Pitfalls to Research, Technology and Crowdsourcing

I’ll be giving a presentation at George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution on February 9 on research methods and crowdsourcing in conflict affected settings.  As I’ve been preparing, I’ve been lucky enough to have the input of the TechChange team and in particular the inimitable Rob Baker as I developed the portion of the discussion on information and informant security when using mobile phones and internet-based systems for research.

While there are exceptional opportunities that crowdsourcing presents in terms of how we can expand quantitative and qualitative research, what was most poignant was putting together the section of the presentation on security risks and failures.  Entity to entity attacks where one group attacks another group’s information is one thing, and it felt a little like a chess game as Rob and I discussed cases of data hacking.  But what stuck with me, and what I will focus on most are the dark, unpredictable ways that ne’er do wells can use data in ways we couldn’t have predicted until it’s too late.

Rob explained one case that will be core to the presentation, which involved child trafficking in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.  Traffickers could pull together information from disparate public sources on fatalities and family lineages to target orphans, claiming to be an uncle or family member and presenting a package of information about the child’s family and identity from different data sources that was convincing enough to allow a child to be handed over.  These people would move a few children at a time, few enough to fly below the radar in a chaotic environment.  No amount of data control or planning could have predicted this; it’s a tragic reality that criminals and predators have the upper hand when it comes to finding gaps in security systems, and that the most vulnerable among us can be exploited by the information systems meant to protect them.

I’m lucky enough to be doing doctoral work at an institution that has a commitment to reflecting on the ethics and challenges associated with research in conflict and disaster-affected environments, and I’m looking forward to sharing with my colleagues the ways that we can mitigate and prevent risk to informants when we’re doing mobile phone and web-based academic research. Eleven of my colleagues will also be presenting on their experiences doing research on terrorist groups, working in war zones, and collecting data from traumatized populations.  The event is free to the public, and you can learn more and register here.  It should be a good time, and a useful day for those of us wrestling with the hard questions that come with doing good research in conflict and disaster-affected settings.

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