The Technologist’s Dilemma: Ethical Challenges of Using Crowdsourcing Technology in Conflict and Disaster-Affected Regions by Charles Martin-Shields

Shop the Entire Current Issue- The Integration of Regions  ||  Return to The Integration of Regions index

Charles Martin-Shields is a doctoral student at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His research focuses on the political economy of technology use in peacekeeping operations and quantitative methods. Special thanks to Rob Baker, Ushahidi’s Operations Manager, for taking time to be interviewed for this article.

"Crowdsourcing involves the voluntary sharing of preferences from the “crowd” on digital platforms such as Facebook..."
"The ethical responsibility for data protection goes beyond collection and storage procedures, and extends into the human capacity aspect of organizations using crowd- sourcing techniques..."

The growth of mobile phone technology and Internet access globally has affected peoples’ lives in various ways. For the field of governance and conflict management, this has meant unprecedented levels of information sharing from within conflict and crisis zones. As Internet access has expanded across Africa, entities like Kenya’s Ushahidi—which build digital maps to publicly display real-time SMS text messages and social media feeds geographically—have been changing the way that citizens share their experiences of violence as they are happening. Probably the most important of these technologies—mobile phones— have expanded exponentially across the developing world; many countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific have mobile phone market saturation rates of over 100 percent. The international development community has been actively developing tools and methods for using mobile phones for outreach and project monitoring for years; the governance and conflict management fields are beginning to find effective ways to use mobile phones and SMS text messaging.

While there has been excitement about the way these technologies can improve the work of conflict resolution and governance professionals, less popular attention has been paid to the unique risks and ethical challenges associated with using these tools in highly unstable political and social environments such as conflict zones. In these types of situations, crowdsourcing raises ethical issues of privacy, transparency of purpose and data protection. However, having secure technical data collection and storage procedures are not sufficient because most security failures are due to human error. To ethically run a crowdsourcing program in a conflict or disaster-affected environment, organizations need to ensure that their staffs and the “crowd” participating in the project have been trained to use the technologies and assess the unique risks of the digital information environment. This article will review the literature on digital information regulation, explore how the crisis response and crowdsourcing fields have evolved their data protection procedures and review the current state of practice for humanitarian crowdsourcing ethics and data security... (purchase article...)