Tag Archives: Prevention

On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention

My colleague Helena Puig Larrauri recently published this excellent piece on the ethical problems & possible solutions to using UAVs for good in conflict settings. I highly recommend reading her article. The purpose of my blog post is simply to reflect on the important issues that Helena raises.


One of Helena’s driving questions in this: “Does the local population get a say in what data is collected, and to what purpose?” She asks this in the context of the surveillance drones (pictured above) used by the United Nation’s Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While the use of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones raises a number of complicated issues, Helena is right to insist that we begin discussing these hard issues earlier rather than later. To this end, she presents “three problems and two possible solutions to start a conversation on drones, ethics and conflict.” I italicized solutions because much of the nascent discourse on this topic seems preoccupied with repeating all the problems that have already been identified, leaving little time and consideration to discussions on possible solutions. So kudos to Helena.

Problem 1: Privacy and Consent. How viable is it to obtain consent from those being imaged for UAV-collected data? As noted in this blog post on data protection protocols for crisis mapping, the International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes that, “When such consent cannot be realistically obtained, information allowing the identification of victims or witnesses, should only be relayed in the public domain if the expected protection outcome clearly outweighs the risks. In case of doubt, displaying only aggregated data, with no individual markers, is strongly recommended.” But Helena argues that drawing the line on what is actually life-threatening in a conflict context is particularly hard. “UAVs cannot detect intent, so how are imagery analysts to determine if a situation is likely to result in loss of life?” These are really important questions, and I certainly do not have all, most or any of the answers.

In terms of UAVs not being able to detect intent, could other data sources be used to monitor tactics and strategies that may indicate intent to harm? On a different note, DigitalGlobe’s latest & most sophisticated satellite, WorldView-3, captures images at an astounding 31-centimeter resolution and can even see wildfires beneath the smoke. What happens when commercial satellites are able to capture imagery at 20 or 10 centimeter resolutions? Will DigitalGlobe ask the planet’s population for their consent? Does anyone know of any studies out there that have analyzed just how much—and also what kind—of personal identifying information can be captured via satellite and UAV imagery across various resolutions, especially when linked to other datasets?

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Problem 2: Fear and Confusion. Helena kindly refers to this blog post of mine on common misconceptions about UAVs. I gasped when she quite rightly noted that my post didn’t explicitly distinguish between the use of UAVs in response to natural hazards versus violent, armed conflict. To be clear, I was speaking strictly and only about the former. The very real possibility for fear and confusion that Helena and others describe is precisely why I’ve remained stead-fast about including the following guideline in the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct:

“Do not operate humanitarian UAVs in conflict zones or in countries under repressive, authoritarian rule; particularly if military drones have recently been used in these countries.”

As Helena notes, a consortium of NGOs working in the DRC have warned that DPKO’s use of surveillance drones in the country could “blur the lines between military and humanitarian actors.” According to Daniel Gilman from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who also authored OCHA’s Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs,

“The DRC NGO position piece has to be understood in the context of the Oslo Guidelines on the use of Military and Civil Defense Assets in Disaster Relief – from conversations with some people engaged on the ground, the issue was less the tech itself [i.e., the drones] than the fact that the mission was talking about using this [tech] both for military interventions and ‘humanitarian’ needs, particularly since [DPKO's] Mission doesn’t have a humanitarian mandate. We should be careful of eliding issues around dual-use by military actors with use by humanitarians in conflicts or with general concerns about privacy” (Email exchange on Sept. 8, 2014, permission to publish this excerpt granted in writing).

This is a very important point. Still, distinguishing between UAVs operated by the military versus those used by humanitarian organizations for non-military purposes is no easy task—assuming it is even possible. Does this mean that UAVs should simply not be used for good in conflict zones? I’m conflicted. (As an aside, this dilemma reminds me of the “Security Dilemma” in International Relations Theory and in particular the related “Offense-Defense Theory“).

Perhaps an alternative is for DPKO to use their helicopters instead (like the one below), which, for some (most?) civilians, may look somewhat more scary than DPKO’s drone above. Keep in mind that such helicopters & military cargo planes are also significantly louder, which may add to the fear. Also, using helicopters to capture aerial imagery doesn’t really solve the privacy and consent problem.


On the plus side, we can at least distinguish these UN-marked helicopters from other military attack helicopters used by repressive regimes. Then again, what prevents a ruthless regime from painting their helicopters white and adding big UN letters to maintain an element of surprise when bombing their own civilians?


Going back to DPKO’s drone, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that these models are definitely on the larger and heavier end of the spectrum. Compare the above with the small, ultralight UAV below, which was used following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. This UAV is almost entirely made of foam and thus weighs only ~600 grams. When airborne, it looks like a bird. So it may elicit less fear even if DPKO ends up using this model in the future.

Problem 3: Response and Deterrence. Helena asks whether it is ethical for DPKO or other UN/NGO actors to deploy UAVs “if they do not have the capacity to respond to increased information on threats?” Could the use of UAV raise expectations of a response? “One possible counter-argument is to say that the presence of UAVs is in itself a deterrent” to would-be perpetrators of violence, “just as the presence of UN peacekeepers is meant to be a deterrent.” As Helena writes, the head of DPKO has suggested that deterrence is actually a direct aim of the UN’s drone program. “But the notion that a digital Panopticon can deter violent acts is disputable (see for example here), since most conflict actors on the ground are unlikely to be aware that they are being watched and / or are immune to the consequences of surveillance.”

I suppose this leads to the following question: are there ways to make conflict actors on the ground aware that they are perhaps being watched? Then again, if they do realize that they’re being watched, won’t they simply adapt and evolve strategies to evade or shoot down DPKO’s UAVs? This would then force DPKO to change it’s own strategy, perhaps adopting more stealthy UAVs. What broader consequences and possible unintended impact could this have on civilian, crisis-affected communities?

Solution 1: Education and Civic Engagement. I completely agree with Helena’s emphasis on both education and civic engagements, two key points I’ve made in a number of posts (here, here & here). I also agree that “This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account.” But this brings us back to Helena’s first question: “what happens if a community, after being educated and openly consulted about a UAV program, decides that drones pose too much of a risk or are otherwise not beneficial? In other words, can communities stop UN- or NGO-operated drones from collecting information they have not consented to sharing? Education will be insufficient if there are no mechanisms in place for participatory decision-making on drone use in conflict settings.” So what to do? Perhaps Helena’s second solution may shed some light.

Solution 2: From Civic Engagement to Empowerment. In Helena’s view, “the critical ethical question about drones and conflict is how they shift the balance of power. As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs.” I completely agree with this as well, which is why I’m very interested in this community-based project in Haiti and this grassroots UAV initiative; in fact, I invited the latter’s team leads to join the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) given their expertise in UAVs and their explicit focus on community engagement.

UAViators Long Logo

In terms of peacebuilding applications, Helena writes that “there is plenty that local peacebuilders could use drones for in conflict settings: from peace activism using tactics for civil resistance, to citizen journalism that communicates the effects of conflict, to community monitoring and reporting of displacement due to violence.” But as she rightly notes, these novel applications exacerbate the three ethical problems outlined above. So what now?

I have some (unformed) ideas but this blog post is long enough already. I’ll leave this for a future post and simply add the following for now. First, in terms of civil resistance and the need to distinguish between a regime’s UAV versus activist UAVs, perhaps secret codes could be used to signal that a UAV flying for a civil resistance mission. This could mean painting certain patterns on the UAV or flying in a particular pattern. Of course, this leads back to the age-old challenge of disseminating the codes widely enough while keeping them from falling into the wrong hands.

Second, I used to work extensively in the conflict prevention and conflict early warning space (see my original blog on this). During this time, I was a strong advocate for a people-centered approach to early warning and rapid response systems. The UN ‘s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems (PDF), defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

“… to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time & in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

This shift is ultimately a shift in the balance of power, away from state-centric power to people-power, which is why I wholeheartedly agree with Helena’s closing thoughts: “The more I consider how drones could be used for good in conflict settings, the more I think that local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power.” This is not about us.


See Also:

  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Reflections on Use of UAVs in Humanitarian Interventions [link]
  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? [link]

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.” 


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.”


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.


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.


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!


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.