Turkey Blocks realtime mass-censorship reporting platform

Turkey Blocks realtime mass-censorship reporting platform

Organisation: Turkey Blocks (Turkey)

Publication Date: 04/05/2017



Turkey Blocks is a data-driven realtime censorship monitoring and digital transparency journalism project that tracks mass-censorship incidents in Turkey. The project combines breaking news journalism with automated data analysis and alerting to tracks ephemeral censorship including internet shutdowns and social media throttling during political events to help Turkish citizens to keep communicating during emergencies. Turkey Blocks has identified and reported on incidents surrounding an attempted military coup d'etat in 2016, several Islamic State bombings and arrests of politicians using the live data. Turkey Blocks realtime investigations have subsequently been covered by most international media including Forbes, Fortune, the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and all major newswires including Reuters, AP and AFP (full list at https://turkeyblocks.org) Tracking and breaking news of 14 mass censorship incidents during politically significant events, Turkey Blocks challenged the official narrative that the shutdowns are just coincidence. Data is collected using a network of Raspberry Pi and processed through a realtime analysis pipeline. The system - the first of its kind, combines data-driven journalism with breaking news alerts, and is now being deployed in other countries worldwide and has a spinoff Open Source project called NetBlocks.org (being put online at time of writing). The project is currently running for the finals of the Index on Censorship Digital award: “Our alerts, issued within minutes of detection, have helped Turkish citizens to stay online when shutdowns get implemented and provided the media with enough confidence to report assertively on digital censorship in Turkey,” Toker tells Index on Censorship. (https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2017/04/turkey-blocks-win-back-internet/) The original technology concept was rejected by the Knight News Challenge (boo!) and had to be funded by our own team's savings to get going. Today, the investigative journalism and reporting aspects of the project are supported by Access Now, while the software and hardware stack are launching as a multi-stakeholder open technology project (and, ultimately open data project, once we can sanitize personally identifiable info from captures), deploying in central Asia, southeast Asia and regions of India. Our project reports to the United Nations on digital development, gender equality online and our team in Istanbul has worked with Columbia School of Journalism, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders in Turkey to run seminars on technology for detecting and reporting on network controls. We weren't sure which incident to pick - the coup coverage was fairly major, as can be seen from our press list, although the others were significant too. Taken together the reports show how a small local project has evolved into a data-driven breaking incident coverage platform with global reach.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

Turkey Blocks is the first realtime mass-censorship monitoring project. We started as a journalism project focused on network controls, before developing and refining realtime analysis workflows and getting them to automate and speed up the process of incident validation. Other efforts focus on post-mortem reporting of internet shutdowns affecting entire regions or countries, typically publishing hours or days after the incident passed. We cut the response time down to half an hour, then 10 minutes and now aim for under 60 seconds. Our focus on cutting down response time is based on our first-hand experience that being first-to-publish is critical for achieving accurate coverage of network interference incidents that affect millions of people. Releasing early and accurate reports with sociopolitical context has changed the way the international community identifies, responds and pushes back against censorship of the press, international media and ordinary citizens using social media during national emergencies.

Technologies used for this project:

Raspberry Pi - an open computing platform that allowed us to focus on the software, instead of fiddling with hardware to obtain raw data on network controls NodeJS - love it or hate it, JavaScript is fast and well understood. In particular, it runs well on the class of ARM devices we use for data collection. We broke with convention and avoided Python for this project and haven't looked back InfluxDB - a realtime time series analysis engine that allows us to process data in realtime, with windows as small as 30 seconds - critical for achieving breaking news reports derived from quite a big live streaming dataset. Beats legacy time series DBs with 15 minute plus windows. Twitter - https://twitter.com/TurkeyBlocks - our reports until late 2016 were social-media first, with the longformat incident coverage only coming later. This helped us focus efforts on compacting necessary information into a small bite-size Tweet, each with an accompanying table presenting the status of major services derived from our data. This turned out to help, not hurt our reach and ability to present validated reports to the wider media. Video (Al Jazeera interview and coverage of Turkey Blocks): https://www.facebook.com/a.b.toker/videos/10101893932516461/


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