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Our outcomes are enduring because they are culturally tailored and acceptable from the outset. This approach is effective whether the cultural divide is due to unfamiliarity in the international community or just between domestic regions or business sectors.

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Strategic Social brings a unique, industry-best approach to achieving success in complex environments. Our robust efforts are guided by a simple process: Understand, Empathize, Engage, and Transact.

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Social Media in Haiti – how much is it really helping

In the devastating aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti on 12 January, media outlets have been buzzing about the use of social media in the relief efforts.  Social media has revolutionized how people communicate with each other around the globe and has two main applications in disaster relief:

  1. Spreading awareness and raising money
  2. Facilitating innovative solutions to disaster-related problems.

However, few people are looking at whether these uses of social media have actually been effective.

On the fundraising front, in a text-message appeal campaign, the American Red Cross raised over 20 million dollars.  Hundreds of thousands of people joined Facebook groups to show solidarity with the victims of the earthquake and to help raise money for the relief efforts.  Clearly, social media has successfully sped up the pace of relief efforts in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.

Several organizations have quickly come up with unique solutions using social media to aid relief organizations.  In the wake of the earthquake, several online missing persons databases were quickly created.  However, Google’s application, called Person Finder, aggregated these databases and is currently tracking some 32,000 records.

Ushahidi, an organization that was created to map post-election violence in Kenya, developed an open-source, customizable platform to geographically represent and aggregated data sent in from Haiti by email, Facebook, Twitter, and text message.  Ushahidi is also developing an application called SwiftRiver that aims to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the crowdsourced data.  Ironically, SwiftRiver’s solution, is to crowdsource the editing, creating teams of “citizen editors,” similar to how Wikipedia polices its online content.

Google’s and Usahidi’s approaches are certainly innovative, but how effective have then been?  Few organizations or media outlets have tried to answer this question, and examples of these tools’ and social media’s successes are fairly scattered.  Buried in an AP article, a former Google employee who now works for the U.S. State Department stated, “At least 20 people so far have been able to use this program [Google’s Person Finder] to tell their families in the U.S. that they’re OK.”  In addition, the Red Cross confirmed that a man trapped in rubble was rescued after his location was posted on Facebook by a neighbor.

Web 2.0’s unique capabilities also pose new challenges that need to be overcome, largely how to resolve the signal-to-noise dilemma.  Organizations are struggling to aggregate the large amounts of data coming in, much of which appears to be either incomplete or false.  Rumors can fly in the immediate aftermath of a conflict, impairing the ability of relief organizations to assess the situation, and it is unclear whether social media corrects or actually exacerbates this trend.  Crowdsourcing could be a partial solution, but as the volume of data increases, the process will only become more labor-intensive.

Though the media has avoided looking critically at the use of social media in disaster relief, it is fair to say that the adoption and integration of these new Web 2.0 capabilities is incomplete.  Nevertheless, organizations and the media must move beyond praising all the innovative possibilities offered by social media in disaster response and begin a comprehensive assessment of social media’s use in wake of the Haiti earthquake.  Integrating these lessons learned will help the international community better respond to future disasters.

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The rise of online gaming in the Middle East

In keeping with this week’s theme of video games in the Middle East, it has become hard to ignore the browser-based game Travian.  This game is a massive multiplayer game where the user plays as one of three factions of people: the Romans, the Gauls, and the Teutons. Over 5 million people play Travian throughout the world, but the statistic that makes this game remarkable is that 27% of these people are from Saudi Arabia.  This is quite a significant statistic considering a college student in Germany developed the game.  More surprising is that the game’s popularity in Saudi Arabia is not an anomaly. According to the web tracker Alexa, Travian is the 7th-most popular site in Iran, 9th-most in Libya, 11th-most in Kuwait, and 12th-most in Palestine, and 25th in Iraq.  To put this in perspective, Travian is the 5113th most popular site in the United States.

This begs the question how a game becomes so popular. One reason is the hardware required to play Travian is very minimal. If a computer has Internet access and can run java, then its user can play Travian.  Because no hardware needs to be installed, the user can play it on public, work, or personal computers with equal ease.  The developers have also created a mobile version where a gamer can play from an Internet-enabled cell phone, further increasing the accessibility of the game.

But why is this site so popular in the Middle East? Unfortunately, not much has been written about Travian’s expansion in the Middle East.  The National, a newspaper run by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, published an article comparing Travian to Chess (a game that originated in the Middle East): “Every individual move is simple, a child can do it. But to understand the whole picture and play against a master will take months or years of practice.”  However, the National fails to understand that the key to being successful in Travian is the ability to build a strong network with other users to reach the goal of endgame.

Nearly all social networking sites facilitate interactions between people, and massive multiplayer games can often act as social networks.  From an intelligence-gathering standpoint, the high degree of anonymity inherent in online games could allow intelligence gatherers to more easily gain access to networks of young Muslims who happen to be playing these online games.

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Iran’s nascent, government-controlled video game industry

People the world over have become well acquainted with the Iranian government’s draconian censorship policies regarding domestic use of the internet.  In the wake of the country’s most recent elections, the international press heralded the use of Twitter to mobilize opposition to Iran’s authoritarian government.  Rightfully, a considerable amount of attention and analysis has since been paid to how effective the use of social media can be for domestic opposition groups

Lost in this storm however has been one of the most popular uses of computers among young people: video games.  When most people in the United States think of video games, they picture games like World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, or sports games like Madden football.  Iran, under the government’s careful supervision, has developed its own video game industry.  According to True/Slant, some of these games are actually pretty good.

A few years ago, Fox News reported on the development of the Iranian video game “Rescue the Nuke Scientist,” which “simulates an attempt to rescue two Iranian nuclear experts kidnapped by the U.S. military and held in Iraq and Israel.”  The game was developed by the Union of Students Islamic Association, supposedly in response to a game designed in the United States called “Assault on Iran.”  Mohammad Taqi Fakhrian, a leader of the student developers, explained, “This is our defense against the enemy’s cultural onslaught.”  The group has very close ties to the Iranian government and hosted the infamous 2005 conference where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad infamously called for the destruction of Israel.

This kind of video-game-as-propaganda is unsurprising.  It mimics the Iranian president’s belligerent statements towards Israel and the United States and promotes an anti-Western political discourse.

However, the Iranian government has also used video games to promote traditional Persian culture.  By far and away, the most popular Iranian video game is the Quest of Persia series.  These games draw strongly from Persian history and culture.  According to a regional gaming website, Quest of Persia is “100% Persian” and was developed by Puya Arts.

Despite its draconian control over the Internet and social media, the Iranian government for several years has used the country’s domestic video game industry as a tool for both political and cultural propaganda.  It is likely that video games will continue to be used as a tool in strategic communications because of their interactivity and popularity the world over.

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