How to build peace through technology?

I’ve had a good reason for not blogging this past month: I’ve been busy organizing Build Peace, the first international conference on building peace through technology, together with my colleagues and friends Rodrigo Davies, Michaela Ledesma and Jen Welch, as well as a fantastic team of volunteers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Kate Mytty, Chelsea Barabas, Heather Craig and Chris Peterson). The conference will take place at the MIT Media Lab on April 5 & 6, and is receiving the generous support of the International Peace Institute, the ICT 4 Peace Foundation, the US Institute for Peace, the World Banks’s theHive, Innovations in Peace, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, Mercy Corps, Blue Nile Lotus, the United Nations Development Program and the MIT Centre for Civic Media. The full program is now up on our website. A word of warning: registrations are closed and we are sold out. So if you haven’t already registered, you’ll have to watch our livestream this year and sign up here to find out about future events.


It’s been a very interesting journey to define what we mean by building peace through technology. Build Peace is organized along four broad lines of inquiry, each representing one of the functions technology can play in peacebuilding: information, communications, gaming and networking. (See this paper for some background on the framework that underpins this thinking about technology and peace.) The keynote speakers each (more or less) represent one of these lines of inquiry. Sanjana Hattottuwa from the ICT 4 Peace Foundation will be talking about how information technologies support peacebuilding. Waidehi Gilbert-Gokhale from Soliya / Search for Common Ground will discuss how online networking contributes to peacebuilding. Asi Burak form Games for Change will share experiences in serious gaming for social change, and particularly how this can be applied to games for peace. Ethan Zuckerman from MIT’s Centre for Civic Media will close the conference with a reflection on how we create shared media experiences that cross community lines.

We also recognize that for many practitioners, practical considerations about how to integrate technology into programming are critical. That’s why the panels are organized around three stages of peacebuilding programming: conflict analysis, program design and impact evaluation. Each panel brings together academics and practitioners to reflect on general considerations and share specific practices from existing applications on the ground. The panels are also putting together white papers reflecting on key questions in their areas – we’ll be posting these to our website shortly.

One other thematic trend emerged organically as we put together the conference program: creativity, art and peace. This seems to me like a natural connection. One of the reasons that peacebuilders turn to technology is that digital spaces can allow for new narratives to emerge and new identities to be explored. This kind of creativity is central to arts for peace projects, which use various artistic tools to to deliver small, transcendent moments to people who live in conflict. Moments that remind them of their humanity and help create common visions of a peaceful future. That’s why we are dedicating the conference reception to art and peace, giving space for cartoons on tech4peace by Manu, an interactive documentary on love across divided Cyprus and the wicked tunes of Turning Tables (check out their latest music video below). We’re also pleased to host three film screenings during the conference: Peace in our Pockets, Blueberry Soup and Acting Together on the World Stage.

Finally, we recognized early on that many conference participants would have great experiences and ideas to share, far beyond what we could cover with keynote speakers and panels. The conference ignites, working sessions and technology fair showcase this collective knowledge. The variety in these sections is inspiring: polarization and data, disrupting war-building ICTs, grassroots cultural innovation, the brain’s empathy circuit, voices from the Rwanda tribunal, constitution design in Egypt, hacking the border in the Dominican Republic, people power games, accounts from the conflict in Northern Ireland… and so many more.

Our hope is that Build Peace 2014 won’t be a one-off event. We would like it to be the beginning of a community – a group of people interested in using technology to skillfully and creatively push the boundaries of peacebuilding practice. Whether you are attending this year or not, we hope you will join us to chart the future of peace.

Posted in peacebuilding | Leave a comment

Poem of the month: Signs (Alejandra Pizarnik)

Everything makes love with silence.

They promised me a silence
like fire, a house of silence.

Suddenly the temple is a circus
the light a drum.

Posted in poetry | Leave a comment

Re-thinking conflict early warning: participatory polling in the Somali Region

[This post is part of a series on re-thinking conflict early warning.]

Sometimes our perceptions of what people in post-conflict societies think or worry about are way off the mark. As policy makers and program designers, we may attribute a general view to a population, imagine an intent or assume a lack of interest. Very often, these perceptions are based on a common narrative put out by more vocal parts of society or on conditions that were true but have changed. Hardly ever are they based on evidence, much less recent evidence. How could they be? Depending on the context, it can be dangerous to ask about certain sensitive topics, logistically complicated to canvass the views of a population, or simply beyond the technical capacities of many peacebuilding groups.

In many situations, polling can provide better information than an early warning system. It can lead to evidence-based interventions that address the real concerns of people and that can be targeted to particular groups whose concerns are different. In contexts where there is sufficient digital data exhaust, it may be possible to undertake “passive polling”. But where people don’t Tweet or Google, that’s not really an option. Besides, this kind of passive data mining misses the opportunity of using the poll as a way to start a dialogue and change public perceptions.

This potential for evidence-based decisions coupled with an opportunity to change the conflict dynamic through dialogue is why Interpeace has become interested in participatory polling. For more on the general methodology of participatory polling, check out this briefing. In this post, I’m focusing on a particular application still in its pilot phase. It’s of interest to me because it combines a robust polling for peace methodology with innovative uses of technology. And it does all that in an unlikely setting: the Somali Region. With the support of Interpeace, three local research organizations – the Academy for Peace and Development (APD), the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) and the Puntland Development Research Center (PDRC) – will be piloting their first polls in March and April of 2014. Since this is a pilot, the polls do not follow the participatory polling methodology strictly, but they have been designed to include strong participatory elements (co-design of questionnaires, feedback on analysis, etc) as well as some deliberative elements. They are also making use of new technologies to make their data collection, processing and analysis more efficient.

Polling and technology workshop in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Polling and technology workshop in Hargeisa (February 2014)

The primary platform that all three organizations are using is First Mile GEO. First Mile GEO provides the teams with tools to develop a paper survey, which then needs to be entered manually on the platform. Having a digital platform that is optimized for low bandwidth environments and collecting data on paper was key for these teams. Some of the teams are also testing whether they can combine paper surveys with digital surveys. Some PDRC enumerators will be using Magpi to collect data on smartphones or tablets. HIPS will be using FrontlineSMS to receive coded text messages from some enumerators. In both instances, data received will be exported to a spreadsheet by the system administrator, formatted to fit the First Mile GEO requirements and then imported into the platform.

Once data is entered, First Mile GEO automatically produces a series of map and graph visualizations of the data, providing the team’s analysts with an intuitive tool to explore patterns. The analysts can create standard “dashboards” (curated collections of maps and graphs) for sharing with partners and with the public. Most importantly, the platform is very intuitive, making its adoption by the teams straightforward. It’s exciting to see their data come to life. They can already see the potential for expanding their evidence base and combining it with other sources in the future.

Testing First Mile GEO in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Testing First Mile GEO in Hargeisa (February 2014)

As well as doing a poll with a traditional sampling methodology, APD and PDRC also wanted to experiment with crowdsourcing on a sub-set of questions from their poll. If it works out, crowdsourcing on some questions can be a faster way to get a reaction, real-time testing of the current pulse of an issue they are doing more in-depth analysis of through the full poll. First Mile GEO doesn’t offer a simple solution for crowdsourcing, that’s not what it has been built for. Instead, the teams will be using the Elva platform. The platform offers the teams solutions for both SMS and online crowdsourcing. As with Ushahidi, an online form with poll questions can be easily created in the administrator dashboard. What makes Elva special is its SMS function – the online questionnaire is turned into a step-by-step SMS questionnaire. All the teams have to do is advertise a phone number (we’re hoping for a shortcode from the local telecoms) on various media. Members of the public interested in participating in the poll can then text the number, and the system will automatically begin a question-response over SMS with them, delivering each question in the poll as one SMS. In case that’s not impressive enough, people can reply a number of different things (defined by the administrator) that the system will recognize. For example, for “What is your gender?”, the administrator can stipulate that “M”, “male”, “man” and “boy” will all be recognized to mean “male”. Responses arriving in the platform are automatically mapped onto pre-designed choropleth maps (heatmaps), and a series of pre-designed graphs automatically produced. The platform also has a neat timeline function that shows changes in responses over time.

Testing the Elva platform in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Testing the Elva platform in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Elva takes a lot of the manual work out of SMS crowdsourcing. Of course, whether or not crowdsourcing will work depends mostly on how the crowd will react to media adverts soliciting their participation in a poll. APD and PDRC are not sure how this will work out, but they are certainly keen to try it and use their extensive local relationships to promote it. (Incidentally, Elva also has a great function that would allow for enumerators to collect survey data via SMS, but this works better for shorter surveys than the ones the teams are working with. You can read about how this function has been used in Georgia here.)

Beyond what this pilot results in, using First Mile GEO and Elva has catalyzed thinking among the partners and Interpeace about how to better collect and visualize data, and how the use of technology can inform and improve their work. What’s really exciting about working on a tech-enabled project with Interpeace is that you know they’re in it for the long run. In the Somali Region, Interpeace has been working with many of the same organizations for decades, really investing in their capacity and developing a strong partnership. This is not a quick gimmick to please a donor, it’s part of a grounded strategy that incorporates global excellence in peacebuilding and local knowledge of the region and its conflicts.

Posted in crowdsourcing, mapping, peacebuilding | 3 Comments

From bakeries to armed groups, everything about Aleppo

When I was 18, I traveled on local buses and minivans, sleeping on hotel roof-tops and dingy hostels, from Beirut to Damascus to Aleppo. It was a beautiful journey, and one that has come back to mind often as the war in Syria unfolds. It’s so easy to lose perspective when reading about a war, to get numbed by the figures and forget the concrete stories, the streets and people behind them.

Which is why this detailed, on the ground study of current conditions in Aleppo is so important. The study is a collaboration of Caerus Associates and First Mile GEO. It distills the results of four months worth of biweekly, on the ground assessments that collected information on the security, humanitarian, political and governance conditions into an easy to navigate website. The assessments combined objective data (bread prices, location of checkpoints, hours of electricity) with subjective data (perceptions of governance, political opinions). The site combines narrative analysis outlining the findings from these assessments with interactive maps that visualize the data these findings are based on. With the narrative overview and the opportunity to dive into detailed data, the site manages to weave together perceptions, on the ground reality and incidents to bring to life what is happening in Aleppo.

I really like the way Matt McNabb from First Mile Geo puts it:

“This is not just a story about Syria, however. It is a story about how technology can bend to the realities of war. And how with those advancements, episodic journalism can give way to sustained insights that can be used to enhance and measure efforts by the humanitarian community to take action in support of our common humanity.”

If the data presented publicly is this insightful, I can only imagine how useful this tool has been internally to Caerus Associates analysts. The conflict monitoring tool that First Mile GEO provide can really help organizations respond faster and better. It’s also a great tool for advocacy and policy making. Matt McNab writes a very interesting blogpost on the lessons they have learned from this work. He explains the considerations behind the decision to open up the data on Aleppo, balancing the risk of doing harm by putting information in the hands of people who may use it for military purposes against the benefit of offering a wide range of actors access to geospatial data. The data, he explains, is not just useful to analysts sitting in Washington DC.

Early indications from Aleppo point to the use of geospatial and other forms of data visualizations by local civil society and the ad hoc governance structures that have emerged to provide services in opposition areas.

First Mile GEO certainly has the potential to put geospatial data that is intuitive to navigate in the hands of local actors in conflict settings. Their work in Aleppo is remarkable. But it’s the possibility of using their tools for horizontal data sharing and organizing that will be most interesting to watch in the future.

Posted in data analysis, mapping, peacebuilding | Leave a comment

Poem of the month: The moon (Mizuta Masahide)

The barn burnt down
now I can see
the moon.

Posted in poetry | Leave a comment

How to get new ideas into UNDP

This blogpost was originally posted on the Mahallae blog, written by Nilgun Arif and me.

Here’s how it usually goes. A big donor gives UNDP funds to tackle a complex problem. UNDP knows that often the best ideas are with civil society actors. Civil society actors, with their ear to the ground, know that they have great ideas to tackle this complex problem. A call for proposals goes out. There have been others before, but we know this one will be different. Everyone agrees we won’t re-hash the same tired ideas that have been tried for countless years and numerous calls for proposals.

And yet somehow, we all get caught up in the red tape of our old ideas. We end up with the same solid, tested ideas we’ve tried before. Nothing wrong with that, there’s a lot of good in tested ideas. But why this trouble innovating?

We think it’s got something to do with what makes UNDP different: we work with the messy stuff. Don’t get us wrong, it’s very difficult to organize humanitarian aid distributions in a complex emergency or to ensure that all children have access to vaccines. But it’s also measurable and concrete. Surprisingly, that makes innovation easier, because you can measure its impact, see how it increases efficiency and continue to improve.

The impact of a peacebuilding initiative is almost impossible to trace. What is “more peace” anyway? The Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Index (SCORE) can measure different aspects of a peaceful society, but it also makes it clear that everything affects everything else, that peace is a complex system. Tracing the effect of one initiative through a web of human relations, socio-economic conditions and perceptions is practically impossible.

So how do we give people an incentive to innovate? We think it’s about creating the community support and feedback for new ideas to emerge. And that’s where the Mahallae Challenges come in. Building on UNDP’s work in this area, we are venturing out of the buffer zone in Cyprus to solicit new ideas and to ask you to help decide which ideas get funded.

We will be posting challenges relating to issues facing our communities. These will be evidence-based challenges, informed by findings from the SCORE. Here’s a preview of how the challenges will work…

We want ideas for solutions, lots of them. Anyone can submit an idea – this is an online brainstorming party. You can submit as many ideas in response to each challenge as you want. You’ll just need a title, a short description and (if you want) an image. All ideas are shared on the Mahallae website.

The best ideas become concepts. Our judges will filter the ideas and select those that demonstrate the most potential to attract interest. If your idea is selected, you will be asked to come up with a concept. Concepts are more developed ideas with a team behind them.

We support our concept teams. During this process, Mahallae Mentors also organize meet-ups for concept teams to provide support offline and help strengthen their ideas.

Concepts are put out to the crowd. Each concept goes back on the Mahallae site. Anyone can leave comments, or show that they like the concept by endorsing it. Concept will also be requesting in kind resources (expertise, services, volunteers, etc). You can show your support for a concept by offering resources.

The best concepts win a challenge prize! Our judges pick the finalists, those ideas with the most community contributions, discussions and endorsements, and each one receives a cash grant prize. Equipped with the financial and technical resources necessary to succeed, the winning projects get the green light and can be put into operation!

Anyone can follow projects as they get into action. Once the winning projects begin to be implemented you can either become part of them through your contributions, or sit back and watch them develop on the Mahallae platform. All reporting and updates on project implementation happen via the platform, to keep all contributors and endorsers informed.

But wait – there’s more ! Those winning projects that can demonstrate replication outside of Cyprus can receive additional funding – so that the great ideas can spread even further.

What’s different about the Mahallae Challenges is that we are all committing to hearing all sorts of new ideas and paying attention to what others think about them. We’re creating a safe space to innovate in a field where success and failure are hard to measure. We’re making community feedback and enthusiasm the incentive to innovate and are asking you to tell us which projects to fund.

So will you help us get new ideas into UNDP?

Posted in peacebuilding, UNDP | Leave a comment

Re-thinking conflict early warning: emergency alerts in Georgia, Kenya and Syria

[This post is part of a series on re-thinking conflict early warning.]

I’ve lost count of the number of proposals for peacebuilding projects I’ve read that include a system for local people to send and receive emergency alerts on violent events. It’s not clear to me why donors and organizations alike focus disproportionately on alerts-based conflict early warning systems. First, as I’ve argued in other posts in this series, alerts about violent events are often not what peacebuilders or locals need – other types of information and in other formats (not last minute alerts) are more suitable in many cases. Second, the conditions for an alert system to be effective are not easy to meet. Here’s a list of key questions that need to be taken into account:

  1. Is the alert getting to a responder with the capacity t0 act quickly? People who send in an alert about a violent incident expect that sharing this information will elicit a response, and yet many conflict early warning systems are not linked up to the appropriate responders with capacity on the ground.
  2. Is there a feedback loop to the people who send alerts? Equally important to ethically managing expectations of response is to tell the people who share information what is being done with that information.
  3. Are events requiring an emergency alert frequent? Violent incidents may be infrequent in a post-conflict context, and information on rising tensions is hard to capture by a system designed to gather alerts.
  4. Is access to information equal? The communications channels chosen for the alerts system may not be equally accessible to all, making the system untrutworthy and subject to manipulation.
  5. What are the effects of the alert system on existing response mechanisms? Most alert-based conflict early warning systems are designed for fragile states. Once a state has enough capacity, it’s early warning system is 911 (or its equivalent) and the responders are state emergency and security forces. Even in fragile states, the state or civil society likely has an alerts system that any new system should take into account.
  6. Can the alert information be used for counter-productive purposes? Emergency alerts can be used to resolve a conflict – but also to escalate it or to further target a marginalized population.

In conflict settings that meet these conditions, well designed, alert-based conflict early warning systems can play very important roles. Below are three examples that have done excellent work in this area. They show that the key to an effective alerts-based conflict early warning system is designing with a response in mind – whether the response comes from government (Uwiano), international observers (Georgia), or individuals (Syria).

Uwiano Platform for Peace

The UWIANO Platform for Peace is a project of the National Steering Committee on Peace building and Conflict Management (NSC), National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), Peace Net Kenya, UNDP Kenya and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The project uses a web-based platform that receives SMS on incidents from peace monitors placed across the country. Messages are read and categorized in real-time by analysts in a national situation room. These analysts also initiate a response to any report, working through their partnership with civil society groups and the police. The system has given  the police and other responders a level of localized information not previously available to them.

Elva Community Safety Network

16 conflict-affected communities in the region of Shida Kartli in Georgia use the Elva platform to alert authorities about security incidents and to report on their “sense of security”. Within 30 minutes of an incident, information is relayed to relevant security providers, which allows for a prompt response by the police, other authorities and even international observers. The system has handled hundreds of incident reports and enabled a quick resolution for many of them. The project is run by Saferworld and the Caucasus Research Resource Centers.


A Syrian independent developer recently rolled out “Aymta,” an SMS and web-based alert system for missile attacks in Syria. Using sightings from experts / activists who see a missile launched, the system calculates where the missile is likely to land. After adding an attack record to the system, the missile appears on a live information map that shows its trajectory. A warning is also sent to subscribers, providing enough time for them to get out of harms away.

Posted in mapping, peacebuilding | 1 Comment