Belmont Club

The Invisibles

Child Soldiers vs the Invisible Children Movement. Who would you bet on? The advocates against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda have created a radio tracking system called the LRA Crisis Tracker. According to ABC News, Crisis Tracker consists of a network of radio towers which feed information an incident mapping program.

In Africa’s remotest jungle, where paved roads and telephones don’t exist, a U.S. aid group is raising radio towers to help fight killers from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal militia that 100 U.S. special forces troops are now helping hunt….

Now people can report the attacks by radio and they are then plotted on a sleek new website called the LRA Crisis Tracker. Anyone from U.S. military officials to aid workers can see where the LRA has concentrated its most recent attacks.

Twenty-five communities now have radio towers and 12 more are scheduled to be put up by Invisible Children at a cost of about $18,000 each. iPhone and iPad users can download a Crisis Tracker app launched last week that shows the attack locations.

President Barack Obama announced in October he is sending 100 U.S. troops to help advise in the fight against the LRA and its leader Joseph Kony, a vicious fugitive militant wanted by the International Criminal Court.

As Ugandan troops track the LRA through the jungle, assisted by U.S. intelligence and special forces advisers, the Crisis Tracker is garnering praise from the U.S. government. Obama, in announcing the U.S. deployments, congratulated Americans who have “mobilized to respond to this unique crisis of conscience.”

Called the “Invisible Children Project”, the effort was the result of NGOs cooperating with filmmakers to raise the public consciousness of the depradations of the Lords Resistance Army, a murderous gang in Africa. The theory was probably that if you build the image They Will Stomp It. And those that may come now include the US Special Forces.

From the description of the project, the network has two goals. One is to reach the public’s imagination in the manner of the story of Machine Gun Preacher. The other is to direct action against the objective by its information structure to dominate the news, media and intelligence cycle. The Invisible Children campaign has been helped in its effort by such fund raising powerhouses as Oprah Winfrey. Reacting to a particularly bloody massacre, the Invisible Children core group decided to undertake the construction of their own communications network.

n order to work around the communications challenges, the two charities rely on a homegrown radio system to provide news on the conflict. Invisible Children helped expand a community-run early-warning radio network in the Democratic Republic of Congo that collects information from isolated villages affected by the conflict. Once warfront news is received by the radio station, they are then sent via email to Invisible Children’s San Diego offices, where it is stripped of sensitive information, placed onto the organization’s crisis map, and also publicized via social media.

One of the most interesting aspects of the LRA Crisis Tracker is the technology behind it. The map runs on a custom-designed platform by Digitaria that uses, of all things, a Salesforce backend. Salesforce normally provides cloud-based sales and marketing recordkeeping services for online businesses; in this case, the LRA Crisis Tracker team created a custom CMS that delivers the information into both the mapping system and the app.

Although the Crisis Mapping system is not particularly technically impressive it is driven by very powerful idea. By creating a telecommunications infrastructure spanning a vast swath of Central Africa, the Crisis Map becomes the only game in town. It is an intelligence collection system complete with a team to redact sensitive information in the NGO’s offices in San Diego, California. Invisible Children will become the dominant information provider for making public policy in that part of the world. That will inevitably focus funding and even military attention on whatever spotlight Invisible Children shine their light on.

The Lord’s Resistance Army is now rightfully in their crosshairs. But after they are gone the spotlight must inevitably move onto other crises. As time goes by the battle for information infrastructure dominance will become as important as having advocates in the media. Where once the key advantage lay in having sympathizers in the networks, newspapers and radio stations it may now be sifting to causes owning an information network themselves.

“Anything you can see can be hit”. But what can you see?

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