This is an invited post from Kurniawan Adi Saputro (@ksaputro) who is about to complete his PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His thesis is a study of media audiences’ engagement in disaster response. He currently teaches at the Indonesia Institute of the Arts, in Yogyakarta.
The importance of ‘volunteer and technical communities’ (Meier, 2013) in today’s disaster response cannot be overstated. One of their key contributions is to help disaster-affected communities produce and obtain crisis information. They are especially needed to sift through a huge trove of crisis information, which is partly a product of widespread mobile phone adoption. Further, ‘volunteer and technical communities’ can lend their hand so that those affected by disaster can obtain local, up-to-date, and actionable information.
Much has been written about the technological issues of involving and serving the public in crisis communication. Here I want to highlight two communicative issues that these volunteers face, namely issue selection of the media and the public’s disconnection with the survivors. Jalin Merapi volunteers in Java, Indonesia, who provided alternative types of information and spaces of action from those of the mass media are a case in point.
Jalin Merapi was founded in 2006 by a coalition of three community radios on the slope of Mt. Merapi, in central Java, two networks of community radio, and four local NGOs in the surrounding area. The coalition was formed after their realisation that during Mt. Merapi’s eruption in 2006 the people of Merapi needed to communicate more between themselves and that they could not rely on the mainstream media to voice their real concerns to the publics because the media listened to the authorities more than to them. In 2010, during the eruption of Mt. Merapi that claimed 367 lives and forced at least 410,388 people to evacuate the area (Surono et al., 2012), Jalin Merapi recruited and assigned approximately 700 volunteers to gather information about the refugees’ needs, to operate a media centre, and to help distribute the relief aid. In short, they created a medium whose central aim was to connect wider publics, especially potential donors, with the survivors.
Besides money, private donors in Indonesia are fond of giving in-kind donations. But there were two problems. First, there were thousands of them acting independently of each other. Second, different refugee camps might require different goods and services. For the survivors, Jalin Merapi provided an alternative channel to seek aid. For the donors, information from Jalin Merapi helped to determine what to provide in what quantity. It also helped donors identify which areas were still lacking supplies. Meanwhile the mainstream media would focus on the major refugee camps and the local governments were slowed down by red tape.
Reporting the overlooked
The 2006 Merapi eruption brought about Jalin Merapi activists’ realisation that they were being overlooked by the local government and the media. The local government’s disaster management was so weak that the people of Merapi had to pay for their own petrol to evacuate. On the other hand, the media could not be expected to voice their true concerns since, in the words of one of the founders, “… the media quoted the local government’s public relations. It might be due to their laziness, or due to them not knowing whom to talk to, that they did not go higher to the people’s place. They only went to the official refugee camps.”
This neglect motivated them to create an information network among the local people themselves, and between them and wider publics. The community radios on the different sides of Mt. Merapi supply the information and the NGOs in the surrounding cities help connect them with the wider publics. Their main tool of publication is the Jalin Merapi website, maintained by an NGO in the nearby city of Yogyakarta that specialises in providing technological support for communities.
Learning from the previous disaster, in 2010 Jalin Merapi stationed field information volunteers at or close to refugee camps. These were strategically selected so as to avoid those that had been well exposed by media. The volunteers were instructed to go to other refugee camps in the surrounding area and to report their needs. Along with bringing information from the less exposed area, Jalin Merapi actively posted messages on Twitter urging the donors to bring their aid to Muntilan and Magelang, not to the city of Yogyakarta which became the centre of attention. When a community living on the north-eastern side of the mountain refused to evacuate and, consequently, were isolated from the relief aid due to the police blockade, the information volunteers worked their way around the blockade and went back with a report. In another case, the public eye was focused on the refugee camps in the surrounding cities, whereas in fact more than ten thousands survivors took refuge in private houses in Gunung Kidul, 70 kilometres away from the disaster area. The citizen journalists brought up the issue and helped to turn the mass media and public gaze towards them.
The citizen journalists were required to focus on problems that were important to the survivors. Consequently, in the daily meeting they were encouraged to listen to the survivors’ problems, although they may have seemed trivial to outsiders. Furthermore, articles were not written to get a certain number of hits but to bring the survivors’ concerns to light. In the same spirit, the micro-blog channel was used to raise funds for the “pillow for Merapi” project whereby public could donated 10,000 rupiah (approx. one US dollar) for material that would be made into a pillow by volunteers. The website’s news section covered the refugees’ need for rubbish bins and paper wrap for food. The common interest of Jalin Merapi’s diverse media channels is its focus on the survivors’ immediate needs according to the survivors themselves.
Focusing on the survivors’ needs
Jalin Merapi learned a lesson when they attempted to connect the survivors with wider publics following the earthquake disaster in 2006 in the southern part of Yogyakarta that killed more than six thousand people. Seeing the disconnection between the supply of aid and the urgent needs of the survivors, they published print bulletins on alternate days and distributed them to the refugee camps. The problem was that they published the list of aid suppliers. Because the survivors’ needs were so high and the supplies were limited, the donors and the aid distributors on the list were overwhelmed with requests. Jalin Merapi was, in turn, reprimanded by the donors.
In 2010, Jalin Merapi decided to publish the needs, whereas the aid supply was published only occasionally and only if the donor specifically requested it. To solve the dilemma of speed vs. accuracy, Jalin Merapi chooses speed and treats the information as “accurate until proven otherwise.” This does not mean that there is no effort to verify the information. Efforts are made to make sure that the requests are correct and that the contact person exists and can confirm the request. From the audiences’ perspective, the voices of the survivors make the requests real, different from requests made by humanitarian organisation and the mainstream media. And the publics themselves love to see their aid reach the right person or, if possible, to distribute the aid in person and meet the survivors.
The weakness of this approach is that made-up requests cannot be distinguished from true requests before aid delivery. In fact, there was a case of a request for a generator that was later exposed by the donor to be fraudulent. Jalin Merapi published the story to warn other donors. Another problem it faces is that the requests may be made to many organisations simultaneously and can be fulfilled redundantly. Jalin Merapi cannot ascertain if and when a request can be fulfilled and by whom. Although Jalin Merapi manages the information centre and the aid distribution, the two operations are loosely connected.
The supply of information about survivors’ needs in disaster is an obvious problem to solve. There are many ways to go about it. The common approach is to rely on the authorities to source the information. This approach assumes the government and its agencies can keep abreast of the ever-changing circumstances of the refugees. During the Mt. Merapi eruption in 2010 the escalation of threat forced the refugees to evacuate three times, following the expansion of the safe zone threshold from 10 km to 15 km and finally to 20 km. The number of refugees surged from tens of thousands to about three hundred thousand people. The sudden change of reality rendered the hard earned data useless since refugees moved to new places and formed new groups. Furthermore, the way mass media covered refugees was aimed at creating an informed public, regardless of their action. Instead of helping the publics to donate themselves, Indonesian mainstream media liked to be the intermediary to whom people donated their money without being connected with the receiver (Abidin and Kurniawati, 2004; Heychael and Taniago, 2013). At variance with the media, Jalin Merapi provided information that could be acted upon by the publics and avoided standing in the way between the publics and the refugees (Dewi and Nasir, 2012).
Jalin Merapi changed the relationship between the subjects of news reports and the audiences by providing the opportunity to connect directly with the survivors. The phone number of the survivor or the volunteer was provided in the news article, in the micro-blog posts, and in the online live document. Concern over privacy was superseded by a more important objective, namely to allow the potential donors to contact the refugees. By calling the potential receiver first, the donors could spend their budget effectively. And after delivering the aid, the donors could keep themselves updated by maintaining a connection with the survivors. When the survivors moved, the donors knew how to reach them.
Two lessons can be learnt from Jalin Merapi’s information volunteers. One, we need to see beyond the traditional communicators of disaster (government and mass media) and pay attention to local people and ‘volunteer and technical communities’. Two, their strategic decision to put new and innovative technologies to use can be critical in disaster response.
Abidin, H. and Kurniawati (2004). Galang dana ala media. Jakarta, Piramedia.
Dewi, A. S. and A. Nasir (2012). Solid@rity from the crowd: The use of ICT and collective action for disaster relief in Indonesia. In: CITS – ICT4D working paper series conference, August 17. Yogyakarta, Centre for Information Technology Study, Sanata Dharma University. Unpublished.
Heychael, M. and R. Thaniago (2013). Ketika televisi peduli: Potret dilematis filantropi media. Jakarta, Remotivi.
Meier, P. (2013). Strengthening humanitarian information: The role of technology. In IFRC, World disaster report: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Last accessed 18 December 2014 at http://www.worlddisastersreport.org/en/download/index.html
Surono, et al. (2012). The 2010 explosive eruption of Java’s Merapi volcano: A ‘100-year’ event. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 241, 121-135.
IN 2009 John Keane, the Australian political theorist, published a book titled The Life and Death of Democracy. The book argues that a new political form has spread around the world since 1945: ‘monitory democracy’. This is the idea that decision-makers in all spheres of society – including government, the private sector and civil society – are subject to ever-increasing levels of public scrutiny. Such scrutiny can be done in the name of ‘the public’, ‘public accountability’, ‘citizens’, ‘transparency’, ‘democracy’, or some other entity (see also Strathern’s 2000 notion of ‘audit culture’). Monitory democracy does not replace representative democracy. Rather the two co-exist uneasily, with the irresolvable tension of mostly unelected actors guarding over elected representatives at its heart.
In a recent paper on Spain, Keane and Ramón Feenstra point out that monitory democracy must be understood today in relation to a ‘new architecture of communicative abundance’. In other words, we must take into account the explosive uptake of social and mobile media we are currently experiencing (Feenstra and Keane 2014).
In Spain, these authors found a huge profusion of monitory democracy initiatives. First, they found mainstream and alternative media investigations into high-level corruption. The most famous of these is arguably the ‘Bárcenas papers’ case. Luis Bárcenas, currently in detention on corruption charges, was the treasurer of the ruling Popular Party (PP) for twenty years. The case was uncovered by the left-leaning newspaper El País and its conservative counterpart El Mundo. It was then pursued in depth by civic groups linked to Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. Second, a new wave of collaborative citizen platforms such as Adopta un senador (Adopt a senator), inspired by Britain’s Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MP expenses, in which citizens monitor the expenses of Spanish senators; or 15MPaRato, a crowdfunded and crowdsourced effort that brought to justice the former IMF President Rodrigo Rato. Third, street protests and direct actions over specific issues. Among these the most prominent has been the anti-eviction platform PAH which has ‘successfully scrutinised and denounced Spanish mortgage laws, the banking system and the lack of response by elected representatives’. Finally, a whole raft of ‘anti-party’ parties like Partido X, Podemos (We Can) or Escaños en Blanco (Empty Seats) have emerged from the indignados movement to challenge the democratic credentials of the incumbent political class and demand urgent reform.
Indonesia’s election guardians
This is a compelling argument as far as Spain goes. But Feenstra and Keane claim that monitory democracy is ‘a global trend’. Is that really the case? How well does this model travel to countries with a radically different historical experience and political culture from Spain’s? As it turns out, it travels rather well.
Let us take the example of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential campaign. This election pitted Jokowi (pictured above), a middle-class furniture entrepreneur from central Java, against a member of the country’s ruling elite: a retired army general named Prabowo, the son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto. Whilst Prabowo’s campaign was bankrolled by his billionaire brother, Jokowi relied on his successful track record as the mayor of Solo and Jakarta for a strong grassroots support. Both candidates made extensive – and creative – use of social media to reach the country’s younger urban voters. In Jokowi’s case, this included countering a ‘black campaign’ (kampanye hitam) in which he was falsely accused of being a Christian of Chinese descent (in fact, he is a Javanese Muslim). In the end, Jokowi emerged the winner, but only by a small margin.
In a country plagued by corruption and ‘money politics’, many Indonesian citizens had concerns about potential ‘irregularities’ during the electoral process. Fortunately for them, Indonesia’s National Elections Commission (KPU) made all election data freely available on their website. This spurred a flurry of monitory initiatives, including crowdsourced vote counts such as Kawal Suara (Guard the Votes), Real Count, C1 Yang Aneh and Kawal Pemilu (Guard the Elections).
Thus the Kawal Pemilu application allowed over 700 unpaid volunteers to crowdsource voting tabulations (in Indonesian, gotong royong entri data) from across the vast Archipelago. The website linked to a Facebook page updated every ten minutes. Whereas Facebook helped to disseminate information, the website facilitated the process of manual tabulation of the vote tally. By 18 July the volunteers had collected nearly half a million votes.
But what part have freedom technologists (those pro-democracy bloggers, hackers, geeks, digital journalists, tech lawyers, and other tech-minded citizens that occupy us in this blog series) played in the reported rise of monitory democracy?
On first inspection (but further research is needed), it would appear that they have played a fundamental role. Let us consider, once again, Kawal Pemilu. In a post-election piece, the Indonesian scholar Ariel Heryanto suggests that it was the country’s masses, not its elites, that made all the difference to Indonesia’s exemplary voting process and to Jokowi’s success. Heryanto mentions Kawal Pemilu as one of many examples of election-related initiatives led by ‘ordinary commoners’. Yet on closer examination, the three masterminds behind Kawal Pemilu fit rather snugly the freedom technologists profile. For one thing, they all have strong technological backgrounds: while two are based at Silicon Valley, a third founder is a Nanyang Technological University alumnus now working in Singapore. Moreover, all three are rooted cosmopolitans – they may be living overseas, but their hearts and minds are still firmly set in their country of origin: Indonesia. Third, this was no spontaneous outburst of civic participation. In fact, it was the result of ten years of open government activism, as the internet scholar Merlyna Lim has suggested. Fourth, Kawal Pemilu did not mobilise the Indonesian ‘masses’. Instead, its 700 volunteers were mostly students and office workers with regular internet access and time on their hands (but not necessarily sophisticated ICT skills).
Or consider Spanish civic initiatives such as 15MPaRato and Partido X (which we have already discussed in this series) or the investigative journalism around the ‘Bárcenas papers’ by mainstream news media such as El País and El Mundo. Many of these are hybrid media initiatives led by freedom technologists who often found themselves at odds with powerful interests, especially those working for media organisations deeply caught in Spain’s thick tangle of corruption and deceit. Whilst some monitory technologists operate from within an establishment or mainstream institution, others do so from civil society outfits. But they all benefit from monitory initiatives that bridge the alternative vs. mainstream media divide.
Vigilance or vigilantism?
Earlier in the series I asked the question: ‘What do freedom technologists actually do?’. Building on research into the Occupy movement by Megan Boler and colleagues at the University of Toronto, I drew up a preliminary scheme consisting of four digital practices: adminning, documenting, connecting and mapping.
The concept of monitory democracy suggests the need to expand this list to include other digital practices, e.g. whistleblowing, researching, tabulating, analysing and crosschecking. For instance, when doubts are raised about the independence of their initiatives, monitory technologists in both Indonesia and Spain will point at the same publicly available mechanism: data crosschecking. Thus Kawal Pemilu invited sceptics to assuage their suspicions by simply ‘crosschecking both KPU’s data and their own data’. Likewise, Spain’s ‘Adopt a senator’ project encourages vigilant citizens to track and crosscheck individual senators’ assets.
This is encouraging news. Yet before we uncork the champagne bottles we must ask ourselves whether monitory democracy may, in some cases, be too much of a good thing. Feenstra and Keane (2014: 1265) write:
Within and outside states, independent monitors of power are beginning to have major tangible effects on the dynamics and meaning of democracy. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, monitory institutions [and civic initiatives, JP] complicate their lives and question their power and authority, often forcing them to chop and change their agendas—sometimes by smothering them in political disgrace.
This raises a number of thorny issues. For instance, what are the negative effects of applying excessive monitory zeal to public figures? Do they make some decision-makers overly cautious and timid? To whom are unelected civic watchdogs accountable? Where does one draw the line between vigilance and vigilantism? When does the ‘radical transparency’ advocated by freedom technologists of all stripes (from Assange to Zuckerberg) become oppressive surveillance?
Feenstra, R. (2012). Democracia monitorizada en la era de la nueva galaxia mediática: La propuesta de John Keane. Barcelona: Icaria.
Feenstra, R. A., and Keane, J. (2014). Politics in Spain: A case of monitory democracy. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Online First, 1–19. doi:10.1007/s11266-014-9461-2
Keane, J. (2009). The life and death of democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.
Postill, J. (2014) Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.
Strathern, M. (Ed.). (2000). Audit cultures: anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. Psychology Press.
Originally posted on American Anthropological Association:
Today’s guest blog post is by Erin Taylor and Gawain Lynch.
Where are anthropologists publishing these days? Most of us probably know that Gillian Tett writes for The Financial Times and Sarah Kenzidor for Al Jazeera. Paul Stoller has a column in The Huffington Post, and there is also the AAA’s Huffington Post blog. We occasionally stumble across various other articles penned by anthropologists.
A couple of years ago we began searching for anthropology that is written for a public audience. We now have a rather long and impressive list, and we’ve only just uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, we’ve found anthropologists publishing in places like The Guardian, The Conversation, Nigerians Talk, the Jamaica Gleaner, The Big Issue, O Magazine, Psychology Today, Scientific American, and many more.
But most of use aren’t aware of the extent of popular writing that anthropologists do –…
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