A New iPhone App Catalogues and Maps U.S. Drone Killings

“I love my phone…it puts me at the center of the map. But I'm not the center of the map.”
An Air Force officer checks a Predator drone before flight in September 2008. (Christopher Griffin / Reuters) 

On Monday, the new publication First Look reported that electronically obtained metadata controls who, how, and when U.S. drones kill abroad. Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill write that that kind of information doesn’t only determine who is killed: Metadata on phone SIM cards determines how victims of the strikes are found.

“The drone program amounts to little more than death by unreliable metadata,” they write, paraphrasing an ex-drone operator.

Now, a new iPhone app lets you explore the consequences of that phenomenon. Named—fittingly—Metadata+, it catalogues and maps drone killings by the United States and is now free and available for download

The app was made by data artist and web developer Josh Begley. Its two views variously mirror iOS’s Messages interface, displaying the date, location, and victims of each killing; it also shows a map of U.S. drone strikes across the Middle East and Somalia.

Most strikingly, Metadata+ will send users an in-app notification whenever there’s a new strike.

The app, in other words, places an experience foreign to many Americans in a context they’re familiar with: their smartphone. It isn’t the first project do so. Begley’s own @dronestream Twitter account, followed by more than 27,000 people, tweets about every new strike, interrupting their friends’ chatter with more violent news. And London-based artist James Bridle has led two similar efforts, operating an Instagram feed that posts satellite imagery of every strike’s location and painting the shadow of drones on the ground in major Western cities.

Each project tries to transplant the anxiety of those who live below drones to the everyday experience of those very distant from them.

Josh Begley

I wrote to Begley to ask about the design decisions behind the app. I was interested in how he balanced the obtrusive—the violent content of the app—and the unobtrusive—its reliance on iOS design. He wrote back: 

When I started making the Drones+ app, its core question was about interruption (Would anyone actually want these alerts? Do we want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to out smartphones?)

Now, it’s become more about the historical archive. How do you represent information about people you'll never know—which is effectively metadata gleaned from English-language news reports—in a way that is intuitive and chewable but also unsettling?

For me, borrowing the visual vernacular of Apple's expertly built interface opens up the potential for a different kind of seeing. If the folks on the other side of our missiles are presented to us in the same places we see pictures of our loved ones (James Bridle’s dronestagram) or communicate with our friends (@dronestream), might that nudge me to learn a little more about the contours of covert war? 
I love my phone because it puts me at the center of the map. But I'm not the center of the map. I can't even pronounce the names of the places we're bombing. As much as I'm interested in apps that are ephemeral, I'm interested in apps that teach me something.

As reported by Mashable, Begley submitted his app five times before it was finally accepted. App Store representatives didn’t accept Metadata+ when it was named “Drones+,” nor when it displayed any information about drones.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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