I’ve been fascinated with the work of British investigative blogger Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins for some time now, in part because he is a classic example of how someone with the right skills and motivation can use the social web to function as a journalist with little or no professional training. Last year, Eliot created a site called Bellingcat to build on the work that he and others have done, and now the team has launched a project designed to crowdsource a real-time picture of military activity in Ukraine.
Higgins and Bellingcat have been working on identifying and cataloguing movements of armored vehicles, troops and other activity in and around Ukraine ever since Russia started interfering in that country and then subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula. In one of the site’s major efforts to date, it used social media and various other tools such as Google Earth to help confirm that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was taken down by Ukrainian separatists armed with a BUK M1 missile launcher.
The site did this in much the same way that Higgins (whom I consider a friend) was the first to confirm that the Syrian government had used cluster bombs against its own people in a series of attacks. By correlating images and video clips — which in many cases were posted by militant groups themselves — with locations from Google Earth and other sources with data about the area and military hardware, Higgins was able to establish how the attacks occurred, and the types of weapons involved.
For the Ukraine project, Bellingcat has created a real-time database of Russian and Ukrainian military movements, with photos and geographical location information, and has opened that database up for anyone to contribute to. For verification, the team is using its own expertise as well as a service called Checkdesk, a live-blogging platform that was started by social-technology group Meedan and won a Knight Fund challenge last year. And the data behind the project is all being hosted publicly through a site called Silk, which allows anyone to see, embed and potentially even modify the data.
As a blog post at Bellingcat describes, the project was jump-started with the data that Daniel Romein put together while trying to confirm when and how Flight MH17 was attacked. But Bellingcat team member Veli-Pekka Kivimäki says the site didn’t want to just post a photo or location every time there was a new confirmed sighting of troops or vehicles in Ukraine — it wanted to create a database that would grow and evolve with each new piece of information.
In an email message, Eliot said the project brings together a bunch of things he has been trying to do:
“By using Checkdesk, we hope to build a community of open source and social media investigators, helping them build their skills and knowledge by participating in a live, on-going project. We’re collecting, verifying, and presenting the information in an as open way as possible.”
Live updates and an open database
Using Silk as a data platform means the information about military activity and identification of vehicles and weaponry can be continually updated, Higgins said. And because of the way Silk works, anywhere the representations of that data are embedded via the platform — whether as maps or diagrams or tables — will automatically be updated with new information when it is added.
“There’s already a lot of people working on collecting and geolocating these videos, so we know there’s plenty of information out there already, it just needs to be collected in one place,” Higgins said, and the Bellingcat project is a way of doing that. As Kivimäki says in the site’s blog post, the hope is to “build a large data set that can be mined to make entirely new discoveries.” So, for example, a group of vehicles was seen travelling towards the Donetsk region, and similar vehicles were seen travelling through Ukrain later the same day — were they the same ones, or a different convoy?
The data hosted in Silk is broken down into three categories: Sightings contain links to whatever media is available — whether it’s photos or video — along with data like location, type of equipment, etc. These can also be grouped. Another category is equipment, which contains a list of the different kinds of weapons and vehicles that have been seen or confirmed. And the “unique units” category collects specific items that have been conclusively identified, via licence plate or other ID.
Checkdesk will be used to bring together a lot of the information already shared and discussed on Russian vehicles in Ukraine, and enable the information to be reviewed and verified openly. We also hope that by making the process as open as possible we encourage our readers to participate in the discovery and verification process, giving them the opportunity to learn about verification and giving those who already have experience verifying content chance to share their knowledge.