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Making Sense of Syria


This past weekend, the MFA Interaction Design department hosted Making Sense of Syria an interdisciplinary design workshop series focused on exploring new ways for making sense of complex data in the Syrian Conflict.

Participant Alex Todaro discusses this years focus and data sets:

It’s been more than a year since the original “Making Sense of Syria” workshop. In that time the conflict has only become more complex and I feel there’s no better time to bring the group back together and re-contextualize the use of data and it’s implications on conflict mediation. Richard Tyson and the now official Special Projects Office, organized this event and they’ve done an incredible job of gathering a large group of thoughtful and talented participants. It’s only been one day and I am amazed at the diversity of perspective, the quality of challenging ethical considerations, and the imagination with the potential usages for the data we’ve gathered. This year the workshop will focus mainly on the town of Aleppo. For a large part of the conflict Aleppo was not involved in the fighting. Aleppo’s disinterest in the revolution was rooted largely in the presence of growing business and investments in the town, as well as it’s diversity in inhabitants (In 2011 Aleppo had the largest Christian population in the middle east). Currently it is in a stalemate, after already struggling through takeovers from the Islamic State of Iraq Syria (ISIS), Aleppo is now divided down the middle between the regime and the opposition. Checkpoints across the region prevent access and possibilities for travel, and there is only a single supply route through the city which dramatically affects the economics depending on who’s controlling it. This year we have the opportunity to work with four different data sets. Each offers insight into different levels of specification ranging from global rhetoric about Aleppo, all the way down to day-to-day utilities and perceptions on the streets. Although each of these data sets are rich in information, the conversation today revolved around some key questions that speculate on the function of the data. The high level question of course is how do we use the data? How do we understand the data? and to whom is it most valuable?Accomplishments for the first day:We ended today on a framework for processing this data, at least for our own purposes. Data doesn’t necessarily tell us what we don’t know but rather helps us hold more confidently what we do know and then allows us to see the gaps in our thinking. It became an important criteria to really check the validity of the data we’re picking apart. Why is it here in the first place? What was it’s intended use? Is it from a credible source? By creating a methodology of checking premises, we are bringing an ethical ideology into every step of the process. It’s this foundation that then allows us to confidently begin to ask the right questions of how it can be used.  Problems surrounding data systems:In each system these are the actions: Framing, Configuring, Aggregating, Analyzing, and Publishing. Within these factors there are a lot of questions and holes that need to be confronted in order to make sure the intended framing and configuring are setup for the proper analyzing and publishing. Additionally in the aggregation process, especially in conflicts zones, how do you rely on a full and fair representation of the scenario through data? There are more-often than not political intentions with social videos, and even if there is a wealth of them they are only indicative of one side of the conflict. Also in this aggregation how do you set up the proper system that can quickly absorb and visualize new data when the barriers are low connectivity and individual risk for the purveyors of this information? 

 Read more about Making Sense of Syria. 

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