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.

Aymta

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.

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