Sudan: High technology is no substitute for ordinary people

This post is part of our special coverage South Sudan Referendum 2011.

George Clooney has initiated a project, Satellite Sentinel, which uses satellite imagery analysis and Google's Map Marker technology to prevent the resumption of war between North and South Sudan. The project will provide an early warning system to deter mass atrocities:

We were late to Rwanda. We were late to the Congo. We were late to Darfur. There is no time to wait in Sudan. Our mapping system will combine satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google's Map Maker technology to deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan.

Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not it should remain as a part of Sudan on 9 January 2011.

Carne Cross, a former British diplomat, has written a critique of the project on his blog arguing that high tech is no substitute for ordinary people.

He says, ” In principle, this is a good idea and the intent is certainly unimpeachable. But two questions occur to me.”:

The first is that most experts believe that any conflict between North and South is unlikely to consist of the mass movement of troops or tank formations over the border for instance, or an invasion by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of the oil fields in the border areas – military activities that can of course easily be identified by satellite. Conflict in Sudan is instead much more likely to take the form of sporadic highly-localised violence perhaps involving militias working as proxies for the Khartoum government (such as the Janjaweed in Darfur). Another possibility is of local inter-tribal conflict incited by government provocation and fuelled by supplies of arms, including heavy weapons.

His second concern is that the project relies heavily on expensive technology and ignores ordinary people on the ground:

My second concern is that this initiative, like so many others in these technology-obsessed days, promotes a “tech-heavy”, expensive and – needless to say – fashionable solution above existing mechanisms that exploit that rather under-utilised, unfashionable and ignored resource, local people.

He argues that the referendum date approaches, the most useful technology may end being Sudan Vote Monitor, which uses Ushahidi platform:

As South Sudan approaches the 9 January referendum on its self-determination, a more useful technology platform in the coming weeks may end up being this one. The idea behind Sudan Vote Monitor is that people send text messages to a central number with reports of violence, problems at polling stations, etc.

Sudan VoteMonitor is a pilot project led by the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy (SIRP) and Asmaa Society for Development , in collaboration with other Sudanese civil society organizations, and supported by and (technical partners). The purpose of the initiative is to utilize information and communication technology (ICT) to support the independent monitoring and reporting of the election process and results.

Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) was created in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election to collect eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google map.

Sudan Vote Monitor will start posting real-time reports from Civil Society Organizations, the media and from individuals about the referendum in Sudan on 3 January 2011.

Although Sudan Vote Monitor uses a “tech” solution,

it relies upon the widespread and rather more basic technology of mobile telephones. Above all, it relies upon the wisdom and observations of local people, surely the best judges of whether conflict is indeed occurring or relies upon the wisdom and observations of local people, surely the best judges of whether conflict is indeed occurring or imminent.

He points out that it is high time that we involved people who are most affected and are also most informed:

As I have argued before, it remains a travesty that in UN discussions, for instance at the Security Council, is is all too often the case that local people are absent, uninvited. These are the people most affected by the decisions made in these elevated bodies; they are also the most informed. When the UN Security Council considers Darfur, there are no Darfuri representatives at the table. This is sadly the norm in almost all such discussions, for the UN as a body of governments will not tolerate “non-state actors”, even if they are the legitimate representatives of oppressed people, like ordinary Sudanese.

He concludes by saying that all we need to do is to listen to local voices:

Local people are invariably the wisest and the best and most promptly informed of conflict and other threats to their security. All we need do is listen to them.

This post is part of our special coverage South Sudan Referendum 2011.


  • Good points. We at Satellite Sentinel Project agree that high tech is no substitute for field reports and crowd-sourced information, which is why we’re using Google Map Maker and why we’ve already been talking with Ushahidi and Sudan Vote Monitor. Stay tuned for further developments at, and follow us for updates on Twitter (@SudanSentinel).

  • […] More technology for electoral observation: the Sudan Sentinel, a project funded by Dr. Doug Ross that “combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google’s Map Maker technology to deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan.” Relatedly, some thoughtful doubts on the awesomeness of the Sudan Sentinel. (HT Global Voices) […]

  • […] ya Sudani Kusini 3 Jan – Sudani: Siku chache kuelekea Kura ya maamuzi ya Sudani Kusini 31 Dec – Sudani: Teknolojia ya Juu Haichukui Nafasi ya Watu wa Kawaida 27 Dec – : Rais Atangaza Kusini itatawaliwa na Sharia ya Kiislamu kama Kusini Itajitenga 22 Dec – […]

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