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Can Technology Save Lives and End Global Conflict? Digital Citizenship series

Social media and crowdsourced vigilantism help keep communities safe and informed

Does a simple tweet have the power to save someone’s life or property? Can "liking" a group on Facebook spur action that leads to the downfall of a tyrant?

Tech Saves Lives

If the past few months are any indication, then yes, technology - social media in particular - is the modern day megaphone for sharing vital information that will either grow or stymie a movement.

Digital citizenship is the war cry

On one hand, authorities have blamed social media for the spread of violence. British rioters in early August of 2011 organized themselves through Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger to communicate where the next demonstration was going to be held. Similarly in Vancouver two months earlier, when a hockey game didn’t go quite as planned, Twitter exploded with calls to riot and irate fans uploaded YouTube videos of themselves burning cars.

However, police have also used the same technology to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. In Vancouver, law-abiding citizens created Facebook, Tumblr and Flickr accounts and used crowdsourcing to catch criminal rioters. Witnesses submitted photos of looters and vandals to the social networking sites, and online visitors identified who they were.

In London, police quickly caught on to the anarchist feeds and stayed a few steps ahead of dissenters, which slowed down the raucous momentum. While 5 people died and at least 16 were injured, many were astonished that the death count wasn’t higher; had authorities not entered the social media realm, it’s possible that the mortality rate could have exceeded five.

In a recent blog, Philip Howard shared that Syracuse University social scientists theorize that it would "only take 10 percent of a population distributed by social networks to the right places to radically alter public opinion and large-scale behaviors."

This cultural algorithm could go either way: What’s on the upside of the equation? Which social media tribes have the loudest war cry?

Wiki revolutions: symbolic or starter movements?

Wiki revolutions - the type of self-generating power struggles seen in the "Arab Spring" of 2011 - are setting a precedent fueled by the "many-to-the-many-more geometry of social media."

It can be argued that Iran’s green revolution of 2009 helped create the concept of a digital citizen uprising. It was after the video of Neda Sultan getting shot during a peaceful protest in Tehran went viral that the United States government took more of a stand. Unfortunately, while the video and other social media communiques helped inform the world, at the end of the day the Iranian government maintained control and used the technology to identify and arrest dissidents.

Perhaps Egyptians learned from this exercise in digital journalism. The lessons from the green uprising, in addition to a different climate, better access to technology and help from other countries, led to a different outcome: the fall of Hosni Mubarak. More than half of people in the Arabic world are under the age of 30, and this generation typically excels at using digital social networks. Could this new wave be the beginning of a more open government?

Political scientist Christian Wolff cautions, however "to dispense with the idea of linking revolutions and social networks too closely. Real power relationships require actual physical space. "He states, "It seems that a military coup, despite the social origins of the revolution, continues to determine the revolution’s success or lack thereof. In this context, social media are a ’surprise guest’ for traditional media and are developing into an increasingly important alternative."

Micro- and macro-crowdsourcing solutions

If the idea of using technology or digital citizenship on a global level to topple a regime makes your eyes cross, think closer to home. A recent movement dubbed "Gov 2.0" uses technology to enhance living conditions for citizens and make government more transparent through the use of social media channels.

And SeeClickFix is a "map-based citizen reporting platform that enables people to report and track non-emergency related issues via Web and mobile." Co-founder Ben Berkowitz started it after being ignored by city hall when he complained about a surge of graffiti. This type of digital citizenship could theoretically stave off more serious public threats.

Internationally, but applicable on smaller scales, the non-profit tech company Ushahidi was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout in 2008. The site was a crucial resource for citizen journalists during the Haiti earthquake. The platform "provides tools for communities to crowdsource real-time information using SMS, email, Twitter and the Web."

Finally, proving that our neighborhoods are increasingly larger in scale, documentary-maker Brian Lapping has a plan to harness all blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts coming from politically unstable countries to predict where the next conflict might occur. His brainchild, an automated computer system called PAX, would rely on Website and social network keyword searches as well as "news from global organizations and information sent from mobile phones and home computers."

The idea is to crowdsource danger before it happens and ensure that our global communities’ safety and security remain intact.

Gone are the days when social media was just a forum for oversharing thoughts and feelings. As technology evolves, so does the urge to create real, lasting change that saves lives in the process.

By Joy Keller