Crowd Sourcing Rape in Syria’s Uprising (Updated)

The Women Under Siege project, which stems from the Women’s Media Center organization, recently launched a new initiative to document rape in Syria’s latest uprising. Covering Syria is part of the project’s aim to report on rape and other forms of sexualized violence in the conflict. Lauren Wolfe, the project director, used to work for the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she took led the response to questions that addressed sexual violence against journalists following Lara Logan’s attack.

(Full disclosure: I’ve met with Lauren several times, and she is one of the most passionate journalists promoting women’s rights.)

The Women Under Siege’s Syrian map actively crowd sources from news reports and firsthand accounts to identify the location of where sexualized violence occurs in relation to the uprisings.

Here is a layout of the main map. It appears to be a traditional Google Fusion map. You can zoom in to see each of the red dots that signify a sexual attack. Once you click on the red dot, a popup box appears and will briefly explain what happened, ex. “Al-Jazeera: protestor raped in prison”, which is a hyperlink that will lead to more information from an Al-Jazeera article. The hyperlink leads to a new page, where the report will explain in further detail what occurred, who provided the information, and whether the Women Under Siege was able to verify the report.

The map is simple and easy to read. But I’m not sure why the scale is so far out, so that most of Iraq is also included. The popup box is a great idea because it gives users the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to click on the hyperlinks of the individualized reports. Users can also click on the individualized reports from the main menu that sits on top of the map. The front page also lets users submit reports, in both English and Arabic. Users are told to read the digital security section, which is clearly displayed on the main menu of the front page before they proceed with submitting reports.

Overall, I think that the design of the Syrian crowd map is effective because it’s simple. It would be strange to see a heavy interactive, complicated design because that would probably take away from the message of the map, which is to track sexualized violence. However, I wonder if the design is any different when the website is in Arabic.

The data is organized by different types of sexualized violence, though I’m not sure if that makes a significant design difference in the main map. The types of sexualized violence are identified by different colors. A small criticism of the map is that the highway numbers, which are shown in red rectangles, can be confused with the red dots that represent the acts of sexualized violence. I would have probably made the highway numbers less visible or at least changed the color.

The major flaw of the map is that it obviously lacks data input. The map pulls data mostly from news articles. Though I’m not sure how activists would have access to directly input the data without compromising their safety. I think that the map should have a bigger disclaimer that indicates how many reports of sexualized violence are verified or unverified. Almost all the reports I browsed through seem to be unverified. If you mouseover the list of reports, a red box pops up to say that they are unverified, but it’s quite small.

It’s also unclear if all the reports of sexualized violence are committed by pro-government forces. This is potentially a huge data flaw that could compromise the entire point of the project. Women Under Siege should make it clear who the perpetrators are suspected to be.

If I designed the map, I probably would removed the option to filter reports by the type of attack. Users can find out what kind of attack occurred by reading the individualized reports. I’m not sure, given the small amount of data, that the filter option adds anything to the map.

Overall, I think that this is an interesting concept but I wonder how Women Under Siege can find more data. There’s no doubt that sexualized violence is occurring, but I’m not sure if the map really shows any geographical trend. There is a large number of attacks in Homs, but we know that the city is at the center of the anti-government uprisings.

Updates from Lauren Wolfe:

Lauren, the director of Women Under Siege, responded to some of the questions I raised about their great crowd sourcing map on sexualized violence in Syria. Here’s what she had to say:

The map is not a Google fusion map, they used the Ushahidi platform, which is often used to visualize data. The map shows large parts of Iraq because the “next pre-set zoom option cut off portions of Syria. But you can zoom as a visitor to show the cases in more specific spots.”

Lauren also had concerns over the red highway numbers, but she wasn’t able to change the color because of the map’s pre-settings. “Because I was unable to host the Ushahidi software on my own server (which would have allowed for much more customization) I was stuck using one of four or five pre-designed options given by their site that employs the software, The only color choice I was given was to change the red dots, but I stuck with the red that was given because it seemed to convey urgency. I had to ability to change any other colors on the design.”

Lauren addressed the unverified/verified status of the reports. “Every report is unverified so far. The reporting situation makes it impossible to verify rape—which is nearly impossible to “verify” in most cases in conflict even outside Syria. We have marked each report “unverified” as well as put language in each that says:  “Because Syrian government officials currently refuse to allow access to journalists, researchers, and aid workers, Women Under Siege cannot independently verify this report of sexualized violence in Syria.”

Lauren also pointed out that I didn’t check to see that the categories do show whether the acts were committed by government forces, non-government forces, or others.

There is little data, she added, because they just launched the map on March 28. They hope to receive more data over the next year. Lauren said that they’re “working with a team of epidemiologists and Physicians for Human Rights, so the idea is to have specific data sets for analysis. Also, with the types of attacks made clear, you can sort the map that way, giving you an idea how prevalent specific reports/types of attacks are or are not.”

The map is important, Lauren said, because visualizing the assaults “conveys something more. Grouping types of attacks seems very helpful to me in terms of presenting the information to the world in a new, precise way that tells the world something larger.”

Lauren and the Women Under Siege make important points here. Even though it’s easy to look at visualizations and critique them, there are some limitations that aren’t in the control of designers and data journalists, such as verifying the reports or using preset designs.

I think that Women Under Siege has done a great job, and I look forward to seeing how this map will turn out as more data comes in. Data journalists should take note that this may be the first major visualization that involves direct contributions from citizens.


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