Conflicts of the Future

The new issue of Building Peace magazine – Conflicts of the Future – is out. I wrote an article for this issue, which you can read here. In it I explore how we can think of the contributions that technology can make to peacebuilding by using the framework that John Paul Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination” provides. I conclude by explaining how new technologies can be tools of the moral imagination:

Conflict situations, Lederach tells us, are often constrained by the sense of inevitability often present in conflict. What peacebuilders need to do is provide spaces for the moral imagination to emerge. Moral imagination is the ability to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not exist. New technologies empower local peacebuilders to do what was previously impossible and can be effective tools of the moral imagination, shifting future trends in peacebuilding toward more local, impactful, and imaginative implementation.

Another two great articles to watch out for:

  • Sanjana Hattotuwa’s thoughtful analysis of the good and bad that technology can do for peace. He explains an important challenge for all of us to keep in mind:

Most policymakers now grasp the positive potential of technology, but there are less positive, more hurtful applications as well. The central challenge today, shared by the UN, civil society, governments, Bretton Woods institutions and others, is to outsmart technologies that help promote hate, hurt and harm and instead, imagine and promote technological content and initiatives to counter radicalization and build resilience.

  • This piece by Krista Wise and Adam Mukhtar on the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA) use of low-tech solutions to build peace by improving communication flows. The story they tell is a wonderful example of local peacebuilding, and I couldn’t agree more with their concluding statement:

For SUDIA, this enthusiasm is an important reminder that building peace is not a top-down process. There can be no peace without community engagement.

Posted in data analysis, games, social media, Sudan | Leave a comment

Drones, ethics and conflict

Earlier this year, I was invited to speak on the Technology for Peace panel at IPI’s 44th Vienna Seminar. Ameerah Haq (Under-Secretary-General, United Nations Department of Field Support) was also on this panel, and explained how drones are increasingly becoming a feature of DPKO missions. As proof of the importance of this innovation, she recounted a story about the first flight of the MONUSCO drones, operated by UN peacekeeping troops stationed in Goma, North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Goma is on the shores of Lake Kivu, and the most common mode of transport between Goma and Bukavu are unsafe, overcrowded boats across the lake. On their test flight, the UN drones sent back real-time imagery of a boat that was sinking in the middle of the lake. The peacekeepers quickly deployed a few UN boats and saved many passengers from drowning.

Boat on Lake Kivu (CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Julien Harneis)

Boat on Lake Kivu (CC-BY-SA 2.0 by Julien Harneis)

That UN peacekeepers were able to undertake a rescue thanks to their new drones is laudable. But the key purpose of deploying UN troops to Goma is to guarantee the safety and protection of civilians in an area where violence from non-state armed groups is all too common. Why did Ms. Haq chose to share a story that was about a humanitarian action peripheral to the central purpose of DPKO missions? Is it early days and there wasn’t much else to share? Or was this the only story that could be shared because the others would compromise the intelligence gathering that drones are allowing the mission to undertake?

The second thought stayed with me. UN peacekeepers are actively collecting data on civilian (and military?) activities in the Kivus (and elsewhere). Does the local population get a say in what data is collected, and to what purpose? How relevant is this question in conflict settings? Do the same standards apply as elsewhere? Patrick Meier has been doing some great work on the ethics of humanitarian UAVs, but I wonder if we need a concrete discussion on the ethics of drone use for conflict prevention. OCHA recently published a policy brief on the use of UAVs by humanitarian actors where it directly recommends against using UAVs in conflict settings:

“Focus on using UAVs in natural disasters and avoid use in conflict settings: The use of UAVs in conflict settings is still too complex and hard to separate from military uses.”

I understand that OCHA may not want to complicate the still-nascent discussion on humanitarian UAVs by considering conflict settings. However, if drones are starting to be used for non-military purposes in places like the DRC, then we need to begin to discuss this. Here are three problems and two possible solutions to start a conversation on drones, ethics and conflict.

Problem 1: privacy and consent. The discussion around data privacy and UAVs centers on two issues: consent and the imperative to save lives. Consent is critical to any data collection and dissemination in conflict settings, whether via UAVs or otherwise. It is often difficult to meet Do No Harm principles because the unintended consequences of data collection in complex conflict environments are so hard to predict. An important way to mitigate this risk is to obtain the consent of those being surveyed who are most likely to understand these unintended consequences. But if the purpose of the MONUSCO UAVs is to allow peacekeepers to monitor a broader area than they can cover over-land, then how operationally viable is it to obtain consent for UAV-collected data? Humanitarian actors at times argue that the imperative to save lives trumps the need for consent in certain situations and / or at certain levels of data aggregation. This is an important argument to make in humanitarian crises, but how applicable is it to collecting data on civilian protection? It is much harder to draw the line on what is life-threatening in a conflict context. UAVs cannot detect intent, so how are imagery analysts to determine if a situation is likely to result in loss of life?

OCHA's DJI Phantom UAV (pic.twitter.com/lxjopMq8XR)

OCHA’s DJI Phantom UAV (pic.twitter.com/lxjopMq8XR)

Problem 2: fear and confusion. In describing common misconceptions about humanitarian UAVs, Patrick Meier argues that most drones used by the UN / NGOs are perceived by local communities as toys, not as threatening military equipment. In speaking with local peacebuilders in the Somali Region and in Pakistan, I wonder whether the same is true in (at least some) conflict contexts. There is significant trauma among local populations who have witnessed drone strikes that appeared to come from nowhere. There is also much greater suspicion of anything that looks like an instrument to spy, to relay information to places of power far away, and that might (even unintentionally) make them a target for military action. This blogpost by the IRC raises similar concerns about the difficulty that local populations may have in distinguishing drones-for-good in conflict settings. When the MONUSCO drones first started to operate, a consortium of NGOs working in the Kivus warned that they might (at least in the eyes of local beneficiaries) appear to blur the lines between military and humanitarian actors. The OCHA policy brief reinforces these concerns, arguing that painting and signaling humanitarian UAVs to distinguish them from military drones works well in natural disasters, but is unlikely to be sufficient to overcome the fears of local populations in conflict settings.

Problem 3: response and deterrence. Whether collected with UAVs, via SMS-enabled crowdsourcing or at community meetings, a key issue with any system that gathers data in or about a conflict is that it raises expectations for a response. This risk is especially concerning for MONUSCO, who have in the past been criticised for inadequate response to known threats to civilians. Is it ethical for MONUSCO or other UN /NGO actors to deploy UAVs if they do not have the capacity to respond to increased information on threats? One possible counter-argument is to say that the presence of UAVs is in itself a deterrent (just as the presence of UN peacekeepers is meant to be a deterrent). In fact, the head of DPKO has suggested that deterrence is a direct aim of UN drones. Other initiatives using satellite imagery to monitor violence, such as the Satellite Sentinel Project, have similarly argued that surveillance of conflict areas acts as a deterrent. But the notion that a digital Panopticon can deter violent acts is disputable (see for example here), since most conflict actors on the ground are unlikely to be aware that they are being watched and / or are immune to the consequences of surveillance.

Solution 1: education and civic engagement. Educating communities where drones are deployed is one way to address the issues above. OCHA’s policy brief indicates that it is important to increase “the degree of transparency, acceptance and community engagement of the UAV program”. An open conversation with communities can include considerations about the potential risks of drone-enabled data collection and whether communities believe these risks are worth taking. This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account. Still a question remains: what happens if a community, after being educated and openly consulted about a UAV program, decides that drones pose too much of a risk or are otherwise not beneficial? In other words, can communities stop UN- or NGO-operated drones from collecting information they have not consented to sharing? Education will be insufficient if there are no mechanisms in place for participatory decision-making on drone use in conflict settings.

Solution 2: from civic engagement to empowerment. Perhaps civic engagement in how outside actors use humanitarian UAVs is not sufficient. In my view, the critical ethical question about drones and conflict is how they shift the balance of power. As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs. Drones flown by communities as part of their own conflict prevention processes and activities. If you think that’s a crazy undertaking, consider that something similar is already happening for community-led, UAV-enabled disaster risk reduction in Haiti. And there is plenty that local peacebuilders could use drones for in conflict settings: from peace activism using tactics for civil resistance, to citizen journalism that communicates the effects of conflict, to community monitoring and reporting of displacement due to violence.

I’m guessing this second solution is not going to sit easily with most readers. If you think it would never fly because people would be taken for spies and military / government officials would be afraid of them, then doesn’t that reinforce the three ethical problems outlined above? The more I consider how drones could be used for good in conflict settings, the more I think that local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power.

Posted in build peace | 3 Comments

Poem of the month: And they don’t ask… (Mahmoud Darwish)

And they don’t ask: What comes after death?
Though more intimate with the book of Paradise
than with accounts of the earth, they’re preoccupied
with another question: What shall we do
before this death? Near to life, we live
and we don’t – as if life were parceled out
from a desert where the haggling gods of property
settle their disputes.
We live beside an ancient dust.
Our lives burden the historian’s night:
‘Though I make them disappear, they come back to me
from absence.’
Our lives burden the artist:
‘I draw them and become one of them, veiled in mist.’
Our lives burden the General:
‘How can a ghost still bleed?’
We shall be what we want to be. And we want
a bit of life, not for just anything – but to honor
the resurrection after our death.
Unintentionally, they speak the philosopher’s words:
‘Death means nothing to us: if we are then he isn’t.
Death means nothing to us: if he is then we are not.’
And they have rearranged their dreams
and sleep standing.

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Digital activism and the strategic use of new media in Sudan

This week, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published an ebook – Global Dimensions of Digital Activism – that is also the start of a project to examine and understand why and how activists campaigning for social change make use of digital tools. The book and project are led by Ethan Zuckerman and Lorrie LeJeune, the director and assistant director of the Centre, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing a chapter on digital activism in Sudan. Other case studies in the first release include Rynda.org in Russia, the Opposition Coordinating Committee in Russia and Light Up Nigeria.

Another book on digital activism? Here’s why you should read this one.

There’s no dearth of books and articles about digital activism – whether arguing the revolutionary power of digital tools or on the contrary attempting to demonstrate that digital activism is weak and inefficient. What I appreciate most about this project (and why I think you should read the book!) is that it goes beyond an artificially polar debate of cyber-utopians versus cyber-pessimists. The book engages with the complex reasons that lead activists to engage with digital tools, explores the risks they consider taking and tries to track the evolution of strategies and tactics over time. By putting the experience of digital activists around the world (not just in Taksim and Tahrir) at the forefront, the book provides a richer, deeper understanding of how digital activism plays out in social change movements. Ethan does a great job of explaining this approach in the introduction (and he also puts out a call for activists / supporters who are interested in writing additional case studies).

I initially had many reservations about writing a piece on Sudan. I’m not Sudanese, not an activist in the social movements I describe. My knowledge and access are the product of personal contact, professional interest and what technical support I could provide my friends. It was only through the kind persuasion of my friend Rodrigo Davies, and later Ethan and Lorrie that I agreed to write a piece. They suggested that telling the story of a place that is not often written about and where activists themselves have a limited ability to report was important. Their intuition was later confirmed by the people I interviewed (some anonymously), and by the reactions once it was published.

Sudanese activists: want a user guide not a research piece? Go to Sawtna.net

So I’m glad to have told this story, and it’s a great way for an external audience to see into Sudan in a new way (it’s not all Darfur, oil and Muslim-Christian fighting, you see). But its use to Sudanese activists looking to use digital tools is limited, for two reasons. First, the chapter is in English and we currently do not plan on translating it to Arabic (although it is published under a Creative Commons license, so feel free). Second, the chapter provides an interesting retrospective look at what digital tools have and have not worked in Sudan social change actions, but it does not provide guidance or best practices tailored for Sudanese activists.

If you are looking for a more practical resource tailored to Sudan, make sure to visit Sawtna.net.

Sawtna_logo-EN_250px.fw_This online platform designed by and for Sudanese civil society activists explores strategies for using ICTs and social media for advocacy, campaigning, mobilization, dissemination of information, crowdsourcing and more. It combines information from global best practices and useful adaptations for the Sudanese context. And it is available in Arabic and English!

Posted in crowdsourcing, mapping, social media, Sudan | Leave a comment

Poem of the month: I want a lot (Rainer Maria Rilke)

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing
And are raised to the rank of prince
By the slippery ease of their light judgments
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
To dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.

 

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Designing for civic engagement and peace

I’ve been thinking recently about how tech-enabled peace initiatives can shift the balance of power and result in alternative infrastructures for peace. It seems to me that the proliferation of accessible technology tools makes it easier to innovate from the ground up. I don’t just mean build new platforms or apps, but also bring about social and organizational forms that enable small groups of local innovators to have a big impact on broad social problems. If that’s all sounding too abstract, let me introduce you to the innovators I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past week – and who are the start of an alternative infrastructure for peace in Cyprus and its region.

The mahallae challenge winners

UNDP recently ran an innovation challenge for civic engagement and peace. The winners are doing very different things – promoting the values of volunteerism (i-Vee), mentoring young people on employment and entrepreneurship (YuBiz), empowering women (WeMe), organizing participatory urbanism in a divided region (Hands on Famagusta), and using creative writing to bring communities together (The Sociaholic Typewriter). What holds them together as a group is that they are all challenging traditional ways of engaging people in civic issues, and in this challenge finding new paths to build peace. 

2014-06-25 12.48.26

The other common attribute of these projects is that using technology enables them to more effectively challenge the status quo – through new tools, alternative social forms or creative ways of organizing. New tools: i-Vee is using game mechanics to subtly promote the values of volunteerism. Alternative social forms: YuBiz leverages an online platform to enhance mentoring through online communications and a strong mentor-mentee matching algorithm. Creative organizing: Hands on Famagusta has brought together people in the physical space of Famagusta to map contested areas, and will continue to organize discussion online through an interactive website and a game on the imaginary Famagusta.

Grassroots design for grassroots solutions

What’s so appealing about these five teams is that they really are coming from the bottom up – understanding what people in their communities feel and need, and building from that. And if it’s all about grassroots solutions, then we figured we also need to be grassroots about the design process. This week, I ran a workshop that walked through a process of user-centered design. It was great to work with Rodrigo Davies on materials and exercises, and he shared the excellent approach taken in YoLab‘s Creative Industries Prototyping Lab in Lima that is reflected throughout this workshop.

At the start of the workshop, I introduced four things for the teams to bear in mind as they turn their idea into a product and project: put the user first, prototype and test, build and iterate, remember that your users are your story and understand outreach as community building. We then spent two days unpacking each of these concepts. Here are a few examples of what emerged.

WeMe understands its users by making them designers

One early exercise for the teams was to come up with user personas that would help them understand how users behave, within what social context and cultural environment, and with what technological availability. The teams would then keep these personas in mind throughout the design process.  But the WeMe team went beyond keeping user personas in mind during the workshop: the two team members working on prototypes were two potential mentees (future users of the WeMe platform). For two days, they designed what they would like to use – a critical input at this stage for the WeMe team.

YuBiz gets the best testers for its prototype

We did two rounds of rapid prototyping to get the teams used to getting down to concrete ideas early. Teams then paired up to test the prototypes on each other, with the aim to show how the project works in practice, simulate how a user might interact with it and get some feedback. YuBiz showed their first prototype to the two WeMe team members – two young women looking for jobs.  They got a stronger reaction than they perhaps expected, some push-back in critical areas and a view from just the kind of young people they are hoping to attract as users.

2014-06-25 16.10.33

i-Vee gets serious about iterating

Teams were encouraged to iterate fast through two rounds of prototyping – with the idea that this process of building and iterating should continue after the workshop. It’s a good way to spark creativity and avoid getting stuck early on. The i-Vee team had trouble prototyping initially. They had really dug into their theory of change, researched how games can change social behavior and understood what the offline component of their mobile game look like. But what would the game be exactly? What game mechanics would explore volunteering? We encouraged the team to just start drawing something… and once they started it was hard to stop them. Over the course of two days the game really evolved into a full concept, with complex mechanics and a great potential for expansion. I can’t wait to play!

The sociaholic typwriter really knows their users are their story

The final concept we used to guide the workshop was the most slippery. What does it really mean to say that your users are your story? Fortunately we had the sociaholic typewriter team to show us the way. This idea was born out of the personal creative relationship between the two team leads – and the story of their interaction very much guides their design as well as the future scenarios for the project. The users of the sociaholic typewriter are already the story of the project, and we learned from them that this is a great way to find new ways to do things.

2014-06-25 16.11.05

Hands on Famagusta understands outreach as community building

Towards the end of the workshop we talked about the importance of doing outreach – to partners, to critics and to users. We discussed different mediums for putting messages out and talked about the importance of storytelling. [We also had some fun pretending to pitch to Ban Ki Moon in an elevator, but that's a longer story.] The message that most resonated with the teams was to understand outreach as community building, and no team better than Hands on Famagusta to illustrate this. The team has already built a network of volunteers to help them map – block by block and in the sweltering heat – the entire city of Famagusta.

This community brings to life what Hands on Famagusta is trying to do: to disrupt a top-down decision-making process and force authorities to take into account views coming from the bottom up about how to handle a divided region. As my colleague Nilgun Arif explains, this type of grassroots disruption is common to all the mahallae concept winners. She believes (and I agree) that grassroots disruption is key to finding new paths to peace, especially in a context like Cyprus where top-down negotiations (alone) will never be enough to find a peaceful solution.

The mess of innovation

It’s been a fantastic, exhausting and *messy* few days – take a look at the video below for a taste of what it looked like. I can’t wait to see where these teams go and how they continue to contribute to a new way of building civic engagement and peace.

Posted in Cyprus, games, UNDP | 2 Comments

Alternative infrastructures for peace

[This blogpost was originally published in Insight on Conflict.]

This week, the Coalition Centre for Thai Violence Watch (CCTVW) is busy aggregating reports sent in from the streets of Bangkok to calculate a weighted index of violence risk, which will be published on their website and Facebook pages twice a day. The violence watch system is already very smart, and next week I’ll be joining a developer from Elva (a Georgian tech start-up) to work with the CCTVW team to make their processes and tools even more efficient. Every time I do work like this, bringing technology tools to local peacebuilders, I am reminded that highlighting this area of peacebuilding work was the impetus behind the Build Peace conference.

Rodrigo Davies, Jen Welch, Michaela Ledesma and I set up Build Peace to bring together practitioners, activists and technologists from around the world to share their experience and ideas on using technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. The conference had four broad lines of inquiry, each representing a function technology can play in peacebuilding: information, communications, gaming and networking. You can read more about how we came up with these four areas here and read a look-back on Build Peace 2014 here.

Alternative infrastructures for peace

The variety and depth of experience shared at the conference demonstrated that technology use is on the rise in local peacebuilding. That alone was inspiring, and generated enough interest that we will be organizing another conference next year. But perhaps more important is the over-arching narrative that these disparate experiences share: we are beginning to see alternative infrastructures for peace emerging that are (to a large extent) the product of tech-enabled initiatives.

In particular, I think there are three alternative infrastructures that point to the future of peacebuilding at the local level. First, digital media tools provide new, creative ways for local peacebuilders to foster alternative discourses and challenge prevailing conflict narratives. These new visions can often compete with existing visions by being bolder and engaging more closely with their audience. Second, networking platforms provide new opportunities for local peacebuilders to foster positive contact between conflict groups, building digital trust networks. Third, online and mobile tools give power to local peacebuilders to counteract calls for violence and make peace viral.

Making space for new visions

Digital media offers tools for collaborative media creation and dissemination: social media, blogs, wikis, citizen journalism, participatory maps, etc. Local peacebuilders are using these tools to bring new voices to the public domain. In Lebanon, Search For Common Ground ran a video competition that asked Lebanese youth to ‘Shoot [their] Identity’. Videos showcasing a diversity of experiences were posted online, with a prize awarded to the best video. In Israel, the Peace Factory runs viral campaigns on Facebook that encourage people to post messages of love and friendship across conflict barriers (Israel-Iran, Palestine-Israel, Pakistan-Israel, America-Iran, etc). In Sri Lanka, Groundviews is a website for citizen-journalists to offer alternative perspectives on governance, human rights, peace building and other issues. The site is credited with being the only source for controversial topics linked to the conflict and the only media outlet regularly challenging attitudes towards peace and conflict.

Creating digital trust networks

Online and SMS platforms can be used not just to transmit messages instantly, but also to form longer term relationships and regular exchanges (that may remain digitally-focused, or spill over into offline, in-person interactions). Local peacebuilders are using groups on social media, mobile chat rooms and dedicated networking platforms to nurture exchanges between groups that are divided by conflict lines. Soliya’s Connect Programis an online cross-cultural education program targeting young people in the West and in “predominantly Muslim societies.” Soliya facilitators accompany groups of ten students who meet online to talk about everyday life and culture, but also about controversial social and political issues. Run by the Parents Circle – Families Forum, Crack in the Wall is an online platform for conversation and engagement between families who have lost a family member as a result of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The platform organizes “Round Tables” for facilitated (and translated) conversation and also gives users the opportunity to watch videos uploaded by others showing their daily life, and to upload their own. In Cyprus, UNDP has built an online community of people and organizations working to transform the island’s frozen conflict. Mahallae records the history of peacebuilding and provides a space for collaboration on innovative projects.

Counteracting calls for violence

Too often, technology tools are used to actively solicit and organize violent actions. Violent groups are known to recruit using social media. Calls to violent action spread fastest over mobile phones and the internet. Local peacebuilders are using the same tools as violent groups to counter negative campaigns by mobilizing collective expression of positive messaging. Kenyan NGO Sisi Ni Amani runs the PeaceTXT program, which aims to contact people in at-risk areas in order to propose a moment of reflection at critical times when calls to violence are spreading. Community informers identify such critical times and report to the Sisi Ni Amani team, who then consider whether a targeted SMS could interrupt escalation. In the aftermath of the London 2011 riots, vInspired ran the ReverseRiots campaign. The campaign provided a digital space for young people to share a positive action they had taken in their community, allowing them to take pride in positive behaviour and showing others in the community that not all youth were rioters. HarassMap is an SMS reporting system for women experiencing sexual harassment in Egypt. It is helping women reclaim spaces and counteract sexist messages that spread easily on social media.

From technology, to civic engagement, to peace

Powerful technology tools are increasing in the hands of local peacebuilders, and this is resulting in a proliferation of innovative initiatives. But does this collection of technology for peace initiatives really constitute an alternative infrastructure for peace, comparable to larger, better resourced and more traditional peacebuilding institutions? Daniel Kreiss describes socio-technical infrastructures as “the technical artefacts, organizational forms, and social practices that provide background contexts for action.” As a technical infrastructure, technology for peace is a series of tools that allow local peacebuilders to communicate with more people in more ways, collect better information and sustain relationships on digital platforms. As an organizational infrastructure, it is a means by which communities build new participatory processes, foster deeper collaborations and assume collective responsibility for building peace. As a social infrastructure, it circulates ideas and creates consensus about the importance of civic, grassroots engagement in peacebuilding.

What’s really interesting about tech-enabled peacebuilding initiatives is that they shift the balance of power. Thanks to these tools and the social and organizational forms they help create, local peacebuilders are now better equipped to challenge state-sanctioned or socially normative narratives and notions of identity. Technology can shape the future of local peacebuilding. The Build Peace team has set up a small organization – Build Up – that will focus on supporting the emergence of these alternative infrastructures.

As we look into the future, there is one question that I’m still wondering about. How will these alternative infrastructures work with more traditional infrastructures for peace? Or as my colleague Rodrigo likes to ask: can an alternative method of getting something done not only get it done, but also exert influence on an existing (sometimes broken) method?

Posted in build peace | 2 Comments