Syria: crowdsourcing data project launched to map Raqqa airstrikes

Thousands of digital activists to take part in ‘Strike Tracker’ analysis project to show how US-led airstrikes destroyed Raqqa

Project will pressure coalition to accept responsibility after Gavin Williamson and others sought to rubbish earlier Amnesty research 

‘We can significantly scale up our ability to map out the apocalyptic destruction in Raqqa’ - Milena Marin

Thousands of digital activists around the world will take part in a new crowdsourcing data project launched by Amnesty International today, where satellite imagery is being used to help analyse how the US-led military coalition’s bombing destroyed almost 80% of the Syrian city of Raqqa.

The project - called “Strike Tracker” - is the latest phase of an in-depth Amnesty investigation - in partnership with Airwars - into the shocking scale of civilian casualties resulting from four months of US, UK and French bombardment of the city to oust the Islamic State armed group last year.

Amnesty’s field investigations and analysis since the battle ended in October 2017 have already produced compelling evidence of apparent violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) by the military coalition. Though senior coalition figures have attempted to dismiss the findings - with the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson saying in the House of Commons that Amnesty’s report was “disgraceful” - the coalition has nevertheless been forced to revise up its civilian death toll figures from 23 to more than 100.

“Strike Tracker” will allow anybody with a mobile phone or laptop to contribute to Amnesty’s ongoing research on Raqqa. UN data shows that more than 10,000 buildings in the city were destroyed or damaged over the course of the bombardment, and “Strike Tracker” will help to narrow down the timeframe of the destruction of each of these buildings from months to weeks, or even days. Volunteers will track a building across a timeline of satellite images during the battle, noting the dates before and after the building’s destruction. 

It is expected that 3,000-5,000 digital activists will get involved in the month-long project. To ensure data quality, each destroyed building will be analysed multiple times by several trackers. So far, on only the second day of the project, more than 1,000 decoders have become involved and more than 14,000 contributions have already been made.

Milena Marin, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team’s Senior Adviser, said:

“There is a mountain of evidence left to sift through, and the scale of the civilian devastation is simply too large for us to do this alone.

“With thousands of ‘Strike Trackers’ on the case to help us narrow down precisely when and where coalition air and artillery strikes destroyed buildings, we can significantly scale up our ability to map out the apocalyptic destruction in Raqqa.

“Based on our meticulous on-the-ground investigations, hundreds of interviews amid the rubble of Raqqa and expert military and geospatial analysis, we’ve been able to push the US-led coalition to admit to almost every civilian death case we’ve documented so far.

“But with bodies still being recovered from the wreckage and mass graves more than a year later, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“The data we glean from ‘Strike Tracker’ will take us one step closer to establishing the staggering scale of civilian casualties and will build on the legal obligation, as well as the moral imperative, for the coalition to take full responsibility for its actions. It must acknowledge and properly investigate these cases once and for all, paving the way for justice and reparation.”

What happens next?

The results of “Strike Tracker” will contribute to Amnesty’s wider efforts to raise awareness of the devastating impact on civilians trapped in Raqqa during the battle, and to move the coalition’s position on civilian casualties from ongoing denial to accepting greater responsibility and carrying out meaningful investigations.

In a September 2018 letter to Amnesty, the US Department of Defense - whose forces carried out most of the airstrikes and all the artillery strikes on Raqqa - said it accepts no liability for the hundreds of civilian casualties it caused. In addition, the coalition has refused to compensate survivors and relatives of those killed in Raqqa and also refuses to provide further information about the circumstances behind its strikes.

Amnesty and Airwars will publish the results of “Strike Tracker” as part of an interactive digital platform in early 2019. 

Previous decoders projects

“Strike Tracker” is the latest in a series of Amnesty crowdsourcing data projects called Decoders. Since its launch in June 2016, Amnesty has successfully completed four projects, mobilising more than 50,000 digital activists from 150 countries. These volunteers sifted through huge volumes of data, processing more than 1.5 million tasks. They helped Amnesty researchers detect destroyed villages in remote parts of Darfur in Sudan; hold oil companies to account for thousands of oil spills in Nigeria; analyse tweets to detect online abuse and threats against women; and analyse the success of Amnesty's “urgent action” campaigns.
 

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