Mapping the Human Cost of Syria’s Uprising
WHAT could be the most accurate estimate yet of the death toll in Syria’s bloody uprising has been compiled by a team of volunteers working in the US and Syria, including the stricken city of Homs. Their approach - a combination of automated data mining and crowdsourced human intelligence - may provide a powerful means to assess the human cost of wars and disasters.
The team, whose work appears on the Syria Tracker website, began collecting reports from the country in April last year, just a few weeks after the first protests began. The members include eight US-based Syrians, who have asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against family members in Syria. After a year of painstaking work, they have catalogued reports of more than 10,000 uprising-related deaths, almost 90 per cent of which they say have video or photographic evidence.
“They started from day one,” says Patrick Meier, a Washington DC-based member of Ushahidi, the non-profit company that developed the mapping technology that Syria Tracker uses. “And they’re documenting meticulously.”
Syria Tracker also uses a modified version of the HealthMap software developed by researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston in 2006. This searches Google News for reports of disease from around the world and then maps the results, giving public-health officials an easy way to monitor local disease conditions. “It’s been a total shift of gears to work on violence,” says David Scales, a HealthMap researcher who has been working with the Syria Tracker team.
Reprogramming the HealthMap technology wasn’t simple. Arabic place names can be written in the Roman alphabet in many different ways - Scales had to use 30 spellings for just one place, the eastern city of Dayr az Zawr. The modified software trawls Google News for reports of violence in the country, supplying about 10 reports a day to the Syria Tracker map. Sources sympathetic to the Syrian government, which provide information on killings carried out by opposition groups, are also included.
For more fine-grained reporting, the tracker team has turned to eyewitness accounts from within Syria.
The Syrian government monitors cellphone activity, so reports cannot be sent safely by text message. Instead, the tracker team asks Twitter users to attach the hashtag #basharcrimes to messages about specific incidences. Accounts also come in through a reporting form on the Syria Tracker website and from posts to Syrian accounts on Facebook and YouTube. To protect their identities, people are encouraged to use free anti-surveillance software called Tor, and to send email from Hushmail, an encrypted service.
The result - a list of killings, arrests and missing-person reports - is then displayed on a map of Syria. “It is evidence of real crimes,” says one member of the team. If the regime of Bashar al-Assad falls, the data may help subsequent governments hold him and other senior leaders to account.