Elva – Texting for Security
The 2008 war between Georgia and Russia has upturned the lives of thousands of citizens in the Georgian region of Shida Kartli. Four years after the intense five-day war, which saw Russia gain control over the neighbouring territory of South Ossetia, many inhabitants of Shida Kartli now find their villages lined by military checkpoints, their farmlands turned into stretches of no man’s land patrolled by soldiers. Every day, the residents of these remote farming communities face a diverse range of security incidents, ranging from violent incidents such as shootings and threats by Russian or Ossetian forces, to more structural threats to their livelihood such as a lack of access to firewood and irrigation water.
Following the war, domestic and international security providers rushed to provide a basic level of stability to the “border villages” of Shida Kartli. Local police patrols can now often be seen negotiating the villages’ meandering dirt tracks, followed by the heavy four-by-fours of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) that was deployed to monitor the hasty peace agreement of 2008.
Although their presence is contributing to safety in the region, all security providers are still facing one major challenge: any strategy for improving human security can only be successful if it is responsive to the rapidly evolving security needs and interests of the affected population. And in the remote communities of Shida Kartli, where even getting from one village to the next can be difficult, gaining an accurate insight in the developing needs of the population is very hard.
To resolve this problem, the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) in 2010 decided to team up with conflict transformation organisation Saferworld. Saferworld already employed a network of 16 community representatives in Shida Kartli, people who were politically neutral and trusted in their communities and who volunteered to regularly discuss local security needs. Our mission was clear: to develop a methodology that would allow Saferworld’s community representatives to share regular reports about security trends and incidents in their communities with security providers for joint analysis and response. Within several months, Elva (Georgian for “lightning” or “express message”) was born.
Elva is a web- and SMS-based communication platform that allows citizens to report about security incidents in their area and to share this data with local authorities and security providers. It offers several key functionalities:
- Efficient, (almost) free SMS communication between groups of citizens and the project team
- Automated aggregation and analysis of security reports
- An emergency function that allows participants to report emergency incidents and retrieve reliable information about planned responses
- An online workspace for drafting, storing and editing project reports
- Data visualization. All community reports are shown on interactive maps, in dynamic charts and tables
- Advocacy. Local authorities and donors are provided with tailored data overviews
The process for collecting the community reports is relatively simple: Saferworld’s community representatives submit information by SMS to a central Elva phone number. They send information about common security challenges or emergency situations, but they also submit weekly security reports. For sending in these reports, they use a specially designed questionnaire with pre-agreed codes that allow them to fit a large quantity of data in a single text message. Once they have submitted their message, it arrives at the communication servers of Georgia’s mobile phone carriers, from where it is automatically transferred to our server. Then, Elva automatically analyses and stores it – and sends it on to other participants if necessary.
CRRC and Saferworld want to ensure that the communities’ reports contribute to more accountable and responsive human security policies. We are therefore providing decision makers with online access to Elva, which will present them with a tailored overview showing the data in visually compelling maps, in interactive graphs and charts. By presenting the data in these easy-to-grasp visualisations, Elva allows policy makers to easily spot the latest security trends and developments and to produce informed and locally appropriate responses.
The first results of our community safety project are tentatively promising. Even before we started sharing our data with security providers, community representatives already said they felt safer, knowing that someone was listening to their concerns on a regular basis. Seeing that their concerns are being taken seriously, some of them have also adopted a more active approach towards changing their predicament, by actively approaching security providers for assistance. Although the community representatives do not receive a financial remuneration for their efforts, they have remained very committed to the project, submitting 466 text messages and monitoring 521 security incidents in the past six months alone, ranging from shootings to detentions to movement by armed gangs. In addition, they have notified their peers and security providers of nine emergency situations in the past six months, after which we were able to provide the communities with reliable information about planned responses by security providers. In doing so, we were able to prevent the spread of rumours and misinformation that could have enhanced the communities’ sense of insecurity. In the next phase of the project, we will strive to facilitate increased cooperation between community representatives and local authorities to jointly analyse the data and to define locally appropriate responses.
Elva can be used for any kind of community-driven monitoring, including election monitoring, tracking human rights violations and managing disaster risk. The platform is completely open source, so if your organisation is interested in giving it a spin, you are welcome to download our source code and set it up for your own project.