Technology Opens Fire: Looking at Conflict Differently

In Foreign Policy magazine’s latest edition, The Future is Now, contributors tackle issues of our technological future. The prodding questions – at the edges of technology and human achievement – provide fodder for debate, opinion  — and so turn the wheels of innovation.

However, what if technology could make us better, more engaged world citizens?

Enter the Lord’s Resistance Army Crisis Tracker.

Launched this week by Invisible Children and Resolve, two non-profit organizations who have dedicated the last eight and nine years respectively, to Great Lakes Region of Africa, the Crisis Tracker seeks to document – in near real-time – the damage caused by Joseph Kony and the LRA.

The LRA Tracker is a unique online aggregation system that allows viewers a first-hand look at conflict as it develops. The system processes and publishes information about LRA attacks, abductions and sightings gathered from a network of local reporters, non-profit and humanitarian organizations. This information is shared via radio stations created and supported by Invisible Children. The raw data is categorized and broadcast on a breaking newsfeed, digitized map and regular data-analysis reports and provides information faster, and to a wider audience, with the hope of inspiring immediate action.

“Not only is this a pioneering tool for activists and policymakers, but community-run protection organizations in Central Africa will directly benefit from regular reports analyzing LRA movement and attack patterns” says Michael Poffenberger, the executive director of Resolve, in this today’s press release. “The response time to LRA atrocities should be three hours, not three months.”

For the Great Lakes Region of Africa, late is better than never.

According to report published by Human Rights Watch this past June, the LRA are responsible for 2,400 civilian deaths and 3,400 abductions since 2008. Straddling the border of the Central African Republic and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, they have launched more than 107 attacks in 2011, the 25th year of LRA violence. alone. For activists and organizations, it is a depressing anniversary

Kony and his band of criminals are most reviled for the abduction and enslavement of young children, more than 30,000, since the group’s founding in the 1980s, according to the United Nations. The LRA has forced young boys and girls to take up arms against rival groups and innocent civilians, even their own communities. In most cases, the LRA uses small children as front-line “shock troops” as their size makes them difficult targets make difficult targets. For children fortunate enough to avoid the sharp edge of conflict, many are forced to provide sexual services to LRA leaders.

Yet, the international community has been impotent in combating the violence.

For one, the United Nations mission to the DR Congo, MONUSCO, has not focused attention on the LRA’s hot spots. Fewer than five percent of United Nations Peacekeepers are located in recognized LRA-trafficked regions, according to HRW. In many cases, the insufficient international support – despite MONUSCO being the largest United Nations mission – and inchoate international legal regulations (the International Criminal Court has charged Kony but has been unable to find and try him) means that engaged non-profit organizations and humanitarian groups become mere witnesses to the atrocities.

Today’s announcement of the LRA Crisis Tracker is, in part, a global voyeur project intend on retooling geo-location technology in an effort to increase awareness about this lingering humanitarian disaster. The Crisis Tracker confirms that groups like Invisible Children and Resolve recognize that any campaign to end abuse must begin by building awareness of the issue. For that, the description of the perpetrators and the emotive power of violence projected onto computer screens, might nurture the moral rectitude required for people to force governments to act and international criminals to cower.

“The Crisis Tracker is intended to put a scare into the bad guys from day one,” said Chuck Phillips, chief technology officer of Digitaria, an award-winning marketing and technology firm partnering on the project.

Let us hope that today’s technology provides a real chance to make good on yesterday’s promise of peace.

 How the LRA Crisis Tracker works:

Read the press release here

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War from the Front Row

In a world awash with images, even the most powerful can fail to draw attention. Even if that image is iconic, even if that image means or meant something more than pixels, more than a mere captured frame and a simple moment snapped in time.

No, an image that can be replaced may not be memorable, and it will neither raise the ire of society, nor silence the drone of apathy that threatens to lay waste to the emotions that photographs were once thought to retain.

But what about a string of images, knit together in time, captured in high definition from the middle of herculean feats of resilience (on both sides) in a bloody war with no end in sight and no peace in hand?

It is the power of the moving image – saved for our, and future, generation’s eyes on the memory cards of a Danfung Dennis’s Canon 5D – on display in Dennis’s Hell and Back Again.

This documentary, similar in theme to the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, places the viewer in the way of bullets, palpably close to anxious armed forces, and deep within enemy territory in a documentary merited – rightly – for its portrayal of life, focusing on one US Marine, Nathan Harris, in and out of the war in Afghanistan.

Hell and Back Again accomplishes two important tasks. First, it casts off the protective lens often fastened between subject matter and viewer – particularly the bulletproof layer that separates the public from the sharp edges of war. Second, it demonstrates the human costs – not merely in lost limbs or lives (though it shows those, too) – that come with the soldier’s culture of conditioning; a conditioning which makes life without the threat of sudden death unbearably complex – where trips to collect groceries or ordering fast food can inspire fury without reservation.

No, Hell and Back Again won’t solve America’s war problem. That problem is as much political as it is strategic, and ideology is not part of this film, according to Danfung Dennis. Instead, Hell and Back Again contributes to a truth project destined to preserve for past, present and future veterans a document of battle, sacrifice and experience.

In Afghanistan in particular, where the war has drained the blood of too many groups, and where the effects – in final body count, wounded and long-term mental illness – won’t fully be appreciated for years to come, the fact that this project shows the stark realities of war makes it even more powerful.

“Taking the death and the injury out of war, is to take that emotional part out of the conversation.” said Ashley Gilbertson, an award winning photojournalist, about the policies that limit today’s war photojournalists.

Without historical documents to capture war as it is, Gilbertson, who was embedded with the marines in Iraq, believes that today’s veterans will feel robbed in 10 to 15 years.

“What they experienced in war, what they complained about experiencing at war, and what is so hard for them to manage,” he said, is that the public at home “can’t understand. It’s because we can never see how bad it actually gets.”

Yet, the rawness of experience, so wickedly conveyed through the short lens of the DSLR, shows us the depth of war, the reach of its trauma, and the human reaction to coping – and helping someone cope – with the damage war exerts on its subjects. This elevates Hell and Back Again to a plane far higher and more honest than projects of similar type.

It also captures an important universal truth.

“The act of combat is something which takes place between two defined moments,” said Gilbertson, “but war lives with families for generations.”

Thus, it is hard not to be shocked by the artistic beauty and careful attention to the crafts of photography and cinematography on display in Hell and Back Again. Yet it is the film’s careful translation of war’s lived experience that will leave most viewers wide-eyed.

Watch it:

Queens Mamas: A blog and a business model

Pregnant with her second child and stuck in her Astoria home in the spring of 2009, a third-generation entrepreneur, Leni Calas, 32, started a blog that posted resources for parents in Queens. The project that began as “a creative endeavor,” she said, has now grown into a profitable business. She never imagined that a post on “childcare in the big city” would spawn a business that could become a model for jumpstarting the ailing economy.

Astoria is laden with small-businesses which have been disproportionately affected by the financial crisis and housing slump. As many small businesses are bankrolled by second and third mortgages,the damaged housing market has severely hurt businesses in the area, according to a report from the Furman Institute at New York University, a public policy research center focused on land use and development in New York City. While many economists hoped these small enterprises would spring back up, take shape, and hire the now unemployed, their recovery has been slow.

“Many small business owners are struggling to get the finances to get their businesses going,” said Rosa Figueroa, 56, director of LaGuardia Community College’s Small Business Development Center, in Long Island City. “Even though the federal government has made it possible for lending, there is still a question given their inability to get loans.”

In strained economic times, banks are looking to reduce risk. Given the reliance of small business on capital from mortgages, they remain vulnerable to fluctuations in the housing market. In Queens, which recorded the highest foreclosure rate in the city in 2010, investing in small business start-ups can be risk-intense. As a result, banks have placed stricter conditions on loans, forcing the small business owner to demonstrate their business’s maturity and sustainability, said Rosa. Entrepreneurs like Leni Calas needed help.

In 2010, when Calas’ blog, Queens Mamas, became popular, it caught the attention of the director of Queens Economic Development Corporation’s StartUP! program. An annual competition, which is now accepting applications for the sixth year, StartUP! motivated Calas to work through seven grueling months of free lectures, one-on-one consultations and proposal presentations. The resulting business plan was judged best of the year and StartUP! awarded Queen Mamas $12,000 in seed money.

The StartUP! Program, free to participants, seeks to “create and retain jobs in Queens,” said Franklin Mora, 26, business director for the Queens Economic Development Corporation, the non-profit corporation that runs the competition, will provide three awards, valued at $10,000 each, to this year’s winning businesses and entrepreneurs. StartUp!’s funds are donated by Citi Foundation, an arm of Citigroup Inc. which operates the international retail banking chain, Citibank. In tough economic times, programs like this can open up new opportunities.

“You want to have as many options as possible,” said Mora. “People see StartUP! as an alternative to going back to work after they’ve lost their jobs.”

StartUP!’s training and grant helped Calas turn Queens Mamasfrom a blog into a profitable Web site that now covers two different regions – Brooklyn and Long Island. She even employs four full-time stay-at-home moms as editors and contracts 10 freelance writers, covering stories ranging from favorite birthday venues for kids to visitors guides for the local YMCAs. However, the events page generates the greatest number of hits, according to Calas.

These hits are critical to the site’s financial sustainability as Queen Mamas sells tiered advertising packages almost exclusively to local businesses. These companies can buy ad space on the site, purchase a listing on Queen Mamas’ directory, or arrange a sponsored email sent by Calas’ and her team to the Queens Mama newsletter subscribers.

Building a small business that draws attention to other local businesses in Queens can increase revenue for owners, and create jobs for the unemployed in the borough. This is why small businesses can positively impact the local economy, said Figueroa.

“Small businesses are the ones that are hiring,” she added. “They might not be hiring for high level positions, but they are the ones putting bread on people’s table.”

–30–

Originally published @ The Columbia Journalist

A Night Talking Terrorists

Eric Schmitt’s signature graces the inside cover of Counterstrike, a 2011 publication with New York Times colleague Thom Shanker.

“We need to be lucky and good everyday,” said Thom Shanker, a reporter for the New York Times. Even though the United States hasn’t had a terrorist attack in 10 years, doesn’t mean we’ll be safe forever.

Mr. Shanker and co-author Eric Schmitt, also from the New York Times’ Washington bureau, discussed their book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Midtown Manhattan on Monday September 12, 2011 – one day removed from the 10th anniversary memorial ceremony of the Sept. 11 attack.

The book traces the development of United States policy in the fight against terrorism, taking the reader from the first confused moments of that Tuesday morning, to the orchestrated strike against Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan which took the Al Qaeda leader’s life.

While the book contains insider notes on the workings and workers of the American intelligence and security community, it also paints a stark picture of U.S. preparedness on September 11.

“There were people in the Pentagon who were asking ‘al Who’?” said Mr. Shanker, who was shocked that state officials were unaware of  Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. This fact is made worse given that Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker also discussed the propensity for President George Bush’s “capture of kill” anti-terrorism strategy to feed Al Qaeda recruiting networks, citing concerns expressed by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the US approach was increasing, not reducing, the ranks in terrorist organizations.

In response, the authors argued that a new deterrence strategy took form in 2003-2004 which focused on attacking what terrorists hold dear – issues of reputation, financial restitution and the security of terrorist networks.

To deter terrorists Shanker and Schmitt said that the new strategy demanded spreading responsibility across the government more broadly, while simultaneously stressing inter-operabililty between intelligence (and I.T.) frameworks, transparency amongst government branches and cooperation between sectors of the national security apparatus – most noticeably the CIA and the FBI.

The night’s more animated conversation and debate surrounded warrantless wire-tapping which prompted questions on liberty and security. However, this line of questioning led the Timesmen to recite persuasive evasions, instead of measured answers.

However, Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Shanker did highlight technology as both a progenitor and salve of modern terrorism.

“The Internet is the ultimate safe haven for terrorism,” said Mr. Schmitt, as websites or forums provide the space for extremists to indoctrinate others, while the Internet’s online gaming communities, replete with its anonymous and atomized user experience,  are penetrated by terrorists transmitting coded information without detection.

The Internet also provides an opportunity for law enforcement to lay in wait for extremists to expose themselves, leading to identification and potential capture.

In writing this book, Mr. Shanker and Mr. Schmitt said they intended bring the challenges of anti-terrorism policy and practice into relief. It isn’t easy to quell the fires of extremism, but Mr. Schmitt admits that it is possible over time.

One method is attacking the narrative used by terrorist organizations.

As terrorism derives its strength from others sympathetic to their cause, this support is a function of controlling the narrative, (i.e. the way actors’ roles are understood in the world),

“The United States struggles with the ‘say-do’ gap,” said Mr. Shanker. By this, Mr. Shanker means that regardless of national security concerns which necessitate the presence of American troops abroad, their deployment – almost exclusively – in regions like Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya makes them vulnerable to Al Qaeda’s argument: the West has waged war against Islam.

“The American narrative is hard to defend,” said Mr. Shanker.

Finally, as the discussion opened up to audience questions, Mr. Shanker’s expertise on the Washingston/Pentagon beat was put to use in the discussion of new Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Shanker reminded the audience that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was selected to deal with Iraq, and stayed on to handle Afghanistan. Mr. Panetta, however, will have to wage war with the budget, said Mr. Shanker.

As economic trends have the potential to erode U.S. capacity fight terrorism, the question becomes, “how much security do you want to pay for?” said Mr. Shanker

In the night’s final response, the Times’ reporters took delicate jabs at the state of  U.S. politics.

“Washington can’t take two big ideas at the same time,” said Mr. Schmitt.

Unfortunately, and as Counterstrike demonstrates, the ‘big ideas’ do not have simple solutions. Particularly when national security is the subject of debate.