassadors Daniel Stauffacher (Switzerland) and Paul Meyer (Canada) from the ICT4Peace Foundation, were invited by Director-General Michael Moller, United Nations Office at Geneva for an Executive Briefing for Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives to the UN on the topic: “The Cyber Security Challenge: What Can be Done?”.

The presentation of Daniel Stauffacher you can find here, and of Paul Meyer here.

Concern about cyber security has been increasing rapidly within the international community.  Hostile cyber operations by State and non-State actors have heightened the threat perception among many stakeholders.  Although cyber-war has not happened yet, offensive cyber activity has occurred as part of wider conflicts: e.g. 2007 against Estonia, 2008 against Georgia, 2010 against Iran and 2013 against South Korea.  In the contemporary context of the Syrian war and the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea, denial-of-service attacks have been reported. Cyber action can also create real damage in the physical world.  The Stuxnet virus resulted in the destruction of equipment in Iran. Destruction and/or disruption of certain critical infrastructure such as power, transport, water, and the financial sector etc. are feasible.

It should be noted that cyber capabilities do not fit traditional security strategies because of the difficulty in attributing an attack, and the rapidly evolving technology produced by the private sector and civil society. For the present, it may be unrealistic to pursue arms control agreements, because we are dealing with multiple actors, both state and non-state, and the lack of commonly accepted definitions of a cyber weapon or cyber warfare.

In this light, ICT4Peace is calling for an urgent international discussion on the norms and principles of responsible state behavior in cyber space, including on the conduct of cyber warfare, and its possible exclusion or mitigation. ICT4Peace launched a project at the Seoul Conference on Cyberspace 2013, that would support processes such as the 2014 UN GGE and the preparation of Hague Conference on the Cyberspace in 2015. Under this ICT4Peace project an  initial set of research will be carried out in 2014, under the leadership of Dr. Eneken Tikk, Senior Fellow for Cyber Security, IISS and Senior Advisor ICT4Peace Foundation. At the same time, and in order to establish a universal understanding of the norms and principles of responsible state behavior in cyber space, the international community needs to turn to the United Nations (such as UN General Assembly, UN  Group of Governmental Experts on Cyberspace, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Geneva Plan of Action, Action Line C5 etc).

To promote global cyber stability and security, the international community should develop internationally agreed Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in appropriate forums  (e.g. Bilateral Agreements, the OSCE Working Group on CBMs, work at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), UN GGE etc.). In order to support these efforts, ICT4Peace has published, with the support of the Swiss Government, a publication: “Confidence Building Measures and International Cybersecurity“.

Multi-stakeholder consultations such as the London – Budapest – Seoul – The Hague series of Conferences on Cyberspace should be continued to enhance political awareness and reach out to new constituencies.

There is some urgency in activating these efforts. Diplomacy has lagged behind developments in the politico-military sphere, which threaten to present the international community with a series of faits accomplis , that we might prefer to avoid. Cyberspace is a human creation and humans are currently shaping its nature – multilateral diplomacy can and should have a role in determining the character of this new domain.

A challenge is the lack of clarity about what cyber security entails and the confusing use of terminology associated with it. The term “cyber attack” is being attributed to everything from a sophisticated, destructive cyber payload like Stuxnet to a crude denial of service assault against a website.  To some a “cyber weapon” is a frightening, if still non-existing armament, while to others it constitutes a piece of electronic surveillance kit that might be put to nefarious ends.  We need to start exercising some discipline and precision as to our use of terms. Such clarity will also be a condition for agreeing to eventual arrangements governing this realm of international security.

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The UN General Assembly ‘s 68th session adopted three major resolutions regarding cyber security, each one generated by a different committee, namely the First on “Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security”; the Second on “Information and communications technologies for development” and the Third on “The right of privacy in the digital age”.  All of these resolutions addressed cyber security-related themes, yet they did so from the respective perspectives of international security, development and human rights.

This fact speaks to the complexity and interrelationship of the issues associated with cyber security, but also underscores the challenge the UN and other multilateral bodies face in trying to come to terms with this multi-faceted subject. Part of the solution to this problem lies in its disaggregation. There is no unified field theory of cyber security and hence no comprehensive solution to the problems it generates.

In other words, if we are going to make progress in developing international cooperation on this intrinsically global public policy issue, we will need to delineate specific topics and focus on devising norms and measures relevant to these. Trying to bring into the process too many concerns and priorities is likely to proliferate counter-productive linkages and complicate problem solving in general. Less may be more when it comes to defining the object of our diplomatic efforts.

More output by ICT4Peace Foundation on cyber-security can be read here.

Report: ENTRi course on new media in crisis information management


From 17 to 21 March at the European Academy Grunewald in Berlin, Germany, Sanjana Hattotuwa, Special Advisor at the ICT4Peace Foundation led the training of a new and unique ENTRi course on the use of new media for crisis management.

The training was conducted in collaboration with the renowned Zentrum für Internationale Friedenseinsätze gGmbH (ZIF), based in Berlin, and introduced 24 participants from a range of backgrounds to a variety of new media tools and platforms used in the collection, presentation, verification, and dissemination of information.

Participants used several leading web based tools, apps and services as part of interactive activities and group work, while learning about digital communications security as well in order to protect information and sources.

Photo from the training course can be found here.

Cedric Vidonne from UNHCR, Rina Tsubaki from the European Journalism Centre, which recently published the acclaimed Verification Handbook, and Eoghan Mac Suibhne, from the world renowned social media verification agency Storyful were also part of the training. Both delivered compelling presentations and took the class through exercises, based on real world scenarios and content, that familiarised them with key concepts and tools to sift through the tsunami of information and data in order to find actionable, verified content.

Tweets we published around each of their presentation are copied below.

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The ICT4Peace Foundation designed and led several exercises as well anchored to the information visualisation and mapping, in addition to a comprehensive exercise introducing participants to around 30 of the world’s leading crisis information management platforms and websites currently active, and getting them to use each one. Participants were introduced to OpenStreetMap, and also to Google’s Map Engine Lite. Using Field Papers, participants went out of the class, and literally walked around the training venue’s neighbourhood in order to collaboratively map it.



Feedback from the class strongly suggested the need for on-going training courses by ENTRi and ZIF on similar lines, and a new found appreciation, from every single participant, of the ways through which new media can help strengthen the effectiveness of their professional work and institutional mandates.