Tag Archives: Prevention

Big Data: Sensing and Shaping Emerging Conflicts

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and US Institute of Peace (USIP) co-organized a fascinating workshop on “Sensing & Shaping Emerging Conflicts” in November 2012. I had the pleasure of speaking at this workshop, the objective of which was to “identify major opportunities and impediments to providing better real-time information to actors directly involved in situations that could lead to deadly violence.” We explored “several scenarios of potential violence drawn from recent country cases,” and “considered a set of technologies, applications and strategies that have been particularly useful—or could be, if better adapted for conflict prevention.” 

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The workshop report was finally published this week. If you don’t have time to leaf through the 40+page study, then the following highlights may be of interest. One of the main themes to emerge was the promise of machine learning (ML), a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI). These approaches “continue to develop and be applied in un-anticipated ways, [...] the pressure from the peacebuilding community directed at technology developers to apply these new technologies to the cause of peace could have tremendous benefits.” On a personal note, this is one of the main reasons I joined the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI); namely to apply the Institute’s expertise in ML and AI to the cause of peace, development and disaster relief.

“As an example of the capabilities of new technologies, Rafal Rohozinski, principal with the SecDev Group, described a sensing exercise focused on Syria. Using social media analytics, his group has been able to identify the locations of ceasefire violations or regime deployments within 5 to 15 minutes of their occurrence. This information could then be passed to UN monitors and enable their swift response. In this way, rapid deductive cycles made possible through technology can contribute to rapid inductive cycles in which short-term predictions have meaningful results for actors on the ground. Further analyses of these events and other data also made it possible to capture patterns not seen through social media analytics. For example, any time regime forces moved to a particular area, infrastructure such as communications, electricity, or water would degrade, partly because the forces turned off utilities, a normal practice, and partly because the movement of heavy equipment through urban areas caused electricity systems go down. The electrical grid is connected to the Internet, so monitoring of Internet connections provided immediate warnings of force movements.”

This kind of analysis may not be possible in many other contexts. To be sure, the challenge of the “Digital Divide” is particularly pronounced vis-a-vis the potential use of Big Data for sensing and shaping emerging conflicts. That said, my colleague Duncan Watts “clarified that inequality in communications technology is substantially smaller than other forms of inequality, such as access to health care, clean water, transportation, or education, and may even help reduce some of these other forms of inequality. Innovation will almost always accrue first to the wealthier parts of the world, he said, but inequality is less striking in communications than in other areas.” By 2015, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa will have more people with mobile network access than with electricity at home.

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My colleague Chris Spence from NDI also presented at the workshop. He noted the importance of sensing the positive and not just the negative during an election. “In elections you want to focus as much on the positive as you do on the negative and tell a story that really does convey to the public what’s actually going on and not just a … biased sample of negative reports.” Chris also highlighted that “one problem with election monitoring is that analysts still typically work with the software tools they used in the days of manual reporting rather than the Web-based tools now available. There’s an opportunity that we’ve been trying to solve, and we welcome help.” Building on our expertise in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, my QCRI colleagues and I want to develop classifiers that automatically categorize large volumes of crowdsourced election reports. So I’m exploring this further with Chris & NDI. Check out the Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) project for more information.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the day-long workshop was the very clear distinction made between warning and response. As colleague Sanjana Hattotuwa cautioned: “It’s an open question whether some things are better left unsaid and buried literally and metaphorically.”  Duncan added that, “The most important question is what to do with information once it has been gathered.” Indeed, “Simply giving people more information doesn’t necessarily lead to a better outcome, although some-times it does.” My colleague Dennis King summed it up very nicely, “Political will is not an icon on your computer screen… Generating political will is the missing factor in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.”

In other words, “the peacebuilding community often lacks actionable strategies to convert sensing into shaping,” as colleague Fred Tipson rightly noted. Libbie Prescott, who served as strategic advisor to the US Secretary of State and participated in the workshop, added: “Policymakers have preexisting agendas, and just presenting them with data does not guarantee a response.” As my colleague Peter Walker wrote in a book chapter published way back in 1992, “There is little point in investing in warning systems if one then ignores the warnings!” To be clear, “early warning should not be an end in itself; it is only a tool for preparedness, prevention and mitigation with regard to disasters, emergencies and conflict situations, whether short or long term ones. [...] The real issue is not detecting the developing situation, but reacting to it.”

Now Fast froward to 2013: OCHA just published this groundbreaking report confirming that “early warning signals for the Horn of Africa famine in 2011 did not produce sufficient action in time, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths. Similarly, related research has shown that the 2010 Pakistan floods were predictable.” As DfID notes in this 2012 strategy document, “Even when good data is available, it is not always used to inform decisions. There are a number of reasons for this, including data not being available in the right format, not widely dispersed, not easily accessible by users, not being transmitted through training and poor information management. Also, data may arrive too late to be able to influence decision-making in real time operations or may not be valued by actors who are more focused on immediate action” (DfID)So how do we reconcile all this with Fred’s critical point: “The focus needs to be on how to assist the people involved to avoid the worst consequences of potential deadly violence.”

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The fact of the matter is that this warning-response gap in the field of conflict prevention is over 20 years old. I have written extensively about the warning-response problem here (PDF) and here (PDF), for example. So this challenge is hardly a new one, which explains why a number of innovative and promising solutions have been put forward of the years, e..g, the decentralization of conflict early warning and response. As my colleague David Nyheim wrote five years ago:

A state-centric focus in conflict management does not reflect an understanding of the role played by civil society organisations in situations where the state has failed. An external, interventionist, and state-centric approach in early warning fuels disjointed and top down responses in situations that require integrated and multilevel action.” He added: “Micro-level responses to violent conflict by ‘third generation early warning systems’ are an exciting development in the field that should be encouraged further. These kinds of responses save lives.”

This explains why Sanjana is right when he emphasizes that “Technology needs to be democratized [...], made available at the lowest possible grassroots level and not used just by elites. Both sensing and shaping need to include all people, not just those who are inherently in a position to use technology.” Furthermore, Fred is spot on when he says that “Technology can serve civil disobedience and civil mobilization [...] as a component of broader strategies for political change. It can help people organize and mobilize around particular goals. It can spread a vision of society that contests the visions of authoritarian.”

In sum, As Barnett Rubin wrote in his excellent book (2002) Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action, “prevent[ing] violent conflict requires not merely identifying causes and testing policy instruments but building a political movement.” Hence this 2008 paper (PDF) in which I explain in detail how to promote and facilitate technology-enabled civil resistance as a form of conflict early response and violence prevention.

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See Also:

  • Big Data for Conflict Prevention [Link]

Big Data for Conflict Prevention

I had the great pleasure of co-authoring the International Peace Institute’s (IPI) unique report on “Big Data for Conflict Prevention” with my two colleagues Emmanuel Letouzé and Patrick Vinck. The study explores how Big Data may help reveal key insights into the drivers, triggers, and early signs of large-scale violence in order to support & improve conflict prevention initiatives.

The main sections of the report include:

  • What Do We Mean By Big  Data for Conflict Prevention?
  • What Are the Current Uses or Related Techniques in Other Fields?
  • How Can Big Data Be Used for Conflict Prevention?
  • What Are The Main Challenges and Risks?
  • Which Principles/Institutions Should Guide this Field?

The study ties many of my passions together. Prior to Crisis Mapping and Humanitarian Technology, I worked in the field of Conflict Prevention and Conflict Early Warning. So revisiting that field of practice and literature almost 10 years later was quite a thrill given all the technological innovations that have occurred since. At the same time, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The classic “warning-response gap” does not magically disappear with the rise of Big Data. This gap points to the fact that information does not equal action. Response is political. And while evidence may be plentiful, that still does not translate into action. This explains the shift towards people-centered approaches to early warning and response. The purpose of people-centered solutions is to directly empower at-risk communities to get out of harm’s way. Capacity for self-organization is what drives resilience. This means that unless Big Data facilitates disaster preparedness at the community level and real-time self-organization during disasters, the promise of Big Data for Conflict Prevention will remain largely an academic discussion.

Take the 2011 Somalia Famine, for example. “Did, in fact, the famine occur because data from this conflict-affected country were just not available and the famine was impossible to predict? Would more data have driven a better decision making process that could have averted disaster? Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. There had, in fact, been eleven months of escalating warnings emanating from the famine early warning systems that monitor Somalia. Somalia was, at the time, one of the most frequently surveyed countries in the world, with detailed data available on malnutrition prevalence, mortality rates, and many other indicators. The evolution of the famine was reported in almost real time, yet there was no adequate scaling up of humanitarian intervention until too late” (1). Our study on Big Data for Conflict Prevention is upfront about these limitations, which explains why a people-centered approach to Big Data is pivotal for the latter is to have meaningful impact on the prevention of violent conflict.

We look forward to your feedback and the conversations that ensue. The suggested hashtag is #ipinst. This thought piece is meant to catalyze a conversation, so your input is important to help crystalize the opportunities and challenges of leveraging Big Data for Conflict Prevention.

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See also:

  • How to Create Resilience Through Big Data [Link]

PeaceTXT Kenya: Since Wars Begin in Minds of Men


“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” - 
UNESCO Constitution, 1945

Today, in Kenya, PeaceTXT is building the defenses of peace out of text messages (SMS). As The New York Times explains, PeaceTXT is developing a “text messaging service that sends out blasts of pro-peace messages to specific areas when trouble is brewing.” Launched by PopTech in partnership with the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace), the Kenyan implementation of PeaceTXT uses mobile advertising to market peace and change men’s behaviors.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell them-selves and in the emotions that these stories evoke. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform or infect relationships and communities. As US-based PeaceTXT partner CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) has clearly shown, violence propagates in much the same way as infectious diseases do. The good news is that we already know how to treat the later: by blocking transmission and treating the infected. This is precisely the approach taken by CureViolence to successfully prevent violence on the streets of Chicago, Baghdad and elsewhere.

The challenge? CureViolence cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the “Crowd” is always there and where the crowd goes, mobile phones often follow. PeaceTXT leverages this new reality by threading a social narrative of peace using mobile messages. Empirical research in public health (and mobile adver-tising) clearly demonstrates that mobile messages & reminders can change behaviors. Given that conflicts are often grounded in the narratives that people tell themselves, we believe that mobile messaging may also influence conflict behavior and possibly prevent the widespread transmission of violent mindsets.

To test this hypothesis, PopTech partnered with Sisi ni Amani in 2011 to pilot and assess the use of mobile messaging for violence interruption and prevention since SNA-K had already been using mobile messaging for almost three years to promote peace, raise awareness about civic rights and encourage recourse to legal instruments for dispute resolution. During the twelve months leading up to today’s Presidential Elections, the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (SNA-K) has worked with PopTech and PeaceTXT partners (Medic Mobile, QCRI, Ushahidi & CureViolence) to identify the causes of peace in some of the country’s most conflict-prone communities. Since wars begin in the minds of men, SNA-K has held dozens of focus groups in many local communities to better understand the kinds of messaging that might make would-be perpetrators think twice before committing violence. Focus group participants also discussed the kinds of messaging needed to counter rumors. Working with Ogilvy, a global public relations agency with expertise in social marketing, SNA-K subsequently codified the hundreds of messages developed by the local communities to produce a set of guidelines for SNA-K staff to follow. These guidelines describe what types of messages to send to whom, where and when depending on the kinds of tensions being reported.

In addition to organizing these important focus groups, SNA-K literally went door-to-door in Kenya’s most conflict-prone communities to talk with residents about PeaceTXT and invite them to subscribe to SNA-Ks free SMS service. Today, SNA-K boasts over 60,000 SMS subscribers across the country. Thanks to Safaricom, the region’s largest mobile operator, SNA-K will be able to send out 50 million text messages completely for free, which will significantly boost the NGO’s mobile reach during today’s elections. And thanks to SNA-K’s customized mobile messaging platform built by the Praekelt Foundation, the Kenyan NGO can target specific SMS’s to individual subscribers based on their location, gender and demographics. In sum, as CNN explains, “the intervention combines targeted SMS with intensive on-the-ground work by existing peace builders and community leaders to target potential flashpoints of violence.” 

The partnership with Pop-Tech enabled SNA-K to scale thanks to the new funding and strategic partnerships provided by PopTech. Today, PeaceTXT and Sisi ni Amani have already had positive impact in the lead up to today’s important elections. For example, a volatile situation in Dandora recently led to the stabbing of several individuals, which could have resulted in a serious escalation of violence. So SNA-K sent the following SMS: 

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“Tu dumisha amani!” means “Lets keep the peace!” SNA-K’s local coordinator in Dandore spoke with a number of emotionally distraught and (initially) very angry individuals in the area who said they had been ready to mobilizing and take revenge. But, as they later explained, the SMS sent out by SNA-K made them think twice. They discussed the situation and decided that more violence wouldn’t bring their friend back and would only bring more violence. They chose to resolve the volatile situation through mediation instead.

In Sagamian, recent tensions over land issues resulted in an outbreak of violence. So SNA-K sent the following message:

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Those involved in the fighting subsequently left the area, telling SNA-K that they had decided not to fight after receiving the SMS. What’s more, they even requested that additional messages to be sent. Sisi ni Amani has collected dozens of such testimonials, which suggest that PeaceTXT is indeed having an impact. Historian Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that “for every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” Today, the PeaceTXT Kenya & SNAK partnership is making sure that for every one SMS that may incite violence, a thousand messages of peace, calm and solidarity will follow to change the minds of men. Tudumishe amani!

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Cross-posted on PopTech blog.

Evaluating the Impact of SMS on Behavior Change

The purpose of PeaceTXT is to use mobile messaging (SMS) to catalyze behavior change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues for the purposes of violence prevention. You can read more about our pilot project in Kenya here and here. We’re hoping to go live next month with some initial trials. In the meantime, we’ve been busy doing research to develop an appropriate monitoring and evaluation strategy. As is often the case in this new innovative initiatives, we have to look to other fields for insights, which is why my colleague Peter van der Windt recently shared this peer-reviewed study entitled: “Mobile Phone Technologies Improve Adherence to Antiretroviral Treatment in a Resource-Limited Setting: A Randomized Con-trolled Trial of Text Message Reminders.”

The objective of the study was to test the “efficacy of short message service (SMS) reminders on adherence to Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) among patients attending a rural clinic in Kenya.” The authors used a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) of “four SMS reminders interventions with 48 weeks of follow-up.” Over four hundred patients were enrolled in the trial and “randomly assigned to a control group or one of the four intervention groups. Participants in the intervention groups received SMS reminders that were either short or long and sent at a daily or weekly frequency.”

The four different text message interventions were “chosen to address different barriers to adherence such as forgetful- ness and lack of social support. Short messages were meant to serve as a simple reminder to take medications, whereas long messages were meant to provide additional support. Daily messages were close to the frequency of medication usage, whereas weekly messages were meant to avoid the possibility that very frequent text messages would be habituating.” The SMS content was developed after extensive consultation with clinic staff and the messages were “sent at 12 p.m., rather than twice daily (during dosing times) to avoid excess reliance on the accuracy of the SMS  software.”

The results of the subsequent statistical analysis reveal that “53% of participants receiving weekly SMS reminders achieved adherence of at least 90% during the 48 weeks of the study, compared with 40% of participants in the control group. Participants in groups receiving weekly reminders were also significantly less likely to experience treatment interruptions exceeding 48 hours during the 48-week follow-up period than participants in the control group.” Interestingly, “adding words of encouragement in the longer text message reminders was not more effective than either a short reminder or no reminder.” Furthermore, it is worth noting that “weekly reminders improved adherence, whereas daily remin-ders did not. Habituation, or the diminishing of a response to a frequently repeated stimulus, may explain this finding. Daily messages might also have been considered intrusive.”

In sum, “despite SMS outages, phone loss, and a rural population, these results suggest that simple SMS interventions could be an important strategy to sustaining optimal ART response.” In other words, SMS reminders can serve as an important tool to catalyze positive behavior change in resource-limited settings. Several insights from this study are going to be important for us to consider in our PeaceTXT project. So if you know of any other relevant studies we should be paying attention to, then please let us know. Thank you!

Finally, A Decision-Support Platform for SMS Use in Disaster Response

Within weeks of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, I published this blog post entitled “How to Royally Mess Up Disaster Response in Haiti.” A month later, I published another post on “Haiti and the Tyranny of Technology.” I also called for an SMS Code of Conduct as described here. Some of the needs and shortcomings expressed in these blog posts have finally been answered by InfoAsAid‘s excellent Message Library, “an online searchable database of messages that acts as a reference for those wanting to disseminate critical information to affected populations in an emergency.”

“If used in the correct way, the library should help improve communication with crisis-affected populations.” As my colleague Anahi Ayala explains with respect to the disaster response in Haiti,

“One of the main problem that emerged was not only the need to communicate but the need for a coordinated and homogeneous message to be delivered to the affected communities. The problem was posed by the fact that as agencies and organizations were growing in number and size, all of them were trying in different ways to deliver messages to the beneficiaries of aid, with the result of many messages, sometimes contradicting each other, delivered to many people, sometimes not the right receiver for that message.”

This platform can be used for both disaster response and preparedness. In the latter case, preparedness exercises can “Involve communities to identify threats and draft appropriate messages using the message library as a reference.” Organizations can also “Pre-test the messages with different segments of society (consider differences in gender, rural/urban, education levels, age) to ensure comprehension.” In terms of disaster response, the platform can be used to disseminate information on the “scale, nature and impact of the disaster (humanitarian news); Alerts about secondary disasters such as aftershocks, landslides or flooding; Messages about how to stay safe and mitigate risk in the face of anticipated threats.”

At PeaceTXT, we’re taking a very similar approach to SMS messaging. In our case, we are developing an SMS Library specifically for the purposes of changing recipients’ behaviors and perceptions vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues in Kenya. This shift towards a culture of preparedness is really important, both for disaster response and conflict prevention. We are currently organizing a series of focus groups with local communities to develop the content of our SMS Library. We plan to review this content in August for inclusion in the library. I very much look forward to scheduling a conference call between InfoAsAid and PeaceTXT in the coming months to share lessons learned thus far in the development of our respective message libraries.

For more on InfoAsAid’s absolutely critical resource, this short video provides a very good summary, including how sensitive messages are managed and how you can contribute SMS content to this very important service. Some serious thanks and praise are in order for InfoAsAid’s work. I do hope that the team at InfoAsAid will join us at the International Crisis Mappers Conference  (ICCM 2012) to share the latest on their excellent initiatives.

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.

Marketing Peace using SMS Mobile Advertising: A New Approach to Conflict Prevention

I was just in Kenya working on the next phase of the PeaceTXT project with my colleague Rachel Brown from Sisi ni Amani. I’m finally getting to implement an approach to conflict early warning and early response that I have been advocating for since 2006. I came close in 2008 whilst working on a conflict early and response project in Timor-Leste. But I wasn’t in Dili long enough to see the project through and the country’s limited mobile phone coverage presented an important obstacle. Long story short, I’ve been advocating for a people-centered and preparedness-based approach to conflict early warning systems for half a decade and am finally implementing one with PeaceTXT.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and the emotions that these stories generate. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform relationships and communities. The purpose of PeaceTXT is to leverage mobile messaging (SMS) to market peace in strategic ways and thereby generate alternative narratives. SMS reminders have been particularly effective in catalyzing behavior change in several important public health projects. In addition, marketing to the “Bottom of the Pyramid” is increasingly big business and getting more sophisticated. We believe that lessons learned from these sectors can be combined and applied to catalyze behavior  change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues by amplifying new narratives using timely and strategically targeted SMS campaigns.

Last year, Sisi ni Amani sent the following SMS to 10,000 subscribers across Kenya: A good leader initiates and encourages peace and development among all people and is not tribal. “In a nation divided along ethnic lines, where a winner-takes-all mindset fuels rampant corruption and political violence, changing perceptions of good leadership is a daunting endeavor. And yet, according to post-campaign data, 90 percent of respondents said they changed their understanding of ‘what makes a good leader’ in response to the organization’s messaging. As one respondent commented: ‘I used to think a good leader is one who has the most votes, but now I know a good leader is one who thinks of the people who voted for him, not himself’” (NextBillion Blog Post).

PeaceTXT is about marketing peace using mobile advertising by leveraging user-generated content for said text messages. We’re in the business of selling peace for free by countering other narratives that tend to incite violent behavior. Preparedness is core to the PeaceTXT model. To be sure, local mobile-based advertising is hardly reactive or random. Indeed, billions of dollars go into marketing campaigns for a reason. To this end, we’re busy developing an agile SMS protocol that will allow us to send pre-determined customized text messages to specific groups (demographics) in targeted locations within minutes of an incident occurring. The content for said text messages will come from local communities themselves.

The next step is for Rachel and her team to organize and hold several local focus groups in July to begin generating appropriate content for text messages to de-escalate and/or counter police-community tensions, rumors and insecurity. I’ll be back in Kenya in August to review this user-generated content so we can add the text messages to our SMS protocol and customized SMS platform. I’m thrilled and can’t wait to work on this next phase.

SMS for Violence Prevention: PeaceTXT International Launches in Kenya

[Cross-posted from my post on the Ushahidi blog]

One of the main reasons I’m in Nairobi this month is to launch PeaceTXT International with PopTech, Praekelt Foundation, Sisi ni Amani and several other key partners. PeaceTXT International is a spin-off from the original PeaceTXT project that several of us began working on with CeaseFire Chicago last year. I began thinking about the many possible international applications of the PeaceTXT project during our very first meeting, which is why I am thrilled and honored to be spearheading the first PeaceTXT International pilot project.

The purpose of PeaceTXT is to leverage mobile messaging to catalyze behavior change around peace and conflict issues. In the context of Chicago, the joint project with CeaseFire aims to leverage SMS reminders to interrupt gun violence in marginalized neighborhoods. Several studies in other fields of public health have already shown the massive impact that SMS reminders can have on behavior change, e.g., improving drug adherence behavior among AIDS and TB patients in Africa, Asia and South America.

Our mobile messaging campaign in Chicago builds on another very successful one in the US: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive.” Inspired by this approach, the PeaceTXT Team is looking to launch a friends-don’t-let-friends-get-killed campaign. Focus groups recently conducted with high-risk individuals have resulted in rich content for several dozen reminder messages (see below) that could be disseminated via SMS. Note that CeaseFire has been directly credited for significantly reducing the number of gun-related killings in Chicago over the past 10 years. In other words, they have a successful and proven methodology; one being applied to several other cities and countries worldwide. PeaceTXT simply seeks to scale this success by introducing SMS.

These messages are user-generated in that the content was developed by high-risk individuals themselves—i.e., those most likely to get involved in gun violence. The messages are not limited to reminders. Some also prompt the community to get engaged by responding to various questions. Indeed, the project seeks to crowdsource community solutions to gun violence and thus greater participation. When high-risk individuals were asked how they’d feel if they were to receive these messages on their phones, they had the following to share: “makes me feel like no one is forgetting about me”; “message me once a day to make a difference.”

Given that both forwarding and saving text messages is very common among the population that CeaseFire works with, the team hopes that the text messages will circulate and recycle widely. Note that the project is still in prototype phase but going into implementation mode as of 2012. So we’ll have to wait and see how the project fares and what the initial impact looks like.

In the meantime, PeaceTXT is partnering with Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace) to launch its first international pilot project. Rachel Brown, who spearheads the initiative, first got in touch with me back in the Fall of 2009 whilst finishing her undergraduate studies at Tufts. Rachel was interested in crowdsourcing a peace map of Kenya, which I blogged about here shortly after our first conversation. Since then, Rachel and her team have set up the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani Kenya (SnA-K) to leverage mobile technology for awareness raising and civic engagement with the aim of preventing possible violence during next year’s Presidential Elections.

SnA-K currently manages a ~10,000 member SMS subscriber list in Baba Dogo and Korogocho, Kamukunji and Narok. SnA-K’s SMS campaigns focus on voter education, community cohesion and rumor prevention. What SnA-K needs, how-ever, is the scalable SMS broadcasting technology, the type of focus that PeaceTXT brought to CeaseFire Chicago and the unique response methodology developed by the CeaseFire team. So I reached out to Rachel early on during the work in Chicago to let her know about PeaceTXT and to gain insights from her projects in Kenya. We set up regular conference calls throughout the year to keep each other informed of our respective progress and findings.

Soon enough, PopTech’s delightful Leetha Filderman asked me to put together a pitch for international applications of PeaceTXT’s work, an initiative I have “code-named” PeaceTXT International. I was absolutely thrilled when she shared the good news at PopTech 2011 that our donor, the Rita Allen Foundation, had provided us with additional funding, some of which could go towards an international pilot project. Naturally, Sisi ni Amani was a perfect fit.

So we organized a half-day brainstorming session at the iHub last week to chart the way forward on PeaceTXT Kenya. For example, what is the key behavioral change variable (like friendship in Chicago) that is most likely to succeed in Kenya? As for interrupting violence, how can the CeaseFire methodology be customized for the SnA-K context? Finally, what kind of SMS broadcasting technology do we need to have in place to provide maximum flexibility and scalability earlier rather than later? Answering these questions and implementing scalable solutions essentially forms the basis of the partnership between SnA-K and PeaceTXT (which also includes Mobile:Medic & Revolution Messaging). We have some exciting leads on next steps and will be sure to blog about them as we move forward to get feedback from the wider community.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and the emotions that these stories generate. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform relationships and communities. We believe the PeaceTXT model can be applied to catalyze behavior  change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues at the community level by amplifying new narratives via SMS. There is considerable potential here and still much to learn, which is why I’m thrilled to be working with SnA, PopTech & partners on launching our first international pilot project: PeaceTXT Kenya.

Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

Update: Heglig Crisis 2012, Border Clashes 2012, Invasion of Abyei 2012

The Satellite Sentinel Project has hired private satellites to monitor troop movements around the oil-rich region of Abyei during the upcoming Sudanese referendum and prevent war. The images and analysis will be made public on the Project’s website. George Clooney, who catalyzed this joint initiative between Google, UNOSAT, the Enough Project, Trellon and my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), calls this the anti-genocide paparazzi:

“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

The group hopes that they can deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance. If successful, the project would accomplish an idea first proposed more than half-a-century ago  by US President Dwight Eisenhower during a US-Soviet Summit in Paris at the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower announced his plan to “submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack.” Interestingly, Eisenhower had crafted this idea five years earlier as part of his Open Skies Proposal, which actually became a treaty in 2002:

“The Treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The Treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”

If you want to find out more about Eisenhower’s efforts, please see my blog post on the subject here.

So there is some precedence for what Clooney is trying to pull off. But how is the Sentinel project likely to fare as a non-state effort? Looking at other non-state actors who have already operationalized Eisenhower’s ideas may provide some insights. Take Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” initiative, which “leverages the power of high- resolution satellite imagery to provide unim- peachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur–enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts.”

According to Amnesty, the project “broke new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally ‘watch over’ and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using commercially available satellite imagery.” The imagery also enabled Amnesty to capture the movement of Janjaweed forces. Amnesty claims that their project has had a deterrence effect. Apparently, the villages monitored by the project have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. That said, at least two of the monitored villages were removed from the site after reported attacks.

Still Amnesty argues that there have been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live. They also note that the government of Chad cited their as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers along their border.

In my blog post on Eisenhower’s UN surveillance speech I asked whether the UN would ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack using satellite imagery. I now have my answer given that UNOSAT is involved in the Sentinel Project which plans to “deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan” by providing an “early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns” (Sentinel). But will these efforts really create an effective deterrence-based “Global Panopticon”?

French philosopher Michel Foucault has famously written on the role of surveillance as an instrument of power. “He cites the example of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon,’ an architectural model for a prison enabling a single guard, located in a central tower, to watch all of the inmates in their cells.  The ‘major effect of the Panopticon,’ writes Foucault, is ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.’”

According to Foucault, the Panopticon renders power both “visible and unverifiable”: Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is being spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. But potential perpetrators of the violence in the Sudan do not actually see the  outline of the satellites flying overhead. They are not being directly harassed by high-powered “cameras” stuck into their faces by the anti-genocide paparazzi. So the power is not directly visible in the traditional sense. But who exactly is the inmate in or connected to Abyei in the first place?

There are multiple groups in the area with different agendas that don’t necessarily tie back to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Arab Misseriya tribe has thus far remained north during this dry season to avert confrontation with the Ngok Dinka in the Southern part of Abyei. These nomadic tribes typically carry Kalashnikovs to guard their cattle. So distinguishing these nomads from armed groups prepared to raid and burn down villages is a challenge especially when dealing with satellite imagery. Using UAV’s may be more useful and cheaper. (Note that monitoring the location and movement of cattle could be insightful because cattle issues are political in the area).

If armed groups who intend to burn down villages are the intended inmates, do they even know or care about the Satellite Sentinel Project? The ICC has already struggled to connect the chain of command back to the Sudanese government. Besides, the expected turn-around time to develop the satellite imagery is between eight to twenty-four hours. Getting armed men on a truck and raiding a village or two doesn’t take more than a few hours. So the crimes may already have been committed by the time the pictures come in. And if more heavy military machinery like tanks are rolled in, well, one doesn’t need satellite imagery to detect those.

As scholars of the panopticon have noted, the successful use of surveillance has to be coupled with the threat of punishment for deviant acts. So putting aside the issue of who the intended inmates are, the question for the Sentinel Project is whether threats of punishment are perceived by inmates as sufficiently real enough for the deterrence to work. In international relations theory, “deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action.”

This means that official state actors need to step up and publicly pledge to carry out the necessary punishment if the satellite imagery collected by Sentinel provides evidence of wrong-doing. The ICC should make it crystal clear to all inmates (whoever they are) that evidence from the satellite imagery will be used for prosecution (and that they should care). There also need to be armed guards in  “the tower” who are proximate enough to be deployed and have the political will to use force if necessary. Or will the anti-genocide paparazzi’s many eyes be sufficient to keep the peace? It’s worth remembering that the Hollywood paparazzi haven’t exactly turned movie stars into alter boys or girls. But then again, they’d probably get away with a whole lot more without the paparazzi.

US spy satellites have no doubt monitored conflict-prone areas in the past but this  hasn’t necessarily deterred major crimes against humanity as far as I know. Of course, the imagery collected has remained classified, which means the general public hasn’t been able to lobby their governments and the international community to act based on this information and shared awareness.

The Sentinel Project’s open source approach changes this calculus. It may not deter the actual perpetrators, but the shared awareness created thanks to the open data will make it more difficult for those who can prevent the violence to look the other way. So the Satellite Sentinel Project may be more about keeping our own governments accountable to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) than deterring actors in the Sudan from committing further crimes.

How will we know if Clooney succeeds? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that the Sentinel Project is a step in the right direction. More evidence is always more compelling than less evidence. And more public evidence is even better. I have no doubt therefore that Eisenhower would back this Open Skies project.

p.s. It is worth noting that the satellite imagery of Sri Lankan forces attacking civilians in 2009 were dismissed as fake by the Colombo government even though the imagery analysis was produced by UNOSAT.