SVA Hosts: Understanding the Syria Conflict Through Data Visualization

February 28, 2013

On March 2-3, the MFA Interaction Design Department at SVA presents a timely forum entitled Making Sense of Syria: Visualizing Social Patterns of Conflict in Video Reporting from the Free Syrian Army, taking place from 9am to 5:30am each day at 136 West 21 Street, 3rd floor, New York City. Foscused on data collected by Syria Conflicts Monitor from YouTube videos made by armed units of the Free Syrian Army, this two-day workshop and public panel discussion will bring together data science, GIS, visualization, and area specialists from Google, The Carter Center, Change Assembly, and other organizations to explore how to make sense of social patterns in the Syrian conflict—and possible directions for scaling the collection and social analysis of video content in conflict.

Led by Caerus Associates senior advisor Richard Tyson and MFA Interaction Design Department faculty member Daniel Goddemeyer, the workshop and panel will also involve

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participation from current MFA Interaction Design students Tony Chu, Pamela Jue, Mini Kim, Shelly Ni, and Alex Todaro. SVA Close Up recently caught up with Tyson via email to find out more.

Can you tell us about the kinds of videos members of the Free Syrian Army have been making and how Syria Conflict Monitor has been collecting data from those videos?
The FSA has been producing roughly three main types of videos: 1) Formation videos, in which they announced the creation of their battalion, brigade, or company, reasons for the formation, and area of operation. 2) Statement videos, in which the group

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makes a public statement about an important issue at hand, for example, during the Kofi Annan initiative, some groups would make videos publicly supporting it. 3) Operation videos, in which they record their military operations.

The amount of videos out there is almost infinite, and so SCM has focused on collecting all formation videos, which will allow us to have a comprehensive database mapping all groups working in Syria from which we can then expand and collect other types of videos in the future. SMC records time, place, reasons, number of fighters, and types weapons that appear in these formation videos. It has collected approximately 2,000 videos from the time of the start of the armed conflict to date.

What are some of the things data analysis might reveal about the present and future of Syrian conflict?
There are several questions that analysis of this data may answer. The database presents a clear picture change over time of location (including rural vs. urban divide, trends by governorate), size, and organization of groups (a trend toward larger, more nation-wide organization of armed groups), the rise of certain super groups and the when, where, and why associated with it (ex. al-Tawhid Brigade), change in rhetoric (growing Islamization and disenchantment), and more.

How can this data then be used?
The self-documentation of an armed conflict as it is happening in this comprehensive way is a new phenomenon. Previously, certain groups, especially jihadists, have made videos of this kind claiming responsibility for acts of violence and to make statements, etc., but this systematic documentation of formations, statements and operations has not be seen as of yet.

This will be a first step at making sense of the content of self-reporting video from an active conflict. By adding video content analysis from armed combatants with things like sentiment analysis and more traditional uses of social media for data collection, we can, hopefully, develop a much richer picture of dynamics in the conflict.

This data can be used in a variety of ways, for academia, the policy community, and for future demilitarization and/or rule of law/security sector reform initiatives.
Understanding the armed landscape of the Syrian conflict can be used in academia for the study of violence and is an invaluable tool when analyzing the conflict, the drivers of it, and change over time. It can also be used for the policy community as they attempt to make sense of the ever-changing and fluid landscape, and so as to understand power dynamics. There will also come a time, after the conflict is over, when the need to identify armed elements will be crucial to a demilitarization process. These are just some ways in which this database can be used.

This is why seizing this opportunity to understand some of the dynamics of the conflict from within and as the actors themselves represent it is unprecedented.

What will participants be doing during the workshop, and what will the public panel discussion be about?
The workshop will kick off with a deep-dive presentation of the data by SCM and insights about the conflict from area specialists, especially Caerus, Syria Deeply, and The Carter Center. The group will then have a facilitated discussion about directions data analysis could take—what kinds of static and dynamic visualization might be useful to:

Expose organizational structures of the armed opposition
Uncover the extent of factionalization within the armed opposition
Visualize regional characteristics of the opposition and the role they might play in a post-Assad Syria
Illustrate the civilian-military divide
Map geographic or geo-social patterns of the armed conflict

Based on that brainstorming session—teams will form around promising directions and over the days we will conduct three sprints, punctuated by show and tell, to rapidly iterate visual-sensemaking. We will also have teams working on directions for developing a platform for more robust, widespread video content analysis and annotation.

The panel will present the data and background on the conflict, and teams will show their work, which will then be open for a Q&A to the audience.

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