SXSW: where next with tech for peacebuilding?

There was a lot of fun to be had at SXSW 2013: slicing fruit with LEAP Motion, making LED throwies for the MIT Media Lab party and Bruce Sterling‘s rant on treating innovation and disruption with moral gravity were my personal favorites. From amongst the fun, here are four selected, brief thoughts on what might be next in the use of technology for peacebuilding and conflict prevention:

1. Mobilizing ingenuity to strengthen global security

Rose Gottemoeller, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, spoke about how her office has been engaging with the tech community through a series of challenges on innovation and arms control. The first one closed recently, and focused on using technology to educate the public about arms control (winning submission: Bombsheltoe). The Bureau is now planning two new challenges. The first is to design tools for inspectors engaged in monitoring international arms control treaties, specifically tools that improve their situational awareness prior to arriving at a monitoring site. The second seemed a little vague, but interesting: to explore the use of crowdsourcing in monitoring arms control treaties. The Assistant Secretary acknowledge the ethical and practical difficulties to this approach (danger to citizen reporters, reliability of information), but also pointed to the potential for using tools that empower citizens to monitor at least certain effects of arms (e.g. RAVEN’s radiation detector using smart phones). This final discussion of the ethical / practical difficulties of crowdsourcing, but also the effects of grassroots monitoring on empowerment paralleled discussions on the use of similar methods for early warning and early response.

LED throwies!

LED throwies! 

2. Redefining Political Tech & Civic Participation

This panel covered a wide range of subjects relating to innovation in US government institutions – two had direct parallels to the challenges of innovation in the peacebuilding field; both were put forward by Jennifer Pahlka, Founder of Code for America. First, government institutions are not designed to take on innovative tech, so every innovative project that works is a “hack”. The hack can help build momentum for change by showing what’s possible, but this is not a sustainable model. If we are serious about innovation, we need to build tolerance around failure to reduce the cost of experimenting. Second, in the US, most innovative uses of technology focus on getting people elected. Innovation should now move to changing government. My parallel: in peacebuilding, most focus to date has been on using innovative tech to identify and predict conflicts (early warning); innovation should now move to changing relations and building peace.

3. I overthrew my government… now what?

CrimsonHexagon’s Foresight platform is being used to look at twitter conversations in Libya and Egypt and examine how social media is used after the revolution to build democracies and institutions. The research shows that people use Twitter in two ways post-revolution: instrumental (to tell social networks what’s going) and integrative (to express the meaning of their socio-political conditions). Nancy Messieh responded that analyzing social media conversations by looking at Twitter is pretty limited in these two contexts: people who tweet are pretty much talking to themselves, there is considerable trolling by big political actors and the conversations in English and Arabic are (deliberately) different. She offered instead that looking at the rise of citizen journalism (in Egypt particularly) provides an alternative narrative post-revolution and more effectively bridges the online-offline gap. If Egypt’s Bassem Youssef is anything to go by, this trend in citizen journalists providing alternative discourses with broad resonance is an important one to watch out for. How can such efforts be mobilized in support of peacebuilding?

4. Digital Diplomacy

The UK and the US have an increasing interest in “crowdsourcing foreign policy” by doing “more listening, less broadcasting” using social media. Lofty aims. The US State Department has even set up the Office of Innovative Engagement to test new technologies for use in diplomacy. But I suspect neither is prepared to be as radical as Sweden, whose Government decided to allow citizens to directly curate the @sweden twitter account. One citizen “owns” the handle for one week, then passes it on to the next. The only rule is to not say anything illegal, and the Government has so far stuck to its guns despite some controversy and common tweets about sex. The handle has gained a very large following as a result of this policy, and is probably more informative and engaging than official handles. It’s a new form of horizontal diplomacy. Can it be mirrored by horizontal communications when it comes to peace deals?

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