Peacetech: remarks at the Geneva Peace Talks

Last Friday, I had the pleasure to speak at the 2015 Geneva Peace Talks, organized by the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform. I was humbled to be in the company of such a great line-up of speakers, all addressing the subject “It’s time for peace”. This blogpost is a write-up of what I said.


The peace of the graveyards

I’m from Spain and as you know Spain had a fascist dictator, Franco, until 1975. In 1964, Franco celebrated 25 years in power with the slogan: “25 years of peace”. The counter-slogan from anti-fascist activists, like my parents, was “We don’t want the peace of the graveyards.”

It’s a slogan that I still find relevant, a call to remember that a peaceful society is not one void of conflict, but one where all voices can negotiate a shared understanding of peace. It asks the question: who gets to decide what peace means? who decides what peace we are working to build?

Peacebuilding as civic engagement

So that’s an interesting anecdote, but you might be wondering what it’s got to do with the subject of my talk. I co-direct a social enterprise called Build Up that works at the intersection of technology, civic engagement and peacebuilding. The provocation we put forward with our work is that we need to re-interpret peacebuilding as civic engagement. And that technology plays a key role in that reinterpretation.

In other words, we believe that the key thing technolgy does is broaden participation in peacebuilding process, so that really what they are is civic engagement processes that deal with conflict. That also means that we can do away with the idea that conflict is something that happens in far-flung transition places or in the Global South. Conflict is in every society. Peacebuilding as civic engagement is needed everywhere, and technology is changing how it’s done everywhere.

Peacetech in the Somali Region and South Sudan

Since this may sound abstract, I want to illustrate it with two concrete examples of work Build Up is currently undertaking.

For the past 2 years, we have been working with Interpeace to support two local peacebuilding organizations in the Somali Region. The organizations we are working with have decades of experience doing qualitative research to understand what Somalis are thinking about the conflict. With the information they gather they run local peace processes and work to influence Somali policy makers.

So they do incredible work. We’ve helped them introduce a few technology tools that build on this. We worked with them to design a participatory polling methodology that introduced a mobile data collection tool linked to an online data management and visualization tool (read more about it here). We’ve also helped them come up with ways to share their findings and messages with more people. They were already doing paper reports and film screenings. Now they are also using social media, learning simple animation and making shorter films to be distributed online.

Perhaps you had an image of Somalia as a black hole where nothing works. In fact, it’s an incredibly resourceful place: there are more people online and on Facebook than you might initially think, especially since the fiber optic cable reached Mogadishu.

The second project I want to tell you about is one we implemented earlier this year in South Sudan. USAID funds the VISTAS program, which has been working on the Sudan – South Sudan border, supporting peace committees to make local agreements and manage divisions across the border.

These committees do important work. They convene elders to negotiate rights of passage and then drive around in cars and read out agreements over megaphones. But with this approach, there are only so many people they can reach and only so many voices that can be represented. In other words: the reasons why traders and cattle keepers want peace are clear, and they hear the agreements. But what about women? Or unemployed young men? They’re not at the negotiation table.

So we worked with one cross-border committee to identify a group of young men and a group of women, mixed Sudanese – South Sudanese, and then over three weeks, we supported these groups in making two short films.

None of the participants had touched a camera before. Only 5 of them could read and write. Many told us it was the first time they had been asked to express their opinion. Yet the films they made where entirely led by them. They planned the stories, filmed every shot, recorded every interview, and chose images and voices for the final cuts.

For the films’ opening night, we projected onto a white sheet strung up in the town’s dusty football field. Hundreds of people came to watch. The groups are now working to screen the films in other towns along the border, show them at video clubs, distribute them via mobile phones, and then make more films. (Read more about this here.)

Technology is just a tool

These are two powerful examples of projects that use technology to build peace. But you may be thinking, what of the risks? Isn’t technology also used for war and oppression? And of course it is, technology is just a tool – but for every negative use, I can probably come up with a positive counter-use.

On Facebook, we listen mostly to people we already agree with, which can make views more polarized, and hatespeech is rampant. But groups like Peace Factory are using Facebook to connect normal Israelis to normal people in Iran, Palestine or Jordan, and groups like Umati (Kenya) or Proxi (Spain) are using social media to monitor and counter hatespeech.

Technology can be used to cut off communications, as the government in Sudan has done, but also in Sudan a local NGO sets up a community communications system that links SMS to radio to help sustain local peace agreements. Videogames teach war, but Games for Peace uses Minecraft to bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together. Drones can bomb, or they can be tools for peacekeepers. And so on.

Peacetech can learn from civic tech

I think that what is happening with technology in peacebuilding is similar to how technology is affecting other areas of public life. And so I’m taking you back to Spain: with an economic crisis compounded by many corruption cases, Spanish people over the past few years have been asking themselves: who gets to decide what democracy looks like?

Many of the grassroots movements that started with this question are now turning into political forces to be reckoned with on the electoral arena. And in their organizing process, and in their ability to shift the public discourse, technology has played an instrumental role.

And this phenomenon of greater participation, greater empowerment via technology disrupting traditional processes is not just about Spain, and it’s not just about political activism. It’s happening in governments through civic tech movements too. Citizens are talking directly to governments, on their own terms. And governments are setting up web platforms, apps and social media campaigns to reach citizens.

But this change towards greater participation through technology has not yet reached formal peace negotiations. Peace negotiations continue to take place in closed rooms, between governments or warring parties, away from the people most affected, and with limited participation from civil society.

The examples I gave earlier, the many other examples of peacetech that are out there, they’re all happening among civil society. It’s true that the more effective ones manage to connect with ongoing governance / conflict management processes – like the example I gave you from Somalia. And this is very important, but it’s quite limited.

What is the e-governance of peace processes?

In other policy areas, the civic tech movement has meant that it is no longer acceptable for governments to fail to communicate and consult with citizens regularly: technology makes it easy and cost effective, removing any permissible excuse. I think we need a peacetech movement that does something similar for peacebuilding, and I think we need this urgently.

Peacebuilders on the ground are demonstrating how technology makes it easier to broaden participation. They are using technology to reinvent peacebuilding at the grassroots, in track 3. We can use this experience to also re-invent track 1 formal negotiations. We can start using technology to connect the conversations of conflict-affected communities directly to formal negotiation tables in Addis Ababa, New York, or Geneva. We know from past experience that if these two tracks are not connected, what is signed at negotiation tables won’t take root on the ground.

However different the contexts might be, I see digital activism, civic tech and peacetech as part of a global paradigm shift that leverages technology to disrupt what otherwise remains an unquestioned status quo, dominant power structure, a majority’s perspective as the only truth. Because people don’t want the peace of the graveyards.

Digital activism and the strategic use of new media in Sudan

This week, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published an ebook – Global Dimensions of Digital Activism – that is also the start of a project to examine and understand why and how activists campaigning for social change make use of digital tools. The book and project are led by Ethan Zuckerman and Lorrie LeJeune, the director and assistant director of the Centre, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing a chapter on digital activism in Sudan. Other case studies in the first release include Rynda.org in Russia, the Opposition Coordinating Committee in Russia and Light Up Nigeria.

Another book on digital activism? Here’s why you should read this one.

There’s no dearth of books and articles about digital activism – whether arguing the revolutionary power of digital tools or on the contrary attempting to demonstrate that digital activism is weak and inefficient. What I appreciate most about this project (and why I think you should read the book!) is that it goes beyond an artificially polar debate of cyber-utopians versus cyber-pessimists. The book engages with the complex reasons that lead activists to engage with digital tools, explores the risks they consider taking and tries to track the evolution of strategies and tactics over time. By putting the experience of digital activists around the world (not just in Taksim and Tahrir) at the forefront, the book provides a richer, deeper understanding of how digital activism plays out in social change movements. Ethan does a great job of explaining this approach in the introduction (and he also puts out a call for activists / supporters who are interested in writing additional case studies).

I initially had many reservations about writing a piece on Sudan. I’m not Sudanese, not an activist in the social movements I describe. My knowledge and access are the product of personal contact, professional interest and what technical support I could provide my friends. It was only through the kind persuasion of my friend Rodrigo Davies, and later Ethan and Lorrie that I agreed to write a piece. They suggested that telling the story of a place that is not often written about and where activists themselves have a limited ability to report was important. Their intuition was later confirmed by the people I interviewed (some anonymously), and by the reactions once it was published.

Sudanese activists: want a user guide not a research piece? Go to Sawtna.net

So I’m glad to have told this story, and it’s a great way for an external audience to see into Sudan in a new way (it’s not all Darfur, oil and Muslim-Christian fighting, you see). But its use to Sudanese activists looking to use digital tools is limited, for two reasons. First, the chapter is in English and we currently do not plan on translating it to Arabic (although it is published under a Creative Commons license, so feel free). Second, the chapter provides an interesting retrospective look at what digital tools have and have not worked in Sudan social change actions, but it does not provide guidance or best practices tailored for Sudanese activists.

If you are looking for a more practical resource tailored to Sudan, make sure to visit Sawtna.net.

Sawtna_logo-EN_250px.fw_This online platform designed by and for Sudanese civil society activists explores strategies for using ICTs and social media for advocacy, campaigning, mobilization, dissemination of information, crowdsourcing and more. It combines information from global best practices and useful adaptations for the Sudanese context. And it is available in Arabic and English!

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.

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.

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.

Re-thinking conflict early warning: perceptions in Cyprus and Sudan

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

When I met with them a year ago, the board of the Iraqi Centre for Negotiation and Conflict Management had pretty clear ideas about early warning. Any system they set up to monitor overt threats or violent incidents that could trigger a conflict would be too slow. Journalists would get to these events faster; the limited time of the Centre’s mediators would be best spent keeping up with the news. Even if they did manage to set up a near real-time incident and threat monitor, they argued that these events were so close to the outbreak of conflict that it was often too late for preventive action. When we discussed what could help them move from reactive mediation to proactive intervention, they honed in on collecting perceptions data. They wanted to know how people on the street were feeling, what the pulse of a community was. What they needed was a more systematic way to tap into this pulse.

The Mercy Corps Iraq team (who support the Centre) is still in the process of rolling out its perceptions monitoring system (see this blogpost for an overview). But other teams working with peacebuilders and peace activists in conflict and post-conflict contexts have similarly found that perceptions monitoring is the best approach to conflict early warning. From 2007 to 2012, UNDP Sudan’s Crisis and Recovery Mapping and Analysis (CRMA) project carried out community-level perceptions mapping in six states of Sudan and ten states of South Sudan, in collaboration with the respective State Governments. The CRMA methodology built on existing tools such as Rapid Rural Appraisals, Conflict Analysis Frameworks, Vulnerability Assessments and Community-Based Risk Assessments to provide an evidence-base generated at the grassroots. Community workshops were run by the CRMA team in partnership with Government officials to gather perceptions about threats and risks. Each workshop gathered about 30 participants, from mixed backgrounds representing the community, over the course of two days. The workshops ran a variety of exercises, including  plenary fora, participatory mapping, mind mapping and focus groups. Community perceptions gathered at these workshops were then assigned a category and a geographic location, to allow for both thematic and geographic analysis.

TRMA

Participants map perceptions of threats and risks at a CRMA workshop in Sudan

Through its work, CRMA supported government and civil society actors to jointly identify priorities for intervention and response. The process fostered an open dialogue, strengthening the capacities of local actors to respond to potential conflicts in a timely and appropriate manner. For example, in South Kordofan, UNDP Sudan had carried out its community level mapping exercise in collaboration with the state’s Reconciliation and Peaceful Coexistence Mechanism (RPCM) – a body which (prior to the conflict that started in South Kordofan in 2011) was similar to the Iraqi Centre for Negotiation and Conflict Management. UNDP supported the RPCM to analyse perceptions data from the community level mapping exercise in order to inform its priorities for action. (I gave an Ignite talk about this work a few years ago.)

Analysis of the perceptions data collected by CRMA was always somewhat problematic: the perceptions are not collected from a random sample of people or places, making any statistical analysis impossible. At most, the analysis allowed for identifying some geographic and thematic patterns that mediators and planners should look into. In Cyprus, a joint initiative of SeeD and UNDP has developed a more complex model of interpreting perceptions for the benefit of peacebuilding programs. Their Social Cohesion and Reconciliation Index (SCORE) is made up of five pillars. Four of them collect background information on civil society actors, local governance, political parties and local media – they are important to the model, but less relevant to this discussion. The fifth pillar collects responses to a questionnaire on perceptions from a random sample of Cypriots. The questions provide numerical scores for 25 indicators of social cohesion and reconciliation, such as negative stereotypes, intergroup anxiety, ingroup identification, trust, shared vision, etc. Five of these indicators are further aggregated to give an overall social cohesion score; another five are aggregated to give an overall reconciliation score. Each questionnaire respondent is tagged by their location and demographic characteristics to allow for comparisons between geographic areas and between groups.

Using a combination of statistical techniques to explore this perceptions data, the SCORE team can provide useful insights for peacebuilding practitioners. The model identifies the factor contributions of each variable to the composite variables of social cohesion and reconciliation. For example, it finds that whether Greek Cypriots trust Turkish Cypriots are much stronger predictors of negative stereotypes than whether Greek Cypriots have been in contact with Turkish Cypriots. This suggests that peacebuilders should focus their efforts on confidence building measures over projects that increase contact. The model also shows correlations between any pair of indicators. For example, it finds that negative stereotypes and social anxiety have a strong positive correlation, suggesting that programs should discuss together the stereotypes groups hold and the threat they feel the other group poses to their culture and social structure. Combining these findings with observations about the different indicator values between geographic areas or between groups results in even more precise recommendations. For example, contact between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots has a much stronger effect on reconciliation in Limassol than it does in Nicosia, suggesting how peacebuilders should target contact programs.

The first SCORE questionnaire in Cyprus has been completed and preliminary analysis can be viewed in this prezi. The team is now developing an online tool that will allow the public to browse indicator scores and graphical representations of how indicators correlate with each other, helping them draw their own conclusions. Plans to roll out the index to other countries are also afoot.

The SCORE online platform, currently under development.

The SCORE online platform, currently under development.

Too often, early warning systems collect vast amounts of data whose analysis leaves actors on the ground none the wiser about what course of action to take in order to prevent conflict or respond to an evolving situation. Despite differences in complexity and approach, the CRMA and SCORE initiatives have in common their focus on answering the practical, action-oriented questions peacebuilders face. These questions are often about what people are thinking or feeling, the pulse of a community that the Iraqi mediators talked about. Focusing on ways to capture and analyse perceptions is one way to build conflict early warning systems that truly support preventive programming.

U.S. sanctions and digital activists

For all its marble-floor, golden-curtain glamour, the Rotana Hotel in Khartoum does not take credit cards. Neither, for that matter, does anywhere else in Sudan. The U.S. placed a trade embargo on Sudan in 1997, which prohibits the import and export of goods, technology or services between Sudan and the U.S. The embargo is an addition to sanctions imposed in 1993 on property and interests of the Government of Sudan, which the U.S. listed as a state sponsor of terrorism for hosting Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal. Both fall under the Sudan Sanctions Regulations (SSR), administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Much has been  written on the crippling effects that trade embargoes have on countries. Aimed at changing the political calculus of governments, embargoes stifle economic growth, and negatively affect social and humanitarian conditions. In Sudan, I am in constant awe at how business owners go about their affairs, how education facilities get what they need, how manufacturers manage spare parts. Of course, that’s not just about the embargo, but it certainly doesn’t help. Sanctions on government assets have some degree of targeting; trade embargoes are a blunt tool that punishes the entire population of a country.

And that includes people working for social change in Sudan. The embargo has a particular effect on anyone trying to use technology for the social good. Try buying server space or purchasing a domain name without a credit card. Don’t get clever and think you can use PayPal: if you try accessing your account from Sudan, you’ll lose access (and it’s very hard to get it back). If you’re a coder, most online resources including Net Beans and Google Code are blocked. If you’re a mapper, you can’t download Google Earth or any Esri products. You can also forget about doing surveys using Survey Monkey, that too is blocked. If you want to collaborate remotely, you can’t download Dropbox or Skype. If you are… well, anyone using a computer really, you can’t download virus checkers like McAfee.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Of course, there are alternatives to most of these products. Or you can use a VPN to access them, if you have the patience for the slower connection that results. For products that are one-time downloads (Skype, Dropbox, etc), you can ask a friendly khawaja (foreigner) or anyone traveling out of Sudan to download them and bring them in. (And in case you are worried, bringing in free download products for personal use is covered by an exemption.) Or you could download them from an alternative server that is not in the U.S. Once installed, there is no problem using them. But good luck getting updates.

Most digital activists are creative about work-arounds and find a way to do what they need. What is most frustrating is that it’s not always clear what is covered by the embargo. Individual companies post the policy that covers embargoed countries, like here or here, but there is no comprehensive list of what is blocked. Worse still, it seems that some companies are forced to block additional items as their lawyers discover new needs to comply with the embargo. Take Google products: Gmail and Google Docs are available; Google Earth and Google Code are not. Until recently, Google Apps were available, and a number of Sudanese NGOs and civil society groups had accounts with them. Like many other international NGOs, they ran their organization email, calendars, etc via Google Apps and used various other support tools. On January 1 this year, they arrived in their offices to find that the embargo had extended to Google Apps. Let the work-around begin.

Just to be clear: this is not Google’s fault. Or any other company’s fault, they are complying with U.S. law. This is also nothing like the current debate on collaboration with the NSA: the embargo is a public, transparent policy and there is no question of it being unconstitutional. It may be a bad policy, but that’s a different story. In fact, in my experience, most companies are willing to find ways to support the use of technology products for the social good if they can. For example, it’s possible for companies to allow use of their technology by NGOs working in some parts of Sudan under the Specified Areas exemption, which covers South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Abyei and Darfur.

But wait: the Government of Sudan also censors internet services, so how do we know a particular tech product is blocked by U.S. sanctions and not by Sudan? It’s easy: ready the error message.

googleerror

blockedsite

Over the past years, the number of civil society groups working with technology to change Sudan for the better has grown. Take a look, for example, at the current response to flooding organized by digital activists under #Nafeer. The trade embargo makes their work more difficult, more time consuming – and that comes on top of an environment that is already tough because of the tight hold the Government keeps on civic space. What really gets me is that these difficulties don’t seem to be outweighed by any positive impact sanctions could have on expanding the space for civic action. The last time the OFAC published a report on the effectiveness of the Sudan Sanctions Regulations in 2009 they acknowledged that:

“[…] the most meaningful measure of a sanc­tions program is whether and to what extent it is exerting pressure on relevant decision makers such that it affects their behavioral calculi. That said, it can be notoriously difficult to measure regime thinking and attribute the impact of sanctions. Even when regime-level behavioral changes do occur, it is difficult to identify the precise role that sanctions might have played.”

A trade embargo won’t be what brings social changes to Sudan. Change will come from within, and digital activists will play an important role in it. The trade embargo as it affects technology products gets in the way of their good work. At the very least, the U.S. administration should consider extending exemptions to technology products that are commonly used by civil society. It’s not impossible to exempt certain products from the embargo; in fact there is already one that is exempt. Sudan is the world’s largest producer of gum arabic, with 70-80% of global production. Gum arabic is an essential ingredient to all soft drinks, it’s the strange glue that holds them together. In 1997, when the trade embargo was first introduced, the food industry lobby negotiated an exemption for gum arabic. If you can do it for Coca Cola, why not do it for civic activists too?