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Data to the Rescue. The Role of Data Collection in the Russia-Ukraine War

· 8 min read
Rakia Ben Sassi

Data to the Rescue. The Role of Data Collection in the Russia-Ukraine War

As I have started writing this article, I didn’t expect it to end this way. Weeks after creating my first draft, Russian forces entered its western neighbor’s border and war raged in Ukraine.

Many questions have been raised. People around the world kept their eyes glued to their screens, waiting for more news about the invasion and looking for answers. I was no exception. I’ve seen the steady stream of content, talking about the different sides of the crisis, its ramifications, and its ripple effect.

I scrolled past articles about the cyber warfare between Russia and the west. I scrolled past articles about the human cost of the attack and its economic consequences. I scrolled past articles about the mass exodus of western firms over the Ukraine invasion.

But most importantly, I’ve mulled over the data game… I mean the data war.

Although the first version of this post was about how to use web scraping to trade cryptocurrency like a pro, I felt more curious about exploring a different topic: the role of data in international conflicts.

Through the lens of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, we’ll explore in this post the answer to the following questions:

  • What kind of data could we collect in such a conflict?
  • Who can benefit from such data collection?
  • Which are the use cases of this double-edged sword?

Examples of Conflicts Data

Let’s start by having a look at samples of collected data to assess the situation:

The human cost of war

  • Over 3.8 million people fled Ukraine since Russia invaded, while about 6.5 million have been displaced within the country.
  • Over 15,000 demonstrators have been arrested across Russia since the launch of the war on Ukraine.
  • “Google is removing from Maps any user-submitted locations in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to avoid user-generated pins being linked to missile strikes.”

The influence of the war on the crypto market

  • “The daily trading volume between Bitcoin and the Ukrainian hryvnia spiked 270% on the first day of Russia’s invasion.”
  • “Trading volumes between the ruble and cryptocurrencies hit 15.3 billion rubles (US$140.7 million) on Monday.”
  • “More than US$54 million worth of Bitcoin and Ethereum have been donated to the Ukraine government and an NGO.”
  • “The majority of crypto donations came in the form of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the stablecoin Tether — a coin pegged one-to-one to the dollar.”
  • The two official Ukrainian crypto wallets “attracted more than $10.2m (9.2 million euros) just four days after the start of the invasion.”

The economic sanctions

Google, Meta, Twitter, Telegram, and other giant tech companies’ platforms “have turned into major battlefields for a parallel information war and their data and services have become vital links in the conflict.” — The New York Times

The cyberwar and misinformation

  • “Since the conflict in Ukraine began, users have tweeted links to state-affiliated media about 45,000 times a day
  • “Inside Instagram and WhatsApp, the situation has been ‘chaotic’ because of the volume of Russian disinformation.”
  • Telegram threatened to shut down channels related to the war because of rampant misinformation.
  • In 2020, Ukraine faced about 397,000 cyber attacks and about 280,000 attacks in the first 10 months of 2021.
  • The number of subscribers to the “Ukraine’s Cyber Army” Telegram channel reached over 285K subscribers.
  • Anonymous hackers launched a cyberattack on the branch of the Russian company “Rosneft” in Germany and stole over 20 terabytes of information.
  • 225,000 residents have experienced outages because of the power grid cyberattack in Ukraine in 2015.
  • “The BBC has made its international news website available via the Tor network, in a bid to thwart censorship attempts.”

Geopolitical facts

The United States has invested $40 million since 2017 in helping Ukraine grow its IT sector.

Who Can Benefit From Data Collection and Why?

1. Military opponents

Military groups can gain a competitive advantage by gathering tactical information. Collecting opponent’s and war-related data helps make strategic decisions and as a result pivot and out-perform the enemy. Access to data has the following benefits:

  • It allows getting insightful geospatial information about military actions: the number of armed groups, the number of fighters in them, what they do and where they operate, and how they communicate with each other.
  • It facilitates providing logistical and military support based on a geographical survey that identifies military sites and checkpoints.
  • “Recent and real-time high-to-medium resolution optical and radar satellite imagery” assist in both military and humanitarian efforts.

“Publicly available satellite images are a defining feature of 21st century warfare.” — Robert Muggah, principal of satellite and mapping firm SecDev Group

2. Civilians

Information about outputs and service delivery during an acute emergency provides crucial relief.

Real-time data about the situation of the humanitarian corridors help evacuate civilians, allows bringing food and medical aid to areas of conflict, and as a result avert humanitarian catastrophes.

3. Members of the international community

Narratives about the war support multiple strategic interests. But, at least theoretically, access to accurate information about a conflict can create an opportunity to resolve or reduce the ongoing violence and to prevent the outbreak of further crisis associated with it.

Data exposing damages caused by enemy troops leads to:

  • Increased humanitarian and diplomatic cooperation.
  • Significant international pressure to intervene in order to end the crisis or limit the brutality of violent attacks.

Data about the number of refugees streaming out of Ukraine, where they are fleeing, and how are they distributed between different countries and cities helps each concerned country to handle the situation in a better way.

4. Propaganda and misinformation campaigns

Some international media frame the information according to their own interests. They wave a war narrative that reaches audiences and decision-makers in specific countries or regions differently than they do to other audiences. Some press agencies put facts about the conflicts in the wrong context or interpretations in order to manipulate the public.

5. Leaders

Data gives more insights that help in reading and interpreting an event. Political actors use data tools in order to have a better understanding of what’s happening, make appropriate decisions, and avoid unwanted scenarios.

Entrepreneurs and civilians who are interested in an accurate assessment of the situations can do the same as well for their own private or professional benefits.

6. News outlets

Collecting data is a key tool for news outlets in order to build and share an up-to-date map of the conflict:

  • The places of influence of the Ukrainians,
  • The whereabouts of the Russian army,
  • The whereabouts of governmental and non-governmental humanitarian organizations, the media, and key informants (eyewitness).

7. Retail Investors and more

“European retail investors bet big on Ukraine war trades. [..] Data from trading platforms showing big bets on Gazprom and other stocks that have moved the most in response to the crisis.” — Reuters

  • Renewable-energy firms need to adjust their investment plans in order will benefit from the global effort to reduce reliance on Russian gas.
  • Companies from different sectors like food, tech, finance, and renewable energy need to have regularly accurate detailed data about the conflict situation since it’s affecting their businesses.
  • Data help hackers to automate identifying their targets and assess their outcomes.
  • Journalists, bloggers, and content creators can leverage data collection practices to produce a new quality/type of content.
  • Data suppliers can’t maintain their business without collecting data.
  • Data scientists can enhance our understanding of data by visualizing it.

Final Thought

“Data isn’t the new oil — it’s the new nuclear power,” said technologist, writer, and visual artist James Bridle in his TED Talk. I tend to agree.

Data is a major factor shaping our world and determining the winner of the loser. Yet, its usefulness — in a situation like an international conflict — is depending on its accuracy, quality (such as the resolution of the satellite imagery), and its availability in real-time, or at least on a daily basis.

The above-mentioned list of who can benefit from war data is not complete and part of the required information needs to be extracted from the dark web, but a big part of this data could be collected automatically by using web scraping tools and APIs like ScrapingAnt.

Further reading

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