Mar 9, 2017

The Emergence of "Citizen Analysts"

People around the world are disappointed (OK, mad as hell) with the new U.S. Administration, elected in November 2016 and being implemented in 2017. Yet, there is a silver lining in the many storm clouds.  The 2016 U.S. election has positively energized people in two ways.

First, there are large increases in active participation in politics and grassroots democracy.  The 2016 U.S. election has released enormous energy amongst the citizenry, and not just in the United States. In addition to the worldwide Women's March of January 21st, we see an almost instant reaction to various policies put forward by the new adminstration. It was amazing to see volunteer lawyers, Congress members, and protesters quickly descend upon major U.S. airports in response to the first travel ban signed by the new President. No long term planning was required — coordination and direction happened quickly via social media.

Second, we are witnessing an emergence of "citizen analysts" — an energized, self-organizing group focused on the flow of public ("open source") data and news. These patriotic citizens are trying to make sense of the various data flows and news stories swirling around the new Administration — many of which get under-reported.  A congressman has set up his own citizen analyst web page.  One of my clients sent me newspaper articles of how POTUS is being tracked in the Netherlands 1) circle map, 2) interactive ego map.

I became a citizen analyst in 2001 when I started digging through open source data on the WWW to uncloak the terrorist network that attacked the USA on 9/11.  After several months of digging, cross-checking and updating, I had a useful map of the 9/11 hijackers and their support structure shown in Figure 1 below.  After completing the map, I wrote an academic article about the process.  

Figure 1

One of the interesting citizen analyst groups emerging is around the reported connections between Russia and the current U.S. administration and their campaign. Many investigative journalists have written reports, with new information being unearthed each week. In addition to the News reports, a few court cases are publicly available with deeper info on some of the players involved. There is plenty of data and dots to connect.

Before the U.S. Presidential election I created the map in Figure 2 based on a handful of investigative reports and court documents. The current map of all connections is now more than twice as large, but plenty of information was known/suspected before the election. Yet, few people where following the threads of suspected activity then. But, the times have changed.

Figure 2

Twitter now has dozens/hundreds of active citizens searching for new data and new patterns of how the new administration is connected to corrupt foreigners. Some of the the citizen analysts show excellent research and reasoning skills, while others tend toward conspiracy theories and put the bar way too low for what a connection is. As with any self-organizing group, there is no obvious structure yet, and several people are jostling for leadership positions and attention.

One of the best investigative articles written recently is about suspect business ties with known corrupt partners is "Donald Trump's Worst Deal" by Adam Davidson, which appeared in the March 13, 2017 issue of the The New Yorker magazine. It was a complex story with many players interconnected through various business ties and money flows with several implications under The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The map of the key players and their flows and relationships is shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3

Just like road maps help us familiarize ourselves with new territories we happen to be in, network maps help us understand complex human dynamics that we are not familiar with. Adam's article is very well written, but with all of the flows and ties between more than 25 people and organizations it is tough to keep track of who is whom, and what is what, without a map to follow along.

We "connect the dots" not just to produce pretty pictures, but to make sense of complexity and to have talking documents around which we can do further research and discovery. An Editor of a major newspaper once told me that a map of all of the interconnected relationships, where all journalists working on the story contribute to connecting the dots, is the best tool for reporting complex news stories. This is especially true for reporting on corrupt covert networks of activity where flows and relationships are intentionally obfuscated and are not readily visible to everyone.

Surveillance is watching from the top/outside
Sousveillance is watching from the bottom/inside. 

Not only is the whole world watching, but many are visualizing and  wrangling the data they see!

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