The Meedan Blog Archive

Meedan as "crisis software"

Last week Meedan was a invited participant at a World Bank event called the "Innovation Fair on Conflict and Fragility." The event was a mix of technologists, researchers and entrepreneurs in three days of collaboration in Cape Town, South Africa. Meedan was invited for its role as a cross-cultural platform for use in conflict resolution and prevention.

Meedan is rarely discussed as having an role in conflict or violence — typically our work in aggregation and translation are understood as a journalistic effort. By contrast, many "conflict tools" or "crisis software" are focused on one of two poles:

  1. "hot flash" emergencies, such as incidents of election violence or a sudden-onset natural disaster

  2. "slow burn" crises, such as environmental problems or ongoing crime.

These terms, borrowed from our friends at Ushahidi, are useful for understanding the range of applications for new tools in the field of "crisis software." To understand the role of, I propose a third:

  1. "Glacial" crises, such as cultural conflict caused by miscommunication (or noncommunication) across cultures.

Types of Crisis Software

Translation clearly has an important role in all of these types of crisis.

In sudden-onset issues, collaboration across languages is an especially important component of international relief work. (For example, in the case of a natural disaster like the recent earthquake in Haiti, one of the most important groups in the relief effort has been a dedicated team of translators working to get Hatian Creole into English and the various languages used by responders. So this is a strong example of how better tools are needed for rapid translation in crises.)

But the crises that unfold at an even slower pace, crises of culture, have haunted humanity over centuries, with its most devastating manifestations in outright war.

In this sense, Meedan, as a cross-cultural discussion forum, is at the far end of the crisis-response spectrum, and is addressing some extremely longstanding challenges. But despite the age of these problems, the perennial problems caused by the linguistic divide are not unsolvable. For the first time in history, we have communication technology such as machine translation, and collaborative techniques such as social translation. It's our hope that these will be part of a deep and enduring movement toward collaboration and cross-cultural understanding.

Comments on this post

2010-04-22 18:12:09 -0700
Chris, great post. One problem with language is that our need to differentiate tends to lead us to think in categorical terms- these are instructive for slicing problems into solvable chunks, but have the detrimental effect of leading us to mistakingly think these categories are siloed. So, I would like to add a bit of thinking about the continuum of crisis. Perhaps it is Earth day that has me thinking of interconnectedness, regardless, I think it is critical to notice that all these flavors of 'crisis' are connected, or, rather, they should all be connected. And, because it is our work, I will take as the example, translation. The work building up the data used for processing Creole done by the folks at CMU- specifically Jeff Allen- was long term work (glacial cadence) of interest to a handful of researchers that suddenly had tangible contribution in a fast burn crisis of global importance. And, there was also contribution back to the glacial cadence; a slice of the the global attention brought to Haiti came with Creole language skills and so the long term goal of linguistic data gathering sees a huge spike. So, the key here is being able to deploy imperfect resources (the Creole English Machine Translation engine) quickly and to also have the sort of open and portable data flow that allows the crisis responders to contribute back to the researchers who in turn improve the tools so that at the next 'flash' we have better tools to understand and respond to unfolding events. Another way to look at this is to say that all of us engaged in building technologies and communities focused on improving the world should think about not only how we share tools across crises but also how we share data. Fast burn crises focus a great deal of passion and attention on a given community, leveraging this attention to the benefit of not just crisis recovery but also more durable and longer term goals, such as, for instance, the sort of NLP tools that will help Creole speakers access more english language web content, hints at the longer turn upside across the entire spectrum of 'crisis efforts'