When I was 18, I traveled on local buses and minivans, sleeping on hotel roof-tops and dingy hostels, from Beirut to Damascus to Aleppo. It was a beautiful journey, and one that has come back to mind often as the war in Syria unfolds. It’s so easy to lose perspective when reading about a war, to get numbed by the figures and forget the concrete stories, the streets and people behind them.
Which is why this detailed, on the ground study of current conditions in Aleppo is so important. The study is a collaboration of Caerus Associates and First Mile GEO. It distills the results of four months worth of biweekly, on the ground assessments that collected information on the security, humanitarian, political and governance conditions into an easy to navigate website. The assessments combined objective data (bread prices, location of checkpoints, hours of electricity) with subjective data (perceptions of governance, political opinions). The site combines narrative analysis outlining the findings from these assessments with interactive maps that visualize the data these findings are based on. With the narrative overview and the opportunity to dive into detailed data, the site manages to weave together perceptions, on the ground reality and incidents to bring to life what is happening in Aleppo.
I really like the way Matt McNabb from First Mile Geo puts it:
“This is not just a story about Syria, however. It is a story about how technology can bend to the realities of war. And how with those advancements, episodic journalism can give way to sustained insights that can be used to enhance and measure efforts by the humanitarian community to take action in support of our common humanity.”
If the data presented publicly is this insightful, I can only imagine how useful this tool has been internally to Caerus Associates analysts. The conflict monitoring tool that First Mile GEO provide can really help organizations respond faster and better. It’s also a great tool for advocacy and policy making. Matt McNab writes a very interesting blogpost on the lessons they have learned from this work. He explains the considerations behind the decision to open up the data on Aleppo, balancing the risk of doing harm by putting information in the hands of people who may use it for military purposes against the benefit of offering a wide range of actors access to geospatial data. The data, he explains, is not just useful to analysts sitting in Washington DC.
Early indications from Aleppo point to the use of geospatial and other forms of data visualizations by local civil society and the ad hoc governance structures that have emerged to provide services in opposition areas.
First Mile GEO certainly has the potential to put geospatial data that is intuitive to navigate in the hands of local actors in conflict settings. Their work in Aleppo is remarkable. But it’s the possibility of using their tools for horizontal data sharing and organizing that will be most interesting to watch in the future.