Why we started and then froze a software effort for Ukraine

Disaster relief is different than the steady work of research, whether the disaster is natural or caused by human folly and greed. It is bursty and uncertain, urgent and unclear.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, I thought the war would be over before Public Invention could possibly do anything. I was traveling to Auburn Alabama, in any case, to inaugurate the first Public Invention University club, the Society of Public Invention and Humanitarian Engineering (SoPH), created by my friend Avinash Baskaran. When I got home, the war was still raging, and sadly still is.

Public Invention does not make weapons. But perhaps we could make an anti-weapon—a piece of software that would document humanitarian needs, war crimes, and even be used for Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). We had previously published a extensive tutorial on geotagging with free tools which was related. A fundamental principle that Buckminster Fuller teaches is not to compete. There are so many good things to do, there is generally no reason for two teams of humans of to do the same thing. There is a large OSINT community which I knew nothing of. However, I am one of the few technologists who does not have a full-time job and also had knowledge of geotagging, so I forked the previous project and organized a tiny mini-conference seeking guidance. I’m happy to say it was attended by nine friends, although none of them were journalists or active OSINT analysts, the intended audience of such a tool.

The basic idea was to make a tool that let you upload geolocated and synchrolocated photos and organize them into a “time map” or “time and space tool (temp-lok-ilo in Esperanto). This would not replace the highly curated maps made by Bellingcat and others of civilian harm, but be a tool to be used by them as a prelude to corroboration and verification. In four or five days Ben Coombs and I had gotten a reasonable prototype working (given the headstart of the previous tutorial). At the mini-con, a number of improvements and good ideas were put forward, including cryptographic proof of time-of-upload to fight fakes and disinformation. Although I got no additional volunteers, this was within my power as a programmer. I hate to put the other valuable projects of Public Invention on hold, especially those concerning open source medical devices (ventilators), but I thought if there was a chance of saving even one life in Ukraine or shortening the war by 10 minutes it was worth it. So spent the next 36 enacting the suggested improvements.

Then on Saturday night Bellingcat announced a new tool that was very similar to what I was building, in that it combined time and space in one visual map. It remains highly curated and corroborated, and so the Public Invention project could still be an addition to it.

But I decided that the overlap was now too great for it to be a good use of my time to continue putting aside the other valuable projects. So, I am freezing work on Templokilo for now, even though I had just gotten a branch that used local storage working, a major feature.

I am unsure of my judgment in this. If any journalists or OSINT analysts contact me (read.robert@gmail.com) and convince me the “automatic” tool would be a useful investigative tool I will restart it. However, nobody answered my queries at reddit, twitter, or LinkedIn. In the absence of someone expressing a need it is possible that the project is a solution to a non-problem.

This is a problem that all Public Inventors, open source developers, and humanitarian engineers face. There are always too many great projects to work on, and we must use imperfect human knowledge and judgment to decide where to work. There is nothing inherently wrong with working on a project for two weeks and freezing it when new information comes to light. That others were thinking in the same direction is a validation of value, not a disproof of it.

Nonetheless, if an expert journalist or OSINT analysts reads this and has an opinion, please comment or contact me.

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