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Sanjana Hattotuwa from the ICT4Peace Foundation was invited to deliver a brown-bag presentation at the OpenGov Hub in Washington DC in late April. His presentation was on Big Data and Social Media for Crisis Management.

The presentation was anchored to a rights and activist perspective, and looked at how big data was shaping humanitarian and indeed, peacekeeping and peacebuilding responses even if governments and other large institutions were apathetic or directly opposed to the free flow of information in public domains. Connecting activist marches in Sri Lanka with the Boston Marathon bombings, the presentation looked at how open data was changing how citizens interacted with (local) government in cities, how what is now called a data exhaust can provide cartographically accurate representations of big cities merely by plotting updates generated from mobile app based location services, and how even a mood of a community can be determined by semantic analysis of their public updates.

Given Sanjana's media experience and interest, he then linked this explosion in the availability of data to models of journalism, problematising the increasing use and access to big data with resulting challenges of verification and veracity. He also looked at how new cartographies were changing the way citizens saw themselves in, engaged with, and produced information around their communities, geo-locations and socio-economic realities.

Given Sanjana's experience as an activist, he also flagged a number of rights based concerns over big data, especially over the data retention policies and practices which in repressive regimes could be used to harm and hurt individuals, institutions, communities or other identity groups. Sanjana also spoke about the ethics around big data generation, retention and use.

Flagging the as yet embryonic and hotly contested life-logging movements (and their constituent apps, platforms and devices) Sanjana ended the presentation by looking into the future and how as individuals or larger communities, big data could be embraced more fully and critically to shape our future.

A rich discussion followed for far longer than the schedule time for the event, and touched on aspects of the digital divide, privacy, access to technology, mapping and its uses at the grassroots, the use of ICTs in governance, the promotion of a rights based perspective more broadly, including at the UN and a sharing of ideas, experiences and lessons learnt.

The Foundation is deeply grateful to Christina Crawley and her team at OpenGov Hub for the opportunity to share our experience and ideas.

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Screenshot from a slide used in presentation