Googled

Following up my post on Google and Project Maven here, there’s an open letter (via the International Committee for Robot Arms Control) in support of Google employees opposed to the tech giant’s participation in Project Maven here: it’s open for for (many) more signatures…

An Open Letter To:

Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet;
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google;
Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud;
and Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of AI/ML and Vice President, Google Cloud,

As scholars, academics, and researchers who study, teach about, and develop information technology, we write in solidarity with the 3100+ Google employees, joined by other technology workers, who oppose Google’s participation in Project Maven. We wholeheartedly support their demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes. The extent to which military funding has been a driver of research and development in computing historically should not determine the field’s path going forward. We also urge Google and Alphabet’s executives to join other AI and robotics researchers and technology executives in calling for an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapon systems.

Google has long sought to organize and enhance the usefulness of the world’s information. Beyond searching for relevant webpages on the internet, Google has become responsible for compiling our email, videos, calendars, and photographs, and guiding us to physical destinations. Like many other digital technology companies, Google has collected vast amounts of data on the behaviors, activities and interests of their users. The private data collected by Google comes with a responsibility not only to use that data to improve its own technologies and expand its business, but also to benefit society. The company’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” famously embraces this responsibility.

Project Maven is a United States military program aimed at using machine learning to analyze massive amounts of drone surveillance footage and to label objects of interest for human analysts. Google is supplying not only the open source ‘deep learning’ technology, but also engineering expertise and assistance to the Department of Defense.

According to Defense One, Joint Special Operations Forces “in the Middle East” have conducted initial trials using video footage from a small ScanEagle surveillance drone. The project is slated to expand “to larger, medium-altitude Predator and Reaper drones by next summer” and eventually to Gorgon Stare, “a sophisticated, high-tech series of cameras…that can view entire towns.” With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings. These include so-called signature strikesand pattern-of-life strikes that target people based not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance footage. The legality of these operations has come into question under international[1] and U.S. law.[2] These operations also have raised significant questions of racial and gender bias (most notoriously, the blanket categorization of adult males as militants) in target identification and strike analysis.[3]These problems cannot be reduced to the accuracy of image analysis algorithms, but can only be addressed through greater accountability to international institutions and deeper understanding of geopolitical situations on the ground.

While the reports on Project Maven currently emphasize the role of human analysts, these technologies are poised to become a basis for automated target recognition and autonomous weapon systems. As military commanders come to see the object recognition algorithms as reliable, it will be tempting to attenuate or even remove human review and oversight for these systems. According to Defense One, the DoD already plans to install image analysis technologies on-board the drones themselves, including armed drones. We are then just a short step away from authorizing autonomous drones to kill automatically, without human supervision or meaningful human control. If ethical action on the part of tech companies requires consideration of who might benefit from a technology and who might be harmed, then we can say with certainty that no topic deserves more sober reflection – no technology has higher stakes – than algorithms meant to target and kill at a distance and without public accountability.

We are also deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing. Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally. While Google regularly decides the future of technology without democratic public engagement, its entry into military technologies casts the problems of private control of information infrastructure into high relief.

Should Google decide to use global internet users’ personal data for military purposes, it would violate the public trust that is fundamental to its business by putting its users’ lives and human rights in jeopardy. The responsibilities of global companies like Google must be commensurate with the transnational makeup of their users. The DoD contracts under consideration by Google, and similar contracts already in place at Microsoft and Amazon, signal a dangerous alliance between the private tech industry, currently in possession of vast quantities of sensitive personal data collected from people across the globe, and one country’s military. They also signal a failure to engage with global civil society and diplomatic institutions that have already highlighted the ethical stakes of these technologies.

We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power. This has shone only one spotlight on the increasingly high stakes of information technology infrastructures, and the inadequacy of current national and international governance frameworks to safeguard public trust. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of systems engaged in adjudicating who lives and who dies.
We thus ask Google, and its parent company Alphabet, to:

  • Terminate its Project Maven contract with the DoD.

  • Commit not to develop military technologies, nor to allow the personal data it has collected to be used for military operations.

  • Pledge to neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of autonomous weapons; and to support efforts to ban autonomous weapons.

Google eyes

The Oxford English Dictionary recognised ‘google’ as a verb in 2006, and its active form is about to gain another dimension.  One of the most persistent anxieties amongst those executing remote warfare, with its extraordinary dependence on (and capacity for) real-time full motion video surveillance as an integral moment of the targeting cycle, has been the ever-present risk of ‘swimming in sensors and drowning in data‘.

But now Kate Conger and Dell Cameron report for Gizmodo on a new collaboration between Google and the Pentagon as part of Project Maven:

Project Maven, a fast-moving Pentagon project also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), was established in April 2017. Maven’s stated mission is to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.” In total, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The project’s first assignment was to help the Pentagon efficiently process the deluge of video footage collected daily by its aerial drones—an amount of footage so vast that human analysts can’t keep up, according to Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who co-authored a lengthy July 2017 report on the military’s use of artificial intelligence. Although the Defense Department has poured resources into the development of advanced sensor technology to gather information during drone flights, it has lagged in creating analysis tools to comb through the data.

“Before Maven, nobody in the department had a clue how to properly buy, field, and implement AI,” Allen wrote.

Maven was tasked with using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage, taking that burden off analysts. Maven’s initial goal was to provide the military with advanced computer vision, enabling the automated detection and identification of objects in as many as 38 categories captured by a drone’s full-motion camera, according to the Pentagon. Maven provides the department with the ability to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.

Google has reportedly attempted to allay fears about its involvement:

A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defense Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working “to develop polices and safeguards” around its use.

“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” the spokesperson said. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”

 

As Mehreen Kasana notes, Google has indeed ‘long worked with government agencies’:

2017 report in Quartz shed light on the origins of Google and how a significant amount of funding for the company came from the CIA and NSA for mass surveillance purposes. Time and again, Google’s funding raises questions. In 2013, a Guardian report highlighted Google’s acquisition of the robotics company Boston Dynamics, and noted that most of the projects were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

War Stories

New books on the radar:

Gary Fields, Enclosure: Palestinian landscapes in a historical mirror (California, September 2017):

Enclosure marshals bold new arguments about the nature of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. Gary Fields examines the dispossession of Palestinians from their land—and Israel’s rationale for seizing control of Palestinian land—in the contexts of a broad historical analysis of power and space and of an enduring discourse about land improvement. Focusing on the English enclosures (which eradicated access to common land across the English countryside), Amerindian dispossession in colonial America, and Palestinian land loss, Fields shows how exclusionary landscapes have emerged across time and geography. Evidence that the same moral, legal, and cartographic arguments were used by enclosers of land in very different historical environments challenges Israel’s current claim that it is uniquely beleaguered. This comparative framework also helps readers in the United States and the United Kingdom understand the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the context of their own histories.

There is an excellent review essay by the inimitable Raja Shehadeh over at the New York Review of Books for 18 January; you can read the opening chapter (‘The contours of enclosure’) here; and there’s a brief, illustrated blog post by Gary on ‘the will to resist’ here.

Caren Kaplan, Aerial aftermaths: wartime from above (Duke, January 2018):

From the first vistas provided by flight in balloons in the eighteenth century to the most recent sensing operations performed by military drones, the history of aerial imagery has marked the transformation of how people perceived their world, better understood their past, and imagined their future. In Aerial Aftermaths Caren Kaplan traces this cultural history, showing how aerial views operate as a form of world-making tied to the times and places of war. Kaplan’s investigation of the aerial arts of war—painting, photography, and digital imaging—range from England’s surveys of Scotland following the defeat of the 1746 Jacobite rebellion and early twentieth-century photographic mapping of Iraq to images taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Throughout, Kaplan foregrounds aerial imagery’s importance to modern visual culture and its ability to enforce colonial power, demonstrating both the destructive force and the potential for political connection that come with viewing from above.

Contents:

Introduction. Aerial Aftermaths
1. Surveying Wartime Aftermaths: The First Military Survey of Scotland
2. Balloon Geography: The Emotion of Motion in Aerostatic Wartime
3. La Nature à Coup d’Oeil: “Seeing All” in Early Panoramas
4. Mapping “Mesopotamia”: Aerial Photography in Early Twentieth-Century Iraq
5. The Politics of the Sensible: Aerial Photography’s Wartme Aftermaths
Afterword. Sensing Distance

Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas: from the battlefields of World War I to the streets of today (Verso, November 2017):

One hundred years ago, French troops fired tear gas grenades into German trenches. Designed to force people out from behind barricades and trenches, tear gas causes burning of the eyes and skin, tearing, and gagging. Chemical weapons are now banned from war zones. But today, tear gas has become the most commonly used form of “less-lethal” police force. In 2011, the year that protests exploded from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, tear gas sales tripled. Most tear gas is produced in the United States, and many images of protestors in Tahrir Square showed tear gas canisters with “Made in USA” printed on them, while Britain continues to sell tear gas to countries on its own human rights blacklist.

An engrossing century-spanning narrative, Tear Gas is the first history of this weapon, and takes us from military labs and chemical weapons expos to union assemblies and protest camps, drawing on declassified reports and witness testimonies to show how policing with poison came to be.

I’ve trailed this before, but now it’s out; there’s an engaging and detailed review by Peter Mitchell at Review 31 here.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars: how the first global conflict was fought and won (Basic Books, October 2017):

World War II was the most lethal conflict in human history. Never before had a war been fought on so many diverse landscapes and in so many different ways, from rocket attacks in London to jungle fighting in Burma to armor strikes in Libya.

The Second World Wars examines how combat unfolded in the air, at sea, and on land to show how distinct conflicts among disparate combatants coalesced into one interconnected global war. Drawing on 3,000 years of military history, Victor Davis Hanson argues that despite its novel industrial barbarity, neither the war’s origins nor its geography were unusual. Nor was its ultimate outcome surprising. The Axis powers were well prepared to win limited border conflicts, but once they blundered into global war, they had no hope of victory.

An authoritative new history of astonishing breadth, The Second World Wars offers a stunning reinterpretation of history’s deadliest conflict.

I was alerted to this by Joshua Rothman‘s thoughtful review in the New Yorker just before Christmas.

Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell, The Military-Entertainment Complex (Harvard, February 2018)

With the rise of drones and computer-controlled weapons, the line between war and video games continues to blur. In this book, the authors trace how the realities of war are deeply inflected by their representation in popular entertainment. War games and other media, in turn, feature an increasing number of weapons, tactics, and threat scenarios from the War on Terror.

While past analyses have emphasized top-down circulation of pro-military ideologies through government public relations efforts and a cooperative media industry, The Military-Entertainment Complex argues for a nonlinear relationship, defined largely by market and institutional pressures. Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell explore the history of the early days of the video game industry, when personnel and expertise flowed from military contractors to game companies; to a middle period when the military drew on the booming game industry to train troops; to a present in which media corporations and the military influence one another cyclically to predict the future of warfare.

In addition to obvious military-entertainment titles like America’s Army, Lenoir and Caldwell investigate the rise of best-selling franchise games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, and Ghost Recon. The narratives and aesthetics of these video games permeate other media, including films and television programs. This commodification and marketing of the future of combat has shaped the public’s imagination of war in the post-9/11 era and naturalized the U.S. Pentagon’s vision of a new way of war.

Contents:

Induction: The Military–Entertainment Complex and the Contemporary War Imaginary

1. From Battlezone to America’s Army: The Defense Department and the Game Industry

2. Creating Repeat Consumers: Epic Realism and the Birth of the Wargame FranchiseWindows

2.1. The Ludic Affordances of Special Forces

2.2. Franchise Game Business Models

2.3. The RMA in Contemporary Wargaming

3. Coming to a Screen Near You: The RMA and Affective Entertainment

4. Press X to Hack: Cyberwar and VideogamesWindows

4.1. The Narrative Affordances of Hackers and Cyberwarfare

Discharge: Counter-Wargaming in Spec Ops: The Line

This is part of what James Der Derian famously called the Military-Industry-Media-Entertainment complex (MIME), and what I’ve called the Military-Academic-Industrial-Media complex (MAIM). Here is Colin Milburn on the book:

Locked and loaded, this astonishing account of the ‘military-entertainment complex’ exposes the links between military technologies and popular media, the alignments and affinities among defense agencies, video game companies, and Hollywood studios. With tactical precision, Tim Lenoir and Luke Caldwell show how the militarization of contemporary society is driven less by political interests than by economic interests, revealing the ways in which the entertainment industry and its commercial practices shape the imagination of postmodern warfare. This is a provocative, high-octane book about the war games of everyday life and the future of digital culture. Epic pwn.

Maja Zehfuss, War and the politics of ethics (Oxford, March 2018):

Contemporary Western war is represented as enacting the West’s ability and responsibility to help make the world a better place for others, in particular to protect them from oppression and serious human rights abuses. That is, war has become permissible again, indeed even required, as ethical war. At the same time, however, Western war kills and destroys. This creates a paradox: Western war risks killing those it proposes to protect.

This book examines how we have responded to this dilemma and challenges the vision of ethical war itself, exploring how the commitment to ethics shapes the practice of war and indeed how practices come, in turn, to shape what is considered ethical in war. The book closely examines particular practices of warfare, such as targeting, the use of cultural knowledge, and ethics training for soldiers. What emerges is that instead of constraining violence, the commitment to ethics enables and enhances it. The book argues that the production of ethical war relies on an impossible but obscured separation between ethics and politics, that is, the problematic politics of ethics, and reflects on the need to make decisions at the limit of ethics.

Contents:

1: Introduction
2: The Paradox of Ethical War and the Politics of Ethics
3: Targeting: Precision Bombing and the Production of Ethics
4: Culture: Knowledge of the People as Technology of Ethics
5: Ethics Education: Ethics as Ethos and the Impossibly Good Soldier
6: The Politics of War at the Limits of Ethics

Laura Auslander and Tara Zahra (eds), Objects of War: the material culture of conflict and displacement (Cornell, May 2018)

Historians have become increasingly interested in material culture as both a category of analysis and as a teaching tool. And yet the profession tends to be suspicious of things; words are its stock-in-trade. What new insights can historians gain about the past by thinking about things? A central object (and consequence) of modern warfare is the radical destruction and transformation of the material world. And yet we know little about the role of material culture in the history of war and forced displacement: objects carried in flight; objects stolen on battlefields; objects expropriated, reappropriated, and remembered.

Objects of War illuminates the ways in which people have used things to grapple with the social, cultural, and psychological upheavals wrought by war and forced displacement. Chapters consider theft and pillaging as strategies of conquest; soldiers’ relationships with their weapons; and the use of clothing and domestic goods by prisoners of war, extermination camp inmates, freed people and refugees to make claims and to create a kind of normalcy.

While studies of migration and material culture have proliferated in recent years, as have histories of the Napoleonic, colonial, World Wars, and postcolonial wars, few have focused on the movement of people and things in times of war across two centuries. This focus, in combination with a broad temporal canvas, serves historians and others well as they seek to push beyond the written word.

Eli Berman,‎ Joseph H. Felter andJacob N. ShapiroSmall Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict (Princeton, June 2018):

The way wars are fought has changed starkly over the past sixty years. International military campaigns used to play out between large armies at central fronts. Today’s conflicts find major powers facing rebel insurgencies that deploy elusive methods, from improvised explosives to terrorist attacks. Small Wars, Big Data presents a transformative understanding of these contemporary confrontations and how they should be fought. The authors show that a revolution in the study of conflict–enabled by vast data, rich qualitative evidence, and modern methods―yields new insights into terrorism, civil wars, and foreign interventions. Modern warfare is not about struggles over territory but over people; civilians―and the information they might choose to provide―can turn the tide at critical junctures.

The authors draw practical lessons from the past two decades of conflict in locations ranging from Latin America and the Middle East to Central and Southeast Asia. Building an information-centric understanding of insurgencies, the authors examine the relationships between rebels, the government, and civilians. This approach serves as a springboard for exploring other aspects of modern conflict, including the suppression of rebel activity, the role of mobile communications networks, the links between aid and violence, and why conventional military methods might provide short-term success but undermine lasting peace. Ultimately the authors show how the stronger side can almost always win the villages, but why that does not guarantee winning the war.

Small Wars, Big Data provides groundbreaking perspectives for how small wars can be better strategized and favorably won to the benefit of the local population.

 

Tracking and targeting

News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values [42 (6) (2017)]  on Tracking and targeting: sociotechnologies of (in)security, which she’s co-edited with Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber.

Here’s the line-up:

Lucy Suchman, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber: Tracking and targeting

This introduction to the special issue of the same title sets out the context for a critical examination of contemporary developments in sociotechnical systems deployed in the name of security. Our focus is on technologies of tracking, with their claims to enable the identification of those who comprise legitimate targets for the use of violent force. Taking these claims as deeply problematic, we join a growing body of scholarship on the technopolitical logics that underpin an increasingly violent landscape of institutions, infrastructures, and actions, promising protection to some but arguably contributing to our collective insecurity. We examine the asymmetric distributions of sociotechnologies of (in)security; their deadly and injurious effects; and the legal, ethical, and moral questions that haunt their operations.

Karolina Follis: Visions and transterritory: the borders of Europe

This essay is about the role of visual surveillance technologies in the policing of the external borders of the European Union (EU). Based on an analysis of documents published by EU institutions and independent organizations, I argue that these technological innovations fundamentally alter the nature of national borders. I discuss how new technologies of vision are deployed to transcend the physical limits of territories. In the last twenty years, EU member states and institutions have increasingly relied on various forms of remote tracking, including the use of drones for the purposes of monitoring frontier zones. In combination with other facets of the EU border management regime (such as transnational databases and biometrics), these technologies coalesce into a system of governance that has enabled intervention into neighboring territories and territorial waters of other states to track and target migrants for interception in the “prefrontier.” For jurisdictional reasons, this practice effectively precludes the enforcement of legal human rights obligations, which European states might otherwise have with regard to these persons. This article argues that this technologically mediated expansion of vision has become a key feature of post–cold war governance of borders in Europe. The concept of transterritory is proposed to capture its effects.

Christiane Wilke: Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions

While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and frequently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.

Jon Lindsay: Target practice: Counterterrorism and the amplification of data friction

The nineteenth-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz describes “fog” and “friction” as fundamental features of war. Military leverage of sophisticated information technology in the twenty-first century has improved some tactical operations but has not lifted the fog of war, in part, because the means for reducing uncertainty create new forms of it. Drawing on active duty experience with an American special operations task force in Western Iraq from 2007 to 2008, this article traces the targeting processes used to “find, fix, and finish” alleged insurgents. In this case they did not clarify the political reality of Anbar province but rather reinforced a parochial worldview informed by the Naval Special Warfare community. The unit focused on the performance of “direct action” raids during a period in which “indirect action” engagement with the local population was arguably more appropriate for the strategic circumstances. The concept of “data friction”, therefore, can be understood not simply as a form of resistance within a sociotechnical system but also as a form of traction that enables practitioners to construct representations of the world that amplify their own biases.

M.C. Elish: Remote split: a history of US drone operations and the distributed labour of war

This article analyzes US drone operations through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the remote split paradigm used by the US Air Force. Remote split refers to the globally distributed command and control of drone operations and entails a network of human operators and analysts in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia as well as in the continental United States. Though often viewed as a teleological progression of “unmanned” warfare, this paper argues that historically specific technopolitical logics establish the conditions of possibility for the work of war to be divisible into discreet and computationally mediated tasks that are viewed as effective in US military engagements. To do so, the article traces how new forms of authorized evidence and expertise have shaped developments in military operations and command and control priorities from the Cold War and the “electronic battlefield” of Vietnam through the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans to contemporary deployments of drone operations. The article concludes by suggesting that it is by paying attention to divisions of labor and human–machine configurations that we can begin to understand the everyday and often invisible structures that sustain perpetual war as a military strategy of the United States.

I’ve discussed Christiane’s excellent article in detail before, but the whole issue repays careful reading.

And if you’re curious about the map that heads this post, it’s based on the National Security Agency’s Strategic Mission List (dated 2007 and published in the New York Times on 2 November 2013), and mapped at Electrospaces: full details here.

Conflict Urbanism

I’m in Copenhagen – and still bleary-eyed – for a symposium organised by my good friends Kirsten Simonsen and Lasse Koefoed at Roskilde on their current project  ‘Paradoxical spaces: Encountering the other in public space‘.  I’ll be talking about the war in Syria, drawing on my previous work on attacks on hospitals, healthcare workers and patients (see ‘Your turn, doctor‘) – which I’ve now considerably extended as I work on turning all this into  a longform essay: I’ll post some updates as soon as I can – but now adding a detailed discussion of siege warfare in Syria.  More on that in my next post; but for now I wanted to share some remarkable work on Aleppo by Laura Kurgan and her students at the Center for Spatial Research at Columbia:

Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo is a project in two stages.

First, we have built an open-source, interactive, layered map of Aleppo, at the neighborhood scale. Users can navigate the city, with the aid of high resolution satellite imagery from before and during the current civil war, and explore geo-located data about cultural sites, neighborhoods, and urban damage.

Second, the map is a platform for storytelling with data. We are inviting collaborators and students to bring new perspectives and analyses into the map to broaden our understanding of what’s happening in Aleppo. Case studies will document and narrate urban damage — at the infrastructural, neighborhood, building, social, and cultural scales — and will be added to the website over time.

We invite ideas and propositions, and hope to build on the data we have compiled here to create an active archive of the memory of destruction in Aleppo through investigation and interpretation, up close and from a distance.

That last phrase is an echo of Laura’s book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics, published by MIT in 2013.  The new project emerged out of a seminar taught by Laura in 2016:

Students worked collaboratively to develop a series of case studies using a map developed by the Center for Spatial Research, specifically designed to research urban damage in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war. Their work incorporates a range of disciplines, methods and results. Each student was asked to create case studies and add layers to the existing map. The results — spatializing youtube video, interior borders between fighting factions, imagining urban survival during wartime, imaging escape routes, audio memory maps, roads, water, hospitals, informal neighborhoods, religion, communications infrastructure, and refugee camps at the borders — are [available online here].

I’m particularly taken by ‘Spatializing the YouTube War’.   One of the challenges for those of us who follow these events ‘at a distance’ is precisely how to get ‘close up’; digital media and the rise of citizen journalism have clearly transformed our knowledge of many of today’s conflict zones – think, for example, of the ways in which Forensic Architecture has used online videos to narrate and corroborate Russian and Syrian Arab Air Force attacks on hospitals in rebel-held areas Syria; similarly, Airwars has used uploaded videos for its painstaking analysis of US and coalition airstrikes and civilian casualties (see this really good backgrounder by Greg Jaffe on Kinder Haddad, one of the Airwars team, ‘How a woman in England tracks civilian deaths in Syria, one bomb at a time) – and I’ve used similar sources to explore the effects of siege warfare on Aleppo, Homs and Madaya.

Here is how Laura and her students – in this case, Nadine Fattaleh, Michael James Storm and Violet Whitney describe their contribution:

The civil war in Syria has shown how profoundly the rise of cellphones with video-cameras, as well as online video-hosting and emergent citizen journalism, has changed the landscape of war documentation. YouTube has become one of the largest sources (and archives) of information about events on the ground in Syria: since January 2012 over a million videos of the conflict there have been uploaded, with hundreds of millions of views to date. Major news agencies have come to rely on YouTube as a primary source for their reporting, and human rights organizations often cite videos as part of their advocacy and documentation efforts. This independently reported footage has created a new powerful archive, but opens up crucial questions of credibility, verification, and bias. As with all data, every video comes to us bearing the traces of the situation and intentions that motivated its production. This does not disqualify it – quite to the contrary – but it does demand that we approach everything critically and carefully.

We set out to investigate YouTube as archive of the Syrian uprising and to develop a method for organizing that archive spatially. We used the frameworks that we had developed for the Conflict Urbanism Aleppo interactive map, together with a naming convention used by Syrian civic media organizations, in order to sort and geolocate YouTube videos from multiple sources. We then produced a searchable interactive interface for three of the most highly cited YouTube channels, the Halab News Network, the Aleppo Media Center, and the Syrian Civil Defense. We encourage journalists, researchers, and others to use this specifically spatial tool in sorting and searching through the YouTube dataset.

The Halab News Network [above] shows a wide distribution of videos across the city, including the city center and government-held Western side of the city. The Eastern half of the city — in particular the Northeastern neighborhoods of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), Hanano (هنانو), and Ayn at-Tal (عين التينة) – is the best-documented.

In contrast:

The videos published by the Aleppo Media Center [above] roughly follow the formerly rebel-held Eastern side of the city, with a small number of videos from the central and Western areas. The highest number of videos is in the neighborhood of ash-Sha’ar (الشعار). Particular spots include ash-Sha’ar (الشعار), coverage of which is shared with the Syrian Civil Defense. Another notable concentration are two neighborhoods in the Southwest, Bustan al-Qaser (بستان القصر) and al-Fardos (الفردوس).

They also analyse the video geography produced by the White Helmets [below]: ‘The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, have uploaded videos primarily in the formerly rebel-held Eastern and Southern areas of Aleppo. Only the Western area of ash-Shuhada’ (الشهداء) falls outside of this trend.’

This, like the other collaborative projects under the ‘Conflict Urbanism’ umbrella, is brilliant, essential work, and we are all in their debt.

You can read more about the project in a short essay by Laura, ‘Conflict Urbanism, Aleppo: Mapping Urban Damage’, in Architectural Design 87 (1) (2017) 72-77, and in another essay she has written with Jose Francisco Salarriaga and Dare Brawley, ‘Visualizing conflict: possibilities for urban research’, open access download via Urban Planning 2 (1) (2017) here [this includes notice of a parallel project in Colombia].

Data.mil

Four years ago I described Project THOR (Theatre History of Operations Reports), Lt Col Jenns Robertson‘s remarkable attempt to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of US Air Force strike missions – see here (scroll down) and (especially) here.

His databases have now been incorporated into Defense Digital Service‘s  data.mil, described as ‘an attempt in open defence data’: it’s also an experiment, which invites not only use but interaction and comment.  You can now access the THOR databases – and find the backstory – here.

In 2006, Lt Col Jenns Robertson and his team in the Pentagon faced a daunting task. Every week, the Air Force’s Chief of Staff and other senior military officers would ask for the latest on the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan – how many aircraft had flown that week, which ground units they supported, and what munitions they had dropped.

Working in the Air Force’s Operations Directorate, Robertson had access to a wide array of classified data sources, yet the weekly report was tedious to produce.  Data was not easily searched and often contained only half the picture, forcing Robertson’s team to assemble the report manually every week over the course of several days. He knew there was an easier way.

In his spare time, Robertson began creating the Theater History of Operations Reports (THOR), initially a simple Excel spreadsheet that eventually matured into the largest compilation of releasable U.S. air operations data in existence. Robertson tested his database with his team, asking them to generate the Chief’s weekly report twice — once manually, and again using THOR. The result was impressive: THOR cut the report work from three days to just under an hour.

After receiving Department of Defense approvals, Robertson was able to post THOR files online so interested public citizens could search the data for their own purposes. Robertson understands the vast potential benefits of opening such a large compilation of previously inaccessible data to the public. “I can’t envision all the ways this can be used”.

One of the first (once forbidden) fruits of releasing this data to the public is a remarkable map by Cooper Thomas plotting 3.1 million US bombing and ground attack missions (including Close Air Support and aerial interdiction) in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1966 and 1974:

vietnamwarbombing-01

Cooper promises further explorations of this and other THOR databases; if you know of any others, please let me know [see UPDATE below].

Data.mil is promising to release a new ‘data story’ each month – next month should see the release of a military casualty database.  The site went live in December 2016, and  Mary Lazzeri and Major Aaron Capizzi explain the background:

Mary:  Major Aaron Capizzi, USAF had the idea to use open data principles to solve Department of Defense (DoD) problems after attending a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School sponsored by former Deputy CTO, Nick Sinai. In addition, I had been looking to seed an open data effort at DoD. Aaron’s idea, coupled with the opportunity to present the Theater History of Operations (THOR) bombing data in a new and interesting way, provided a perfect opportunity to put energy behind the effort.

We’re looking to use this pilot to jumpstart a larger open data effort at DoD. The beta site is a working proof-of-concept. The next step is to show the larger DoD community that open data merits investment.

Aaron: Our approach is unique in two ways. First, Data.mil will test various ways of sharing defense-related information, gauging public interest and potential value, while protecting security and privacy. We will quickly iterate and improve the data offerings on data.mil, using public feedback and internal department discussions to best unlock the value of defense data. Our goal is to provide all data with enough context that users, both the public and defense employees, can understand the potential value and get started using data quickly.

Second, Data.mil will prioritize opening data using a demand-driven model, focusing on quality rather than standard quantity metrics. The Department of Defense regularly reports on the significant challenges we face in defending the nation, which range from attracting talented recruits to developing game-changing technology within constrained budgets. Most of these aspects of defense business generate large amounts of unclassified data which, if released, can encourage collaboration and innovation with public and private sector partners.

Mary: The site is built using an open data storytelling platform, LiveStories. Rather than simply posting a list of datasets, the goal of Data.mil is to tell stories with data. The site provides narratives to complement the data so users can more quickly understand and begin using it. LiveStories was selected for its visualization and data analysis features allowing us to present an engaging site for its users. In addition, it’s easy to use. Non-technical staff can use the platform to share their data and tell their stories.

We want to compel collaboration from military components, industry partners and the public. The partnership with data.world enables that collaboration providing the social media tools to support exploration and a community discussion of the data.

Conversely, it’s also worth thinking about how digital platforms are now used to plan and execute air strikes.  As the origins of Project THOR show, there are crucial links between retrospective reporting and prospective mission planning.

UPDATE:  I’ve since discovered this map of Allied bombing raids over Europe in the Second World War by Dimitri Lozeve, also drawn from Data.mil’s THOR database (click on the link for an enlarged version):

Allied bombing in Europe, 1939-1945

You can zoom in; here are two close-ups:

screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-12-35-23-pm

screen-shot-2017-01-18-at-12-38-26-pm

The map comes without a key; all I know is that the original tabulations include ‘U.S. and Royal Air Force data, as well as some Australian, New Zealand and South African air force mission’ 1939-1945 and refer to tonnages dropped: more discussion here.

On the global scale, Data Is Beautiful has a GIF showing ‘every bomb dropped by Allied forces in World War II); you can view it as a video here, from which I’ve grabbed these screenshots that capture the shift from the European to the Pacific theatre:

allied-bombing-october-1940

allied-bombing-june-1943

allied-bombing-june-1944

allied-bombing-november-1944

allied-bombing-june-1945

Data World‘s Ian Greenleigh has kindly alerted me to a similar treatment of the THOR database for Vietnam by his colleague Mark DiMarco here:

Our point-of-view is from high above the South China Sea, where much of the US Navy fleet was stationed.
By giving the user a bird’s eye view, we can clearly see up and down the Vietnamese peninsula, and the neighboring countries of Laos & Cambodia, and precisely see where these missions took place.
Each frame of the visualization is a single day’s worth of missions. Some days had as many as 1,500 missions, while the records for some days are completely missing.
The colors of each of the circles dictates what type of mission took place.

The GIF is here; screenshot from the interactive:

Vietnam bombing GIF