Crowdsourcing in conflict
A growing culture of security protocols and risk-aversion in academia has made it increasingly difficult for researchers to travel into areas affected by violent and protracted conflict. Yet, demand for knowledge about these areas is high, and with many research institutions in such areas short of human and physical resources, capacity for local institutions to provide this knowledge is often low. This project considers the use of crowdsourcing – gathering data remotely via mobile and internet technology – as an alternative method of knowledge production in conflict-affected areas.
Focusing on the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the project attempts to use these technologies, particularly mobile phones, to gather data about armed groups in areas that are inaccessible to researchers because of a lack of roads and high levels of armed violence. The project took place alongside a larger project on armed groups and political inclusion in the eastern DRC, and the findings from the crowdsourcing project were contrasted with fieldwork carried out in the more accessible eastern Congolese towns of Goma and Bukavu.
The study found that, contrary to much of the literature that praises crowdsourcing technology as enabling isolated and marginalised communities to reach out, many of those who are able to use these technologies are from relatively elite backgrounds. Further, the mobilisation of the technology itself requires collaboration with economic and political elites, and is vulnerable to elite control.
This project highlights methodological challenges presented by crowdsourcing in the Congolese context. It finds that, while crowdsourcing does have limited use, both the collection and interpretation of the data it provides should be treated with caution. Proponents of crowdsourcing suggest that it has unlimited potential. Yet this study finds that even successful crowdsourcing initiatives – which attracted a large number of on-the-ground responses – have failed to translate this virtual participation into wider civic participation.
This project was supported by the British Academy.
Researcher: Suda Perera
Hear more from Suda in this seminar podcast on research and risk-aversion in conflict-affected societies.
Image: mobile phone users in Kenya (Ken Banks, kiwanja.net)