Drones, Data, and Tactics

By Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

Protest repertoires have been relatively stable for a really long time. Petitions have been with us since the first anti-slavery movement. Boycotts for almost as long. Nothing changes, and then it does. The recent explosion of new tactics rooted in technological innovation has spelled promise and peril for movements, most of whom face formidable obstacles and better-resourced incumbents.

I’m as excited by this turn of events as anyone; much of my recent work has taken place in rural India, where the most sophisticated technology in sight is usually a Nokia candybar phone. Sometimes an exploited laborer sends an urgent midnight text calling for help. Sometimes.

Maybe that’s what motivated me to buy a drone last year for a human rights lab I was teaching here at the School of Public Policy, where I work. We thought we would use it to estimate protest size, something that movement scholars have been doing in roughly the same way since the 1960s – from the tops of buildings (cheap, but a tough angle) or from airplanes (expensive, and hard to fly in repressive regimes’ airspace).

So we modified the estimation model (lately refined by Clark and McPhail) to account for our new platform. We modified the drone to protect privacy and increase safety. I wrote a paper. We sat around waiting for a crowd to form.

It didn’t take long. You’re probably not following Hungarian politics, but the country’s increasingly autocratic and extractive regime had decided to pass a steep tax on all internet access. People who had been sitting on the political sidelines (downloading Game of Thrones at home, most likely) turned out in droves. They formed crowds in the tens of thousands – much larger than any other anti-regime protests in the past decade. Perfect timing.


We collaborated with event organizers to have protestors point their phones up at the drone—clearly visible in the first video. The regime suggested so many smart-phones in one place proved that protestors were only spoiled elites, and not the people. A second, and much larger event (captured in the second video) put the lie to this claim. The regime backed off when it came face to face with this many people on the move combined with signs of a broader wave of discontent. It’s better to lose potential revenue than an election, they figured.

Drone-based footage captured the combination of outrage and hope that motivates people to get onto the street. Had violence broken out we would have captured that as well. The technology is perfectly positioned to monitor police/protestor interactions, to map crowd flows, the escalation of conflict, bystanders and counterprotest dynamics, and a host of other things that scholars and practitioners care about.

Of course this raises a host of questions related to safety, privacy, and payloads. Safety matters. What’s to keep these things from falling out of the air and onto people? Skilled operators and sophisticated GPS are important, but more work needs to be done to explore using parachutes and redundant flight systems in order to keep existing technology aloft. Yet we might also explore balloon-attached or string-tethered cameras that can also capture large crowds from a distance.

Privacy is also a concern. Large-scale protests here in Budapest happened only at night—at a time when authorities cannot easily identify protestors. People don’t want to be seen. This is important for drone use by scholars and movements, and absolutely critical should the police get in on the drone action (as they seem eager to do in the US). We captured images from a height that ensured anonymity, but that was a limitation we imposed on our flight plan, rather than one imposed on us by the technology. Protestors can all buy umbrellas, that’s true, but a world in which both protestors and police share dronespace will require sophisticated planning and political savvy.

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Finally, conversations about privacy assume a certain payload—a camera. In reality, drones are simple airborne platforms that can carry any number of things, from relief supplies to tear gas. Strapping a satellite-connected router to a drone over a crowd could provide much-needed internet access to protestors cut off from the outside world by an authoritarian regime. Hackers are making some advances in programming drones to attack and control other drones—something protestors could use against police drones. Or the other way around.

The list goes on, as we imagine drones carrying banners, dropping flowers on police barricades, sensing toxins or chemical gas, documenting abuse, scouting for supplies, sharing critical updates through mobile speakers, and so forth. Drones are being used to track poachers, document illegal mining and deforestation, monitor conflict zones and investigate corruption.

We are only at the beginning of an innovative spurt exploring how drones relate to social movements and protest events. The same can be said about policies regulating this activity. Here in Hungary, perhaps as a result of our activities, the government has convened an international conference to announce restrictions drone flights like ours.

This “better safe than sorry” approach restricts innovation and curbs free speech. Authoritarian regimes will sacrifice the former for the latter. The United States has recently announced a more liberal approach, suggesting that while drones cannot fly over crowds at present, in the future they may do so.

With US legislation pending, it is likely that other countries will follow suit. It is important, then, for civil society, and especially social movements, to join in the conversation. If we remain silent, then the technology will get incorporated in military and police arsenals, and into commercial supply chains, but get locked out of movement repertoires entirely. The Kenyan government grounded drones after a much-lauded program set out to document poaching in its game reserves. Too successful, it seems.

Movements of various stripes have long sought to hold the powerful to account. This means ensuring that the police do not use drones to engage in constant warrantless surveillance while also ensuring that protestors can use this same technology to monitor police-protestor interactions during contentious confrontations on the street.

How we get there isn’t easy, but technological innovation never is.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Data

One response to “Drones, Data, and Tactics

  1. Pingback: big data and social movements | orgtheory.net

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