The recourse to war is, tragically, an ancient aspect of human affairs. So too, though their efforts may receive less attention in the annals of history, is the work of the peacemakers. Today, just as technology has been applied to modern warfare, we must also take advantage of technological innovations to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflicts.
The role of new information and communication technologies is particularly salient. On the one hand, they can pose significant risks in states affected by or at risk of violent conflict (for example, social media can be used to encourage and coordinate violence). But, especially when appropriately adapted to context, these same technologies can also play a critical role in preventing the initial outbreak or escalation of violence as well as promoting peaceful alternatives to war.
The Hague Institute is committed to preventing deadly conflict, and pleased to partner with those developing cutting-edge tools to serve this important mission. On Wednesday 20th August, The Hague Institute co-hosted a roundtable discussion on “Peace Technologies” with the Peace Informatics Lab (Leiden University), as part of the “Big Data for Peace Summer School”. Involving six speakers and an audience of up to thirty experts from government, civil society, academia and the private sector, the event was an important opportunity to exchange knowledge and to generate momentum in this potentially revolutionary field.
The following commentaries bring together the main speakers from the event. Based on their insights and perspectives, they attempt to answer the key question: how can technology help prevent conflict and build peace?
Designing Peace Technology for Profit
Mark founded and co-directs the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab, where he researches mass collaboration and mass interpersonal persuasion. Mark focuses on designing technology interventions to measurably increase positive, mutually beneficial engagement across conflict boundaries.
For the first time in human history, we are able to measure an ever-growing number of individual positiveprosocial behaviors, thanks to the convergence of three powerful technologies: ubiquitous sensors, communications, and computation. We are able to measure these episodes as they occur, between almost any given Person A and Person B.
To make things even more exciting, we can also now measure group affiliation in much higher resolution and with much greater precision than ever before. As an example, for most of us on most days, our salient geo-political-economical group identities have nothing to do with our nationalities, but rather the city, neighborhood, block, and building we live and work in; the stores we shop at, the products we buy, and so forth.
In turn, measuring both these episodes of positive engagement, and the groups they are occurring between, means we can model the relationship, in the aggregate, between any two or more groups we care about, with great precision and detail, in near real-time. This modeling ability allows us to simulate many possible relationship dynamics between those groups.
We can then design precision-targeted technology interventions to positively influence those group relationships towards sustainable, mutually beneficial, value creating interactions.
The result? Mediating technologies that augment our ability to interact positively, and often generate new kinds of wealth for both sides in the process – an interesting new take on the “peace dividend”.
For more information on the work of the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab, please click here.
Strengthening Bottom Up Approaches
Helena Puig Larrauri is a peacebuilding practitioner, focussing on innovation design and technology-enabled promote peace, support civic engagement and prevent conflict. She is a co-organizer of Build Peace and co-founder of Build Up.
In order to understand the tools, assets and skills for peacebuilders in a digital era, it is important to first understand the theories of change that go from deployment of technology tools to change towards more peaceful societies. Peacebuilding interventions often engage constellations of targeted Track 1 or Track 2 stakeholders in carefully circumscribed dialogue. This approach is focused, and limited by design.
The introduction of new technologies challenges this approach, offering tools for local peacebuilders to increase their reach and impact, organize in new ways and overcome established social practices. New communications tools such as social media can help initiate contact between groups that fear each other. User-friendly data collection and analysis tools enable deeper analysis of complex conflict dynamics. Digital games can provide new ways for conflict parties to re-imagine a future together. Online dialogue allows for more people from at conflict groups to come into contact with each other, overcoming resource and operational constraints.
To best design, innovate and deploy these new technological solutions in support of grassroots peacebuilding, it is crucial to hypothesize and then measure how a particular technology tool shifts the balance of power in a particular conflict. In other words, start small, test and then scale up. Pilot projects are popular and common in the tech for peace field. This is great for uncovering new ideas, but most pilots don’t have rigorous measures and often lack the support to scale up.
As tech for peace practitioners, we can accompany local peacebuilders as they begin to deploy technology tools, helping to articulate theories of change, measure the impact of innovative tools and support a shift in power towards grassroots organizing.
Learning from the Crowd
Jonne Catshoek is the founder and director of Elva Community Engagement. Elva is a platform that allows organisations to map local needs and advocate change.
Every conflict evolves from a complex set of socio-economic, cultural and historical drivers that are unique to each local context. To better understand and address these underlying causes of conflict, reliable and regular information from local respondent networks is essential.
New mobile solutions, like the Elva platform, allow conflict transformation organisations to swiftly collect accurate information on local conflict trends and security needs from up to thousands of (trained) citizen respondents, from even the most remote locations. The data provided by these local respondent networks can strengthen peacebuilding efforts in several ways: in the first place, quantitative and qualitative baseline data provided by citizens allow us to accurately study conflict trends and needs as they evolve over time.
This information plays a vital role in enhancing the accountability and effectiveness of conflict transformation programmes, as it allows organisations to develop responsive intervention strategies that can be flexibly adapted and re-adapted to changing circumstances.
Structured citizen-driven data can also contribute to early warning efforts. By enhancing our understanding of highly local conflict dynamics and trends, it allows us to identify those incidents that deviate from these trends and could play a role in escalating tensions.
Another added value of these networks is that they can be so much more than a ‘mere’ data-collection system: they are two-way communication channels that allow us to submit information to local populations: such as information about available humanitarian services or alerts about areas to avoid.
Most importantly however, any conflict resolution efforts can only be effective and sustainable if they are supported by local populations. It is therefore imperative that citizens are actively consulted in both identifying the drivers of conflict and in defining potential solutions.
Reporting Back to the Crowd
Christophe Billen is the founder of People’s Intelligence and analyst with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
Relevant and credible information from reliable sources is key to understanding a given conflict and helping with its prevention or resolution. Crowdsourcing is one way to acquire such information. However, many documentation initiatives using crowd-sourcing are marred with shortcomings: lack of relevant and quality information, no or limited assessment of the reliability of the sources and the credibility of the collected information, reliance on the Internet and social media, lack of feedback loops and limited empowerment of those reporting information.
At People’s Intelligence we are of the opinion that crowdsourcing technology should be developed in cooperation with humanitarian actors and the people we are all trying to help. But first a major shift has to occur as how we think about collecting information and interacting with our sources by means of such technology. We believe that we are more likely to understand a piece of information by engaging in conversations with our sources instead of (remotely and in isolation) trying to make sense of often incomplete and low quality data, even with the best technology at hand. Second, that our duty of care should not stop at mapping and publicizing received information, often by means or channels not accessible to our sources and the people we try to help.
Instead, and where possible, our sources should be given actionable and empowering feedback, which besides potentially saving lives, may also reduce contribution fatigue. Fourth, is the understanding that the information we collect is not ours but continues to belong to our sources who should retain the possibility to access and query submitted information to make informed decisions that does not per se require the intervention of a third party.
The emergence of Big Data presents another type of peace technologies. With the arrival of new ways to collect, aggregate and analyse large amounts of digital data we are witnessing a burgeoning field of innovations. Data streams from cell phones, satellite imagery or social media platforms have grown exponentially over the last decade – 90% of the data available today was generated only in the last two years. With a much more prominent focus on business and governance however, the growing field of big data has not really been applied elsewhere. Some inspiring examples include the use of real-time data during the disaster response in Haiti and Philippines. In general however, the landscape of best practices remains fragmented.
For the field of peace studies, this is an interesting starting point. First, there is still no major effort to systematically look into the opportunities and limitations of using big data. Second, there is no institutional ‘home’ for those who would like to share lessons learned in this emerging arena. Third, there are no adequate educational trajectories that cater for a new ‘digital native’ community of knowledge brokers.
In this context, peace informatics emerges as a new field of knowledge. It builds on the need to bring under one conceptual umbrella those efforts that are geared towards finding new ways to generate actionable knowledge for fostering peace and security from a people-centred perspective. In The Hague, we are building an international community to explore new ways of understanding the dynamics of peace.
Creating an Enabling Environment for Peacetech
Michaela Ledesma is a facilitator and practitioner focusing on design and support to innovative, locally-owned peacebuilding processes and programs. She is a co-organizer of Build Peace and co-founder of Build Up.
Complexity and interdependence increasingly characterize global peacebuilding challenges. This calls us as peacebuilders and civic activists to bring our expertise to bear – beyond the societies and conflicts in which we work – to how we collaborate with other actors who also have critical roles to play in social change.
Our inaugural Build Peace conference brought together 250 technologists, practitioners, researchers and activists from 30 different countries, many of whom met for the first time to explore the use technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. 227 people have since joined an active community exchanging diverse knowledge and resources of relevant to this field.
What professional lessons have we brought to this nascent community building effort? First, it is important to identify a clear problem based on our own knowledge and experience. Chances are that others facing the same problem will invest in collaboration to solve it. Build Peace emerged in part from the recognition that standard principles such as local ownership are not systematically applied when introducing technology tools to peacebuilding programmes.
Second, convening a community must center upon shared values, and these should be articulated explicitly. In the case of Build Peace, we are focused on practical impact on the ground, and on empowering local actors to drive change in their own societies. This is the glue that connects us as a diverse community and grounds our (sometimes difficult) discussions.
Third, we must make space for everyone. A simple ground rule is “be tough on ideas but gentle on people;” basically, valuing relationships and openness to ‘the other’ while maintaining a high level of rigor. Power imbalances must also proactively be addressed. For Build Peace, this means bringing local actors into the heart of the conversation and constantly seeking to groundtruth new theories, approaches and technology tools against the nature and pace of peaceful change in complex environments. Both in our work as well as in our community, we should not lose sight that, in the end, it is all about the people.
For more information on Build Up and the Build Peace conference, please click here.
Online Distance Learning for Peacebuilders
David Connolly is Head of the Conflict Prevention Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. Within his former position at the University of York, he was the director and co-founder of the MSc programme in International Humanitarian Affairs; which is a fully online distance learning program.
Higher education and technology have been central to the development of the peace-building sector. With an increasingly competitive job market and demands for greater professionalism, accountability and flexibility, higher education has responded with the provision of online distance learning programs. But how can such programs help equip peace builders with the requisite skills and competencies compared to traditional face-to-face courses, and what are the inevitable limitations?
Online programs have made higher education more accessible since they can be taken on a part-time basis, enabling students to remain in their posts. Mobile ICTs in particular, combined with faster speeds, have significantly improved access often in remote locations.
Online distance learning also offers a distinctive and more dynamic learning experience compared to face-to-face programs. Bespoke virtual learning environments that comprise blogs, asynchronous discussion boards, wikis, personal journals, and live web conferencing among other tools provide rich interactive platforms and enable a distinct experiential pedagogy.
Nevertheless, learning at distance is difficult and for all its benefits of allowing learners to remain in full-time work, such employment can demand that studying time is eroded. Responding to the unpredictable and intensive demands from the field tend to prevent a uniform learning experience. Another ‘enemy’ is the danger of not being able to disengage and a constant immersion in the dilemmas of peace building; a condition that could be potentially exhausting given the physical dislocation from peers, teachers and support staff.
The growing relevance and impact of online postgraduate learning presents a complex landscape, which is still in its early stages and in need for a more rigorous understanding. There may be a greater onus on higher education to listen to the demands placed on peace builders but the sector also needs to engage more deeply to create truly collaborative ‘learner-focused’ programs.