New tech can be low tech

In his blogpost on conflict early warning in Lebanon, John G. Bock raises a good point about the perceived bias of humanitarian technologies towards online technologies. He explains that at a recent meeting of NGOs in Lebanon involved in conflict prevention, participants were weary of donors pushing them towards using new technologies, largely because they understood this to require internet access. He then argues that mobile tech is a more useful tool for conflict early warning (and early response), and one that can be leveraged to support the work of these NGOs.

John is right to point out that mobile is the way forward in many low tech environments. To name one example, the project I recently started working on in Sudan uses a combination of mobile, radio and community meetings to convey information. John also suggests that internet platforms may be of use to those who want an overview, but are not necessary for the first responders to a conflict incident. In this vein, the Sudan project envisages an internet platform to aggregate and convey information to a wider audience, but the main early response work will use radio and mobile to communicate back to the community.

Many practitioners are aware that using technology for conflict prevention or peacebuilding doesn’t require reaching out to people via Facebook, asking people to check out an online map or blogging about peace initiatives. In Africa specifically, mobile tech reaches many more people than online tech. This doesn’t mean that Africa is missing out on the social media revolution that other regions experience via the internet: Africa’s largest social network is mobile-based.

And yet the confusion remains – new tech makes people think of the internet. If by new technology we don’t mean online technology, what do we mean? In my view, we mean technology that empowers people to form networks beyond their immediate reach. To meet, engage, organize and eventually act. To circumvent the structures (and sometimes restrictions) of large, established organizations (Governmental or not). That is happening via the internet, but also via mobile phones. It’s a new way of conceiving how people interact, enabled by technology. I have put forward a panel proposal for the SXSW Interactive festival 2013 on New Tech for Conflict Prevention (and – shameless plug – you can vote for our proposal to be selected by clicking below).

One of the questions we will be addressing is whether the use of new technology for conflict prevention is limited to countries with high internet connectivity. In his blogpost, John also writes that “The hard part of conflict early warning and early response is creating the civil society infrastructure of a trust network.” That’s right, the easy part is the tech. Still, there’s value in asking what tech will best leverage the trust networks that civil society builds – and more often than not that will be the tech that people in those networks already use and trust, whether online or mobile.

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