How Can Innovative Technology Make Conflict Prevention More Effective?

I’ve been asked to participate in an expert working group in support of a research project launched by the International Peace Institute (IPI) on new technologies for conflict prevention. Both UNDP and USAID are also partners in this effort. To this end, I’ve been invited to make some introductory remarks during our upcoming working group meeting. The purpose of this blog post is to share my preliminary thoughts on this research and provide some initial suggestions.

Before I launch into said thoughts, some context may be in order. I spent several years studying, launching and improving conflict early warning systems for violence prevention. While I haven’t recently blogged about conflict prevention on iRevolution, you’ll find my writings on this topic posted on my other blog, Conflict Early Warning. I have also published and presented several papers on conflict prevention, most of which are available here. The most relevant ones include the following:

  • Meier, Patrick. 2011. Early Warning Systems and the Prevention of Violent Conflict. In Peacebuilding in the Information Age: Sifting Hype from Reality, ed. Daniel Stauffacher et al. GenevaICT4Peace. Available online.
  • Leaning, Jennifer and Patrick Meier. 2009. “The Untapped Potential of Information Communication Technology for Conflict Early Warning and Crisis Mapping,” Working Paper Series, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard University. Available online.
  • Leaning, Jennifer and Patrick Meier. 2008. “Community Based Conflict Early Warning and Response Systems: Opportunities and Challenges.” Working Paper Series, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard University. Available online.
  • Leaning, Jennifer and Patrick Meier. 2008. “Conflict Early Warning and Response: A Critical Reassessment.” Working Paper Series, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard University. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2008. “Upgrading the Role of Information Communication Technology (ICT) for Tactical Early Warning/Response.” Paper prepared for the 49th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in San Francisco. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “New Strategies for Effective Early Response: Insights from Complexity Science.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago.Available online.
  • Campbell, Susanna and Patrick Meier. 2007. “Deciding to Prevent Violent Conflict: Early Warning and Decision-Making at the United Nations.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. From Disaster to Conflict Early Warning: A People-Centred Approach. Monday Developments 25, no. 4, 12-14. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2006. “Early Warning for Cowardly Lions: Response in Disaster & Conflict Early Warning Systems.” Unpublished academic paper, The Fletcher SchoolAvailable online.
  • I was also invited to be an official reviewer of this 100+ page workshop summary on “Communication and Technology for Violence Prevention” (PDF), which was just published by the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, I was an official referee for this important OECD report on “Preventing Violence, War and State Collapse: The Future of Conflict Early Warning and Response.”

An obvious first step for IPI’s research would be to identify the conceptual touch-points between the individual functions or components of conflict early warning systems and information & communication technology (ICT). Using this concep-tual framework put forward by ISDR would be a good place to start:

That said, colleagues at IPI should take care not to fall prey to technological determinism. The first order of business should be to understand exactly why previous (and existing) conflict early warning systems are complete failures—a topic I have written extensively about and been particularly vocal on since 2004. Throwing innovative technology at failed systems will not turn them into successful operations. Furthermore, IPI should also take note of the relatively new discourse on people-centered approaches to early warning and distinguish between first, second, third and fourth generation conflict early warning systems.

On this note, IPI ought to focus in particular on third and fourth generation systems vis-a-vis the role of innovative technology. Why? Because first and second generation systems are structured for failure due to constraints explained by organizational theory. They should thus explore the critical importance of conflict preparedness and the role that technology can play in this respect since preparedness is key to the success of third and fourth generation systems. In addition, IPI should consider the implications of crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, Big Data, satellite imagery and the impact that social media analytics might play for the early detection and respons to violent conflict. They should also take care not to ignore critical insights from the field of nonviolent civil resistance vis-a-vis preparedness and tactical approaches to community-based early response. Finally, they should take note of new and experimental initiatives in this space, such as PeaceTXT.

IPI’s plans to write up several case studies on conflict early warning systems to understand how innovative technology might (or already are) making these more effective. I would recommend focusing on specific systems in Kenya, Kyrgyzstan Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste. Note that some community-based systems are too sensitive to make public, such as one in Burma for example. In terms of additional experts worth consulting, I would recommend David Nyheim, Joe Bock, Maria Stephan, Sanjana Hattotuwa, Scott Edwards and Casey Barrs. I would also shy away from inviting too many academics or technology companies. The former tend to focus too much on theory while the latter often have a singular focus on technology.

Many thanks to UNDP for including me in the team of experts. I look forward to the first working group meeting and reviewing IPI’s early drafts. In the meantime, if iRevolution readers have certain examples or questions they’d like me to relay to the working group, please do let me know via the comments section below and I’ll be sure to share.

5 responses to “How Can Innovative Technology Make Conflict Prevention More Effective?

  1. Michael Kleinman

    What about studying the work that USHAHIDI and others are doing in Liberia, through the Conflict Early Warning Working Group?

  2. I would also add that technology can help by providing information on the available legal resources — sometimes, victims need to know that they are victims. It seem crazy, but think of children who were victims of sex crimes. They didn’t know they were until older and didn’t know that there were options, places to turn to…

    Our project, the UCLAforum.com, is valuable not only because it gives place for people to debate complex issues of international criminal law, but also because it helps victims to recognize possibilities and teaches legal actions available to them.

    So in your “DISSEMINATION & COMMUNICATION” quadrant, in addition to “Communicate risk information and early warnings” I would add “empower through information”. If people know their legal rights, they might be better able to collect evidence that would work in a court of law. (even if we hope it never gets to that…)

    Just some thoughts…

    …and a little story:

    We live in the Chinese-Russian-Jewish neighborhood of san Francisco. Here, you can go to a Jewish deli, get served by a Mongolian cashier speaking fluent accent-free Russian…

    Some years back, Christopher and I went to a Russian restaurant. In the middle of dinner, the lights went our — pitch dark! The owners — a nice older Russian couple — ran around, gave everyone a candle… They were totally stressed. Christopher asked them if they tried to reset the fuze? Fuze?!!! You know, flip a switch? You can do this? (very thick Russian accent here). They took him to the fuze box, and Christopher fliped the switch to the owners’ total amazement and extreme gratitude.

    The pint of the story? THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE! Knowing that something is possible, sometimes makes all the difference in solving a problem. In cognitive science, what separates experts from novices is not so much the capability but the knowledge of the existence of the solution (and an approximate area it lies).

    The “solution exists” attitude makes people powerful, even if they can’t personally solve the problem. Knowing personal legal rights; understanding that there’s a medication for that condition; seeing mechanics as opposed to magic is a huge way toward survival in any disaster.

  3. Well put- look forward to being there at the meeting and the discussions that follow – Zab Vilayil

  4. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts in advance of the expert working group meeting. We are looking forward to discussing this in further detail during the meeting. – Anne Kahl, UNDP/Bureau for Crisis Prevention & Recovery

  5. Great review, thanks for sharing! One small comment: I was surprised that you focused on conflict early warning, since I got the sense that this research will look also at uses of innovative tech for early response. You mention PeaceTXT and also touch on the importance of preparedness – both important. I think it might be interesting if the focus shifts away from only early warning and towards use of tech for conflict prevention activities (not just data collection). Look forward to talking more about it…

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