Here’s a dream job: support the conceptualization and visualization of a digital hub for civil society practitioners working to promote peace and social cohesion. Now make it better: the project has the support of a very dynamic office (UNDP Cyprus), contributions and leadership from a flexible and experienced network of practitioners (Peace it Together), and I get to collaborate with an inspirational colleague and great friend (Michaela Ledesma). That’s what the past week has been about, and it’s been awesome.
A bit of background: UNDP Cyprus and Peace it Together share a vision of how Cypriot civil society can contribute to peace on the island and in the region. This vision is grounded in decades of experience in mediation, reconciliation and social cohesion work between the two main communities on the island – Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots – which have been divided for over 40 years. The Peace it Together network partners (and their supporters: UNDP and USAID) understand that their efforts are not only important for Cyprus, but can also make a significant contribution to advancing peacebuilding practice in the region. The Cypriot context, largely absent of violence and with strong civil society capacities, provides an ideal incubator for innovative approaches to programming. The network hosted the Power of One conference last October, with the dual aim of sharing best practices from Cyprus and establishing collaborations with organizations doing similar work in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The conference was a great success, but the momentum of one-off events is hard to sustain. That’s where the digital hub comes in. UNDP and Peace it Together want to create a digital headquarters for civil society to share and build on their experience. “A digital hub for civil society practitioners working to promote peace and social cohesion”? Huh? Yeah, we’re still figuring out exactly what that means. I can tell you what it’s definitely not: a static repository of best practices and resources. The Peace it Together and UNDP teams are serious about innovation, and we spent the past week reviewing a broad range of technology tools, platforms and use cases. We drew inspiration from OpenIdeo for collaborative project formulation, Duolingo for gamified language learning, “The Team” for social cohesion messaging, Soliya for integrating digital communications and mediation, the Peace Factory for linking online and offline campaigning, Gapminder for awesome data visualization, Ushahidi for crowdsourced mapping, SlaveryFootprint for digital awareness raising, Ning for online networking and Fitocracy… well, mainly because the robot is cute.
This inspiration resulted in some very energetic brainstorming to narrow down and begin to define the elements that will make up the digital hub. (And yes, we also need a name, coming soon!) We’re not done designing, but so far we have sketched out five key elements:
- The hub will be structured around a historical repository of Cypriot experience in reconciliation and social cohesion programming, tagged by type of contribution, and (probably) visualized as a river with different colored streams. Organizations accessing the hub will be able to review past experience and also to add their own, keeping the stream alive through moderated crowdsourcing.
- A networking and collaboration space for civil society organizations that will include a roster of experts and (perhaps) a toolkit for online project formulation and collaboration.
- Data and visualization (most likely an interactive map) of the SCORE Index to provide objective measures of social cohesion and reconciliation,
- An online survey-game, a peace app for the general public to measure their contribution to reconciliation and social cohesion.
- A space for interactive peacebuilding products, which will initially host seven products developed by Cypriot civil society, including a children’s online game to promote the idea of a unified Nicosia, a game to learn Turkish and Greek through recognizing common words and an interactive webinar on inter-communal collaboration.
These elements are brought together by two guiding principles. First, the notion (based on Reflecting on Peace Practice) that peacebuilding should both engage key people already active in the peacebuilding space and reach out to the general public in order to bring more people into a discourse of peace. In the hub, key people will be engaged through the use of tags that will weave together all the different elements: past experience, experts on the roster, project collaborations and interactive products will all carry a tag related to what type of contribution they make to social cohesion and reconciliation. These tags will help experienced key people navigate directly to the area of practice they are interested in. The hub will use games to draw in more people, with the peace app as the main hook. Once a user completes the app survey and gets a picture of their personal contribution to peace, the app will make personalized recommendations of other interactive products that might be of interest.
The second guiding principle (based on methodology developed by MIT) is the idea that identifying critical moments can help a community of practice understand how change happens. The hub brings together diverse historical sources of quantitative and qualitative data, and will aim to continue to gather data on social cohesion in near-real time. All the quantitative data components of the hub have strong visualization components that will allow users to interact directly with the data. The qualitative data will not be presented in traditional reports, but rather in multi-media format that will incorporate (moderated) personal contributions. But visualization tools and creative media only go part way to making sense of this vast resource of past and present information. They need weaving together into one (or several) stories, and the hub will do this by identifying the critical moments that these individual experiences contributed to, and which together tell the overall story of changes in social cohesion.
This may all be sounding very theoretical… but it makes sense. Even before we draw any prototypes or build any components, there is an overall theory of change that is emerging. It goes something like this: there are different dimensions of action that have contributed to the story of social cohesion and reconciliation in Cyprus. In the hub, these dimensions all come together: the “streams” in the historical repository match the indicator buckets of the SCORE index that in turn match the personal contributions to peace measured by the peace app. The interactive products, the experts in the roster and the projects organizations collaborate on are linked to these dimensions too. Together, all contribute to critical moments that result in change, working towards greater reconciliation and social cohesion.
This overall story goes much beyond Cyprus, and makes clear the potential for this hub to catalyze innovation for peacebuilding in the region. It’s a big vision, and one that both Peace it Together and UNDP should be proud to be championing. And it has technology at its core. What I personally find most exciting about this venture is that we are starting to define a theory of change for the technology of peacebuilding and social cohesion. If you have any thoughts on this (or any ideas for the hub!), please feel free to add a comment to this post.