Monday, 4 May 2015

Quant Peace Research Part 2: Secret (or Unrecognized) Agents

This is the second post on quantitative peace and conflict analysis.  Here, I want to focus on agents and agency or the actors who have the power in key situations.  My examples draw primarily from recent research and from a paper under development on cultural concepts of culpability, agency, doubt, and justice in the context of post-conflict reconciliation.  I just delivered the paper at a conference on Human Welfare in Conflict at Oxford's Green Templeton College and got some terrific feedback from audience members, particularly from Somaliland, the Philippines, and the Ukraine who all basically said it was 'mindblowing.' (I think that's good?) 

Driving questions: Does the ICT format presume a western concept of agency or perpetrator/victim relationship in the underlying narrative structure governing the interface and information management design?  Does the format of the ICT homogenize non-western concepts of culpability in order to fit within its narrative constraints?  How can we interpret data collected with this design flaw?   
This post continues to examine results from the experiment that compared three recalls by Acholi-English speakers who had watched a video of a slightly violent, but mostly chaotic street scene.  In terms of ascribing agency-- who was responsible or culpable for the violence and chaos-- the experimental model brought into relief the contrast between the Acholi conceptualization of agent and that which was inherently designed into the ICT format.  The result of the experiment was that participants tended to frame the event as a fight involving several people during their initial oral Acholi recall, but during their recall via ICT, they often shifted the agency from a group to an individual.  

This shift occurred in two ways.  First, there was a change from 'they' to 'he'.   Second, the selection of schema relied to some extent on the participation of bystanders.  The role of bystanders, or the group/relational conceptualization of agency around the main action dissolves in many cases in the ICT format.  This aspect deserves more study.  It is possible that there was a narrative structure (the phrasal order or connection) that was interrupted which integrated the role of bystanders into other concepts within the narrative.  For example, if two interconnected concepts are separated when interviewing a witness, sometimes the witness will become confused about context and give a misleading statement.  In this way, the ICT format did not anticipate the necessity to link the role of bystanders with event framing (although there were closed an open questions which addressed the concept). 

Another issue examined here involves the response to Question 4: Who was the Attacker?  as well as the open format SMS responses related to the same frame.  The issue was that participants conflated the person being beaten (victim) with the person giving the beating (attacker).  This was due to their culturally learned schema, selected from cues such as the role of bystanders as well as the behavior of the person being beaten. 
Is the problem of identifying the attacker a conceptual transfer issue because Acholi’s object pronouns do not map conceptually into English pronouns?  This is a problem of categorization in which one language’s categories are more or less numerous than another’s and perhaps not governed by the same conceptual qualities.  (Think of English you vs. French tu/vous.) The results of the experiment revealed that the participants tended to frame the event in stage 1 in terms which did not focus on a specific actor as the primary agent; however, the event conceptualization supporting the ICT-formatted questions presupposes a responsible or culpable agent.  The stage 1 language, specifically the pronouns and the subject carried within the verbs, proved to be difficult for some participants to navigate in English during stage 3.  How did this conceptual challenge come across in stage 2 when the participants recalled their narratives via mobile technology format?.... First, a bit more about the concept of 'agent.'
Boroditsky (2010) explains the value of looking at the role of the ‘agent’ in multiple languages.  This has not been considered for Nilotic languages such as Acholi.  She describes:
In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn't normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn't encode or remember the agent as well.
English emphasizes the agent when events are intentional.  When the presence of an agent appears in the Acholi-ICT, this was most likely evidence of conceptual transfer.  Participants frequently struggled to identify the perpetrator with any specificity.  They answered simply lacoo//a guy or dano//a person (participants 3, 9, and 24); lakwo// the thief (Participant 6); gipol// the many (Participant 28); and dano ma labal// the trouble causer (Participant 5).  These were difficult to convert conceptually into English in stage 3.  Principally, they did not fit easily within the concept of the ICT information structure which anticipates more specific identification of an agent or agents; the categories available within the application’s design anticipate a certain structure of information built around cause and effect (the same as in English).  The Acholi narrative does not structure the interaction between all the individuals in the video with the same causal connections or with the same notion of culpability.  This was reflected in their choice of schema and subsequently, in their language choices. 
Agent or agency has another meaning.  Barlas and Obhi (2013) offered a definition from neuroscience that captures the essence of what social scientists investigate.  They asserted, “The sense of agency is an intriguing aspect of human consciousness and is commonly defined as the sense that one is the author of their own actions and their consequences.”  Barlas and Obhi (2013, abstract) conducted a study in which they, “. . . varied the number of action alternatives (one, three, seven) that participants could select from and determined the effects on intentional binding which is believed to index the low-level sense of agency.” (ibid) From a neuroscience perspective, these researchers investigated the effects of choice on sense of agency.  Participants’ sense of agency increased when the number of choices they were presented with increased.  This has implications for ICT design used in the context of democratic participation.  It would seem that streamlining could potentially diminish the agency of individuals in the context of ICT use.  The goal of this research is to develop a new variable (cognitive/cultural) to increase the usability of ICTs for users outside the western context. 
Consider the following two examples which included an SMS and a smart phone path: In stage 1, only awobi//guy or young man was used initially then the concept of the person was integrated into the verbs and object pronouns in Acholi.  However, in stage 3, the English account required the speaker to make a choice in nearly every sentence to be more specific with regards to the subject and object.  This exposed the incongruence between the Acholi and English conceptual categories for persons.  In stage 2a and 2b, the Acholi concept of agent resisted the format suggested by the ICT information structure because there was no clear mental match.  This is similar to the category mapping issues described in section 3, for example, in Spanish there is a plural and singular form of ‘you’ that both map to one word in English.  This can cause pronoun problems for English speakers in Spanish.  For Acholi, the actor and indirect object are connected to the verb.  When an Acholi speaker must identify the actor and object in a phrase each time, he or she may reach for synonyms that roughly map to the concept in Acholi, but it is not a one-to-one concept match just as when an English speaker wants to say ‘you’ in Spanish.
Participant 19
Stage 1: Gin ma aneno. Aneno awobi ma nen calo okwalo gin mo, so tye ka ngweci then dano obino gitye ka goyo ne ey kitye ka penyo ne pingo okwanyo gin eno ni, so, dano madwong obino opong ikome ki dano tye ka dongo ne gitye ka goyo ne ki mayo ngo ma onongo tye icinge ma en okwanyo, yeah so en bene obedo ka ngwec tye ka ringo cen but dano tye ka lubo kore madwong kitye kawoti dongo ne ki goyo ne.//Things that I saw. I saw a guy who maybe stole something, so he was running then people came they were beating him ey they were asking him why he stole that very thing, so, many people came gathered around him and people were beating him they were hitting him they removed what was found in his hand that he had taken, yeah so also he was running away but many people are following him they are at the same time hitting him and beating him.
Stage 2b:
1.    Ineno_____? mony, kwo, laro lok// You saw____? Fight, theft, argument
Kwo// theft
2.    Ingeyo nining? //How do you know?
Aneno dano tye ka goyo ne.// I see people are hitting him
3.    Dano adi ma obedo iye?  2, 3-4, pol kato 4 // How many people were there?
4.    Nga ma obedo lamony dano? Which person was the attacker?
Dano ma lakwo.//The person who is the thief
5.    Cwinyi tek i kom lamgam eni? Cwinya tek adida, cwinya tek, cwinya pe tek tutwal// Do you feel sure about this answer?
Cwinya pe tek tutwal //I don’t feel sure at all
Stage 3: Yeah, from the beginning, I saw there was a boy and some gentleman, so that gentleman started slapping that guy like trying to fight him, and I think the guy had stolen something, so that boy was trying to run away from that guy, but many people are joining, and they also started beating that guy, and like to without even finding out what that guy had done so they just joined like a mob justice, they joined and the boy wanted to leave, to go but like to run away but they followed him until he went when there were many people but those people they joined him and there were also trying, and he went because he picked something, there was something in his hand, so they were trying to remove, one person was trying to remove that thing from the boy’s hand, and others were just trying to,  slapped him, hitting him, like that.
In English, there is a difference between the images of a guy running or a boy running from mob justice.  This would be an important distinction shading the narrative with the innocence of a child or the suspicion of a young man.  The choice of describing someone as ‘a gentleman’ or just ‘a guy’ also colors the recollection in a certain light.  This may seem like a matter of translation (a sometimes arbitrary but necessary choice between synonyms when converting between languages), but it is an indicator of an underlying conceptual category governing the speaker’s choices.  While the subject of this experiment was not translation, the mismatch of conceptual categories for ‘person’ in the role of agent was clear from the comparison of these stages.  If stage 2b had been a closed-question survey consisting of only tickbox options, would the participants’ answers have fit neatly?  Or are they conceptualizing the agent’s role by actions and by social or relational cues rather than by identifying responsible individuals?
The pronoun choices in stage 3 from Participant 22 illustrated this point.  He was challenged by pronouns changing between man, young fellow, and boy as well as using the formal ‘complainant’ to describe the opposing figure. During Stages 1 and 3 there was an expression of doubt and concern about the root cause of the situation both using a repetitive narrative structure.  Stages 1 and 3 matched in their event framing; however, stage 2a did not use ‘doubt’ words and very little repetition.  The concept of theft was hinted at but did not fully materialize as a concept frame.  The SMS version disrupted the conveyance of the social or relational construction of culpability and the description of agency, the framing of the event as a theft.  In stages 1 and 3, the oral versions allowed the full context of the crowd to be integrated in the recall.  In the abbreviated SMS version, the role of the crowd (the fact that no one intervened) was mentioned, but without cultural context, this phrase would not be accessible to a future algorithmic amalgamation of the text to extract the frame ‘theft’ as the participant had intended. 
Participant 22
Stage 1: Aneno dano gitye ka lweny aa videyo eni pe angeyo maber ngo mutime pien ki nyuta ma dano ocako lweny dong nen calo tele moni obedo tye ki kit ma aneno kama videyo eni otime iye, aneno calo tye kamongo ma tye i bus park onyo kama motoka dwong iye ci latin awobi moni matidi eni nen calo lakwo mukwalo gin mo ki i jeba pa lawote ci lawote eno ni dong, tye ka lweny ikome pi gamo jami ne ma en okwanyo ki i jeba, ento ki gum marac pol dano pe tye ka niang ngo ma tye ka time, ci inongo ni i cawa mongo laco ni dok ocung ki cen ngat ma pat aye tye ka dongo awobi ni ngat ma bene pe ngeyo ngo ma onongo tye ka time ci bene kit ma gin ne otum kwede pe wangeyo kono gucobo onyo lwenyi pud gi obi mede kede onyo ngo mutime pe wangeyo ki bene pe waneno laloc mo nyo ngat mo ma bino ka juk dano weng bino ka lweny.// I saw people fighting. Aaa this video, I don’t know well what happened because they showed me that people started fighting already maybe some loggerhead was there how I saw where the video happened, I saw as if it is somewhere at the bus park or where there are many cars, then some small young guy maybe a thief who stole something from the pocket of his peer, then that peer he is fighting with him to collect his things that he picked from his pocket, but unluckily, many people are not understanding what is happening, then you find that at some time that guy again stood from afar someone else is hitting, someone who doesn’t know what is happening, then also how the thing ended we don’t know,  could it be that they made up or the fight was still continued or what happened we don’t know and also we didn’t see any leader or any person who came to stop, all people came to fight.
Stage 2a: Aneno dano dong Kitye kalweny. Pe kinyutu lingo lweny man otimme. ento kama lweny man tye iye onyo bus park nyutu ni cente pa laco ni kiyutu. en tye kalweny kom dano man ento pol dano odonyo iye ata. Ngat mop e ojuku gi.// I saw people hitting they were fighting.  They were not showing why the fight happened but where the fight was or bus park showing a guy’s money they showed.  [but] people they were fighting around there but some people [hesitated] to stop it.  No one stopped them.
Stage 3: Ok based on the scene of that interview, it appears that the crime happened in a bus park where people are traveling. Now the video is so abrupt in how it comes, it doesn’t show us the preceding events or what happened.  You like basically see people fighting and then when you try to follow and to make sense of what could be happening then you get to realize that probably, this man had something in his pocket that the young fellow pocketed and ran away with.  So as he went to recover that thing, a lot of other people came to join in, but they did not know exactly what was going on.  Now instead of stopping the fight, some of them were actually joining the fight. At some point you see the main the main the main complainant or maybe the person trying to recover his thing, he’s even standing behind and it’s another person beating the boy, then all of a sudden again he takes over and people are shouting, but you also don’t see like maybe leaders or people stopping, nobody’s trying to find out really what happened. Yeah.
Subsequent posts will look at narrative construction of doubt/certainty and how it combines with agency to conceptualize culpability. 

Barlas, O., 2013. Freedom, Choice, and the Sense of Agency. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7:514. (online) (Accessed 19 March 2014).
Boroditsky, L. 2010. Does Language Influence Culture? The Wall Street Journal, 23 July. (online)  (Accessed 20 September 2014).  

Friday, 3 April 2015

Quant Peace Research Part 1: Whose truth/justice/reconciliation?

This is the first in a series of posts on quantitative peace research.  Relatively new and often relegated to the 'huh?' panel stream at conferences, quant research in peace and conflict studies has been gaining ground in the past decade for several reasons.  Besides imbuing the word peace with less fuzzy/idealistic qualities thereby making it easier to build policies, raise money, frame political action platforms, and fuel solutions to conflict (Although it is the source of conflict with qualitative purists.  I won't hide that I am pro mixed methods... a topic for another post), the most promising reason quant research is having an impact in the field is that studies are being conducted by researchers with some surprising backgrounds beyond the usual polisci/sociology/social science disciplines.  These individuals bring with them alien concepts from neuroscience and even field experience from actual military combat that make for a truly multidimensional approach.

Whose Truth/Justice/Reconciliation? is a short version of an upcoming talk at The 8th Human Welfare in Conflict Conference. 

While presenting a seminar on the findings from my doctoral research (looking at narrative distortions produced via mobile ICT applications by bilingual participants), someone made an interesting comment about the applicability of my research, and methodology in particular, to transitional justice contexts.  This paper is an opportunity to develop that idea further.

In very generalized terms, post-conflict peace processes known often as ‘truth and reconciliation’ programs have been criticized for imposing a framework of justice that is culturally mismatched to the participating population’s concepts of justice. (see, for example, Avruch, 2010)  In this paper, I focused on concepts of culpability and agency by providing a nuanced quantitative measure to distinguish culturally rooted concepts of justice, responsibility, and agency. (Boroditsky, 2010; Costa et al., 2014)  The novel methodology adapted from cognitive linguistics combined quantitative measures of conceptual frames surrounding doubt, agency, and event structure to describe the concept of culpability.  Results have the potential to enhance dimensionality for articulating complex processes such as justice and  reconciliation as well as discussing the efficacy of such post-conflict programs.

I began by looking at the influence of ICT in conflict contexts because it is inescapable.  Due to the increasing use of information and communication technology (ICT) applications in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict resolution for gathering human rights abuse reports, election monitoring, polling, violence reporting, and other conflict management data collection activities that inform policy-making and participatory governance, this research performed a bilingual experiment with methodology from cognitive linguistics in order to describe the problematic nature of the ICT used in the conflict management context. This study was the first to incorporate cognitive-level communication variations and preferences as design considerations in the context of conflict management. (a.k.a radical alien interdisciplinary research) 

I have written extensively in previous posts about what cognitive-level means, but a brief recap. Pulling in research from both cognitive psychology and linguistics that examines memory, thought patterns such as categorization, problem-solving, cause-effect relationships, concepts of time and space, and use of language, this methodology focused, in particular, on conceptualization.  Conceptualization often requires complex relational understandings of objects, persons, time, space, and events.  The type of concepts that interest me concern events such as those that might be reported during conflict such as violence at a polling station or other incidents recalled as narratives and collected with mobile ICT applications.  (These narratives, once aggregated, become data for policy makers indicating hotspots of violence, political unrest, economic need, or even health crises.)  In order to observe concepts (because I can't see thoughts), I observed 'conceptual frames.'  A frame is something that computer scientists refer to, cartoonists refer to, cognitive psychologists refer to.  It is a fragment like a subject or a predicate, a basic unit of cognitive capacity that describes a perception such as he vs. they or something falling vs. something rising.    

Building from earlier work I had done which examined the consequences of a language barrier for ICT in crisis contexts (post-earthquake Haiti 2010, Libya and Egypt 2011, and Somalia 2011/12) which asserted that:
This flawed application prevented the original contributors from interacting with the information directly related to their own life-threatening situation, and the information it amassed formed an unsound basis for decision-making by international actors…. (Sutherlin, 2013, p.1)
my doctoral research (as well as this new paper) pursued the idea that the conceptual structure underlying language—the ‘organizational logic’ that occurs at the cognitive or thought-level—remained problematic for participation with ICT tools and the power they can leverage for policy-making for use by local actors.  In order to investigate conceptual structures, this research adapted experiments from cognitive linguistics that provided a quantitative means to assess the communication of concepts.  

In the northern region of Uganda, Gulu district, Gulu town, 29 bilingual Acholi-English participants completed a three-stage experiment. (I know it doesn't sound like a lot but that's an average number of participants for this type of bilingual study.)  Participants viewed a YouTube video depicting a chaotic street brawl, and were then asked to describe what they had seen in three distinct narrative forms: oral Acholi, written Acholi on a mobile device, and oral English.  By comparing narrative construction and identifying concepts unique to certain narratives, the experiment looked at the level of thought before language, the cognitive level, and thus followed in the footsteps of earlier research in the field of cognitive linguistics that examined how concepts from one language can be observed to transfer into another.  

**A quick note about language/culture/cognition: because this was a bilingual experiment and the data was in the form of 'language' but the variables under investigation were cultural and cognitive variation, the two comparison languages used in the experiment should be considered exemplars of cultures with certain characteristics that have a high cognitive impact such as orality or how categories are used. The characteristics which differ form a really long list, but part of the reason these two languages are compared/contrasted is their linguistic and cultural distance to one another which brings the issues under investigation into relief.  (Linguistic distance was  proposed by Greenberg in 1956 and extended by Lieberson in 1964 and even has a Wikipedia entry so it has got to be pretty well established. It quantifies how different dialects and languages such as German and Dutch vary from one another.  Cultural distance is adapted from this idea.  So English represents the culture that produced the ICT application and Acholi represents the culture using the application for data collection/aggregation/policymaking in conflict contexts.)  To summarize, it's not an experiment about English vs. every other single language or any specific language at all; it's about variations in underlying thinking (preceding or accompanying language).  Because we can 'see' thinking, the experiment observes language production and makes inferences about cognition and the culture that influenced it.

During the analysis, I looked for evidence of English to transfer into Acholi due to the presence of ICT.  For example, in the ICT recall stage, although participants were reading in Acholi and writing in Acholi, the logic of the ICT application which had been designed (as nearly all software has been) with the logic of English in its core would trigger English concepts in participants bilingual brains.  Concepts from English would transfer into their Acholi narratives that would not normally appear in an Acholi narrative.  My hypothesis was that, in essence, the ICT format would prescribe the participants' narratives in a way that was not natural to Acholi; there would be distortions or dissonance.  In 3/4 of the cases this was true.  There was a narrative shift and not simply one attributable to speaking vs. writing because I was looking at specific schemata and narrative structure. (From speaking to writing you might change how you describe something, but you don't change the story.)   

Before conducting the experiment, I spent three months in the field.  I did intensive language immersion.  I had discussions with local university professors, hunted for literature to review (anthropology, literature, poetry, linguistics, narrative studies, psychology).  All so I could identify specific cultural schema and narrative patterns. Schemata (sing. schema) are cognitive shortcuts that our brains use to make sense of the immense amount of sensory information we take in.  They are made up of conceptual frames.  For example, you can recognize a dog in a fraction of a second out of the corner of your eye because it fits the model/shortcut/set of conceptual frames for that animal.  We rely on schemata in order to be more efficient with our mental energy as well as to make sense of unusual or new situations by slotting what we see/hear/etc., onto the scaffolding of existing a schema and proceeding with a 'best fit' guess.  By focusing on schemata, this connected the experimental results to culturally formed concepts and the level of thought rather than a discourse analysis on language.  Schemata are culturally informed in this way-- you are probably familiar with the adage, 'When you hear hoof beats think horses, not zebras.'  Does everyone everywhere think horses?  It may depend on place/culture.   The video prompt for the experiment was chaotic and shared some familiar characteristics (because it was a street scene in Nigeria and the market stalls and taxi stand looked similar to Uganda as well as YouTube having made Nigerian videos popular viewing across the continent); however, the unfamiliar language in the video and, again, the chaotic scene, made it likely that it would trigger in participants the reliance on their culturally learned schemata.  That was the idea anyway.

Among the key findings, the concepts of culpability (who was guilty) and agency (who was involved) emerged as unique between what was described via ICT and orally in Acholi.  Crucially, several participants claimed that one specific individual was to blame for the incident in their ICT recall while they had only described a group having possibly been involved in something during their initial Acholi oral recall.  In addition, several participants changed the very nature of the event between these two recalls.  If we imagine these reports as part of a police investigation, the initial set of oral reports seems to indicate no action is needed while the ICT reports point the finger at one man.  Troubling to say the least.

In conclusion, if cultural constructs such as justice, culpability, and agency are both consciously and unconsciously programmed into technology, then the ICT application is putting limitations on the narrative, perhaps even prescribing conceptual elements of narrative for something as vital and nuanced as justice.  If we imagine a field poll being taken about what form transitional justice should take, if technology is involved, even in the aggregation of narratives later, this could radically alter the results by altering authorship/intentionality/voice/participation.  In addition to this practical impact, the methodology I used (with or without the mediating factor of technology) could offer a deeper understanding of the core conceptualization of justice within a society by being able to break the concept down at a cognitive level.  Subsequent posts will continue to look at each of these concepts in more depth (culpability and agency) as well as build on comments/reactions to the paper.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Hibernation is over

There has been a period of hibernation on this blog due to the completion and defense of my PhD last fall/winter.  And while this platform was primarily created as a space to explore topics related to my doctoral research, in the immediate future, I do plan to continue to use it to informally develop ideas as I speak and publish in the areas of peace & conflict, (cognitive) linguistics, information science, and their intersections with culture and politics.

Coming soon... a focus on quantitative peace research beginning with some thoughts about the communication strategies of ISIS from a cognitive linguistics perspective with comments on the report from the Brookings Institute integrated with some other projects such as the peace and terrorism indices.

Also coming up... thoughts on paper to be delivered at the 8th annual Conference on Human Welfare in Conflict at Oxford's Green Templeton College, titled: Cultural Concepts of Culpability: the role of ICT in post-conflict transitional justice. 

And in the meantime, I just came across this painting in the MFA Houston, and it resonated for 2 reasons.  First, it has an obvious conflict resolution context.  But second, it reminded of the optical illusions that integrate two images (the old/young lady) so that viewers see different images depending on their perspectives.  In this painting, there is no optical illusion at play, but it is simultaneously urgent and frenzied at one end and deliberate and calm at the other.  It depends on the viewer's perspective which aspect controls the scene's narrative.  And so it goes in conflict res....
During my phd, I did learn the secret to keeping elephants out... where does that go on my cv?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Think Outside the Lab

This takes me back full circle to the initial post with which I launched this blog—my communicative purpose and challenge was to work within an impossible sort of Venn Diagram of three disciplines that never seem to collaborate: Computer science (such as developers, information scientists, and engineers), linguistics (including cognitive linguistics, but really all language-oriented studies), and finally political science (policy-oriented and often practitioners such as human rights activists or crisis response managers).  Pairs of these disciplines can be found teaming up, but an effort combining the insights of all three is, sadly, very rare indeed. 

A recent project out of MIT from Berzak, Reichart, and Katz pursued the hypothesis that structural features of a speaker's first language will transfer into written English as a Second Language (ESL) and can be used to predict the first language of the speaker.  I believe their work does not go far enough in two respects.  First, in terms of sampling.  Second, in terms of considering how parsing communication in this manner might be applied to software design.

Their paper addresses the sampling problem as one of resources.  They acknowledge that there are over 7000 languages, and there exists a written corpus (their data pool) from only a relative few.  My critique, however, is that they consider all languages members of the same sample set for their experiment.  Katz explains in an interview that he was drawn to investigate and algorithmically describe ‘mistakes’ made by Russian speakers in English.  These mistakes are called linguistic transfer because an element from the first language is transferred into the second.  (Reverse transfer can happen as well when a new language affects the first language.)  Linguistic transfer can come in several forms: phonological/orthographic (mistakes due to sound or spelling), lexical/semantic ('false friends'), morphological/syntactic (grammar mistakes), sociological/discursive (such as appropriateness or formality), and conceptual (categories, inferences, event elements, concepts generally).  If Katz’s group had differentiated between types of mistakes, they might have improved the rate of prediction success in their results. Also, it is unclear if their model was able to incorporate more complex types of transfer such as discursive or conceptual.  One reason they may not have seen the need to differentiate by type was their limited sample. 

Most linguistics studies (or research asserting multi-lingual or multi-cultural value) that purport to incorporate a broad range of languages, in fact, only draw from a small number of closely related languages that don’t possess particularly profound differences in conceptual organization of information. That means if there were instances of conceptual transfer, they would be rare or at least difficult to detect.  (Most studies look at Indo-European languages, plus perhaps Russian, Hebrew, Korean, or Japanese to appear to have real diversity.)  Among the nearly 7000 languages, there are only 100 or so that have a literature; it is this group of languages that are most frequently studied. These languages are, therefore, ones which have a strong history and preference for writing (called chirographic), and this mode of communication has had an effect on many cognitive processes within the populations that speak these languages.  The rest of the 7000 are predominantly oral, and there are very rarely oral languages represented in the sample sets (of any study).  Orality is not be confused with literacy; it is a preference for communication and most speakers of predominantly oral languages also speak and operate in chirographic languages as well.  The impact on cognitive processes such as categorization, problem solving, ordering for memory, imagination, memory recall, etc, is connected to a need to rely on sound and associated mneumonics for information organization.  If you cannot write something down, this changes your strategy for remembering something or for working through a problem or any number of other cognitive processes.  The linguistics studies that fail to represent a member from this set of predominantly oral languages make an egregious sampling error which leads to false conclusions about universal or easily modeled qualities of communication.  Orality is a profound variable in terms of its effect on cognitive processes. That is why investigating and describing communication at a conceptual level and drawing from languages much more distant to the typical baseline of English would yield some surprising results.

The second problem with the MIT study is one of anticipating a use for the findings.  Quoting from the press release about their work:
"These [linguistic] features that our system is learning are of course, on one hand, of nice theoretical interest for linguists,” says Boris Katz, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and one of the leaders of the new work. “But on the other, they’re beginning to be used more and more often in applications. Everybody’s very interested in building computational tools for world languages, but in order to build them, you need these features. So we may be able to do much more than just learn linguistic features. … These features could be extremely valuable for creating better parsers, better speech-recognizers, better natural-language translators, and so forth." (L. Hardesty for MIT news office 2014)

Yes, so true.  However, it's not theoretical at all, nor is it simply the folly of linguists to pursue communication variation at a conceptual level.  Using conceptual frames (Minsky, 1974) has already been proven to be an effective method in improving the search capability in map tools by Chengyang et al. (2009)  who shifted a map search tool to operate from conceptual frames rather than conventional English search terms.

Katz and his lab at MIT are credited with the work the led to Siri, and this new study could be applied to machine language tools so that patterns of mistakes become predictable and thus correctable.  It could also be added to text scanning tools to detect the first language of non-native English authors on the web thus adding to the mass surveillance toolkit.

I think a lot more could be done (but hasn't) with this methodology in terms of looking at how an oral language's conceptual frames could be described and then used to calibrate a more responsive information and communication application.  I used very similar methodology to the MIT researchers in my experiment looking at reverse linguistic transfer last year (that I have been charting on this blog).  I compared sets of bilingual narratives and looked for patterns of 'mistakes,' but I was interested in what these mistakes could tell us about the communication needs of the users (mobile technology users in rapidly growing markets like Africa, South East Asia, or South America).  My hypothesis was that the structures of their first language were being  distorted, being converted into 'mistakes,' in order to fit a prescribed (foreign) conceptual structure of the software application.  What I found was much more complex than counting instances of mistakes.

What I observed, and quantified, was that when comparing the first language oral narrative to the first language narrative via mobile report (either as an SMS or as a smart phone app question series),  3/4 of the participants expressed dramatically different narratives when using the mobile report format than in their initial first language oral narratives.  That means that translating interfaces isn't sufficient to provide communication access.  There are underlying conceptual aspects to communication that have yet to be addressed and that are inherently cultural (currently mono-cultural).  Due to the complex nature of concepts such as justice, personhood, time, or place identifying and isolating instances of transfer was very challenging.  A summary of the results is forthcoming in 2 papers as well as my doctoral research, but the main conclusion I researched was conceptual-level parsing of communication should be integrated into design of communication and information management software with the integration of insights from oral languages.  Inclusion of this variable with indigenous software design will increase the ability of users from rapidly growing markets to participate with and leverage the information and communication technology in a manner which meets their needs.

this topic will be continued with highlights from forthcoming publications.

Chengyang, Z., Yan, H., Rada, M. and Hector, C., 2009. A Natural Language Interface for Crime-Related Spatial Queries. In: Proceedings of IEEE Intelligence and Security Informatics, Dallas, TX, 2009. 

Jarvis, S. and Crossley, S. 2012. Approaching language transfer through text classification: Explorations in the detection-based approach. Multilingual Matters, volume 64.

Jarvis, S. and Pavlenko, A. 2007. Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition. London; New York: Routledge.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Post-Terror Generation

When did generations stop being defined in terms of war?  In terms of the hardship that fueled dreams of a brighter future for the generation to follow?  The name of an age once served as a reference and reminder to ill-fated political policies, to the suffering wrought by our own hubris so that we might shield future generations from the mistakes that have cost us our chance.  When we examined a generation, their defining characteristic has most often been forged by war.

The Lost Generation who witnessed the hardship of WWI and the political forces that disappeared the golden age into the modern age.  The Victorian Age before it, synonymous with colonialist expansion and industrialization.  Generation X was the first generation to be defined without direct reference to a defining war or hardship because theirs was a generation without a cause, without fight or direction.  It was defined by its 'anti' characteristics, most notably apathy, in contrast to its parent generation, the post-WWII Baby Boomers.

There is now a post-terror generation.  Children born near the end of the 20th century and certainly after 9/11 who have never known a world that was not caught up in the War on Terror, who have not been consumed at every cultural level by a political policy structure reacting to the War on Terror.

The post-terror generation was the term used by Edward Snowden in an interview with Vanity Fair in April 2014  to describe the millennials, a group that polling research has noticed is a more optimistic, less polarized generation.  Trying not to repeat the behaviors they've witnessed in the generation that preceded them such as the US engaged in a multi-front war, a contentious, non-stop screaming match between political parties, and more and more leaders that find it easier to blow up a problem rather than reach out and build a solution (Generation Terror by Michael Scarfo). The post-terror generation will look past the bombastic pressures that rile or depress the rest of us as simply white noise. 

The War on Terror is a black hole of policies that have pulled us into war and obscured our focus on the environment, the banking collapse, poverty, education, healthcare..... creating an paralleled atmosphere of partisan rancor.  The post-terror generation had no other course but to rebel against this failed model.  Ironically, because they have always had the looming threat of terror, the fear does not govern their lives in the way the previous generation felt a tectonic shift had robbed them of an inalienable security.   

The evolution of current security policy is certainly more complex than this post delves into; here, I am interested in pondering how this young generation coming up behind me sees the world, and why we don't have cooler names for generations!  The alphabet system has run its course.  I vote for a return to connecting ourselves to a defining struggle.  The post-terror generation suits these kids.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Slow Drip Invasion: use of ICT and UAV in weak states

If you imagine the challenges faced by local communities plagued by conflict and institutional instability, someplace for example like Somalia, a nation that has faced profound governance issues (sorry to pick on Somalia, but this post is about weak states), and you work in any part of the humanitarian or development organization network, it may seem perfectly reasonable to empower local communities and civil society groups to collaborate on Alternative Modes of Governance.  In this way, communities can see to their own basic needs.  Mobile technology has emerged as a resource that development experts are thinking creatively about in order tackle these types of issues.  The rapid influx of phones, more generally of information and communication technology (ICT) has presented new opportunities for governance according several influential tech architects.  In a new book, Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood edited by Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop, contributing authors such as Patrick Meier the developer of Ushahidi (an SMS platform relied on by branches of the UN and US government) as well as development heavyweights such as Dr. Sharath Srinivasan, Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) at the University of Cambridge, explore ICT's viability as an Alternative Governance Modality.  They discuss the effects of ICT proliferation within the slums of Kenya and Russia as well as other areas that are considered to have limited or weak central governments.  

Alternative Governance Modality.  It sounds like a very neat solution.  Certainly seems like the best option in the slums of Kibera, Kenya.  If you break it down, it becomes decidedly less neat.  Alternative to what exactly?  If local community groups and NGO/civil society partnerships have been capacitated with ICT, where did that technology come from?  Where did the policy directives come from?  Is there a Dutch NGO or USAID project that has essentially invaded a small corner of some weak state that is unable to object, all via mobile device?  And where does the data go?  Who is it for?   
I am not advocating that communities should not organize or utilize whatever means they find in order to address the issues they face; however, the authors are not being entirely honest in their assessment of 'locally empowering' when they describe the use of ICT in these projects.  The tech tools employed are inherently external and foreign objects.  Indigenous ICT simply does not exist yet, and the means to develop it might, to incorporate the cultural nuance of information and communication preferences from Kibera or a Somali community, but these design techniques are not being used in the humanitarian ICT field.  The focus is mistakenly on simplicity, assuming that streamlining applications will overcome literacy issues or even culture barriers.  This approach compounds the problem.  What Western designers understand as the most logical, the most simple, the most intuitive, inherently expresses their conceptualization of how information should be organized and how it connects.  The ways in which information can be connected and organized at a conceptual level is by no means universal, particularly if you take into account differences between more predominately oral cultures.  (Check out some earlier posts on orality; it’s not the opposite of literacy, but a cultural communication preference with cognitive implications.) By concentrating or streamlining the design, it becomes extra-Western in its conceptualization and thus even more distorting to non-Western information and communication intentions.  The current interface and information design empowers Western users not the users described in these ‘weak state’ contexts.  By capacitating local groups with ICT, the authors are describing a situation for linking up new populations to a vast data network.  Connecting them as potential sources of information and points of leverage (perhaps for Western policy makers, perhaps for commercial enterprise).  ICT which captures information in ways useful to non-Western users, ICT that functions as a tool, a potential policy-making aid or technological advancement outside the Western concept has not been fully realized; therefore, what does exist is only useful or empowering to the group that designed it, that released it in the field, that is writing about its vast potential because that potential will be for them.  

The problem of data collection in weak states is brought into relief with the use of UAVs (drones). 
 The images they provide are meant to enable humanitarian crisis responders to more efficiently get know ‘the lay of the land’ when called to work.  Who could argue with technology that improves humanitarian missions and potentially saves lives?  This was the original purpose of ICTs like Ushahidi-- crisis response.  There is a jump in the script, a missing (or a few missing) steps that take us from designing a successful tool for crisis response in which information is marvelously organized and communications are streamlined during a short-term intensive mission by external actors to a stage where this technology is being used to govern long-term by indigenous populations.  These are two massively different tasks not to mention two different sets of users.  How did these parameters escape the designers?  How did we just slide into alternative governance modality from what was initially a cobbled together system to organize the hectic atmosphere of crisis response?  How did these projects go from responding to crisis (after the fact) to inserting into the fabric, the airspace, of weak states in an on-going capacity with the stated aim of preparedness?  The reason mapping projects seem to empower the technology providers more than the local population is that, for example, in a region where I recently did fieldwork in Northern Uganda the language spoken there has no word for map. This was true for the surrounding languages ranging into Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan.  (read more about about it in Without a Map, and Like It's 1899).   The data collected with UAVs will arguably improve humanitarian missions.  But what else besides?  

There is something in scientific research called dual-use technology and for which certain safety protocols are developed.  A scientist may discover an amazing virus that can be harnessed to cure cancer, but it could also be released as a weapon—there are two uses.  So far, ICT applications and other digital technology are not treated as creations with this same bipolar potency.  There is little ethical debate about the long-term implications or context of use.  There is certainly no ethical training for designers or engineers.  I have been pleasantly surprised by a few technology journal editors that encourage ethically driven arguments, but I think it would be terrific if there were more voices in the field taking the idea of 'empowerment,' a bit further, that is to say really delving into how this power comes about and from where/to whom.   To put it another way, these tools will only become empowering for more people, become better tools if designers are driven to improve them—this is an area where there is huge opportunity to develop new tools for new groups of users (staggering large groups of new users) that approach local governance or any number of issues from a non-Western conceptualization.  A total departure from the humanitarian crisis responder-user and task and an embrace of the indigenous user and his/her information and communication preferences should lead to a much more successful tool.  This culturally based ICT development is certainly on the horizon.  I can't wait to see (or hear) it in action.