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Exploiting the full potential of new technologies for data collection, monitoring, and conflict prevention

Catherine Defontaine's picture

Collecting perception data in hard-to-reach areas and fragile contexts can be extremely challenging, but is necessary to better understand who is excluded, who feels excluded, and to measure horizontal inequalities. Doing so requires the use of innovative methodologies. In particular, technology is a valuable tool with which to access remote and conflict-affected areas where exclusion is likely to be the worst.

Using technology to collect data
The world has become increasingly digital with time—technology has now pervaded our daily lives. Given this, why shouldn’t technology play a key role in areas such as risk monitoring, data collection, or conflict prevention? There are several useful data collection methods now available to practitioners:

  • Mobile data collection is the use of digital devices such as mobile phones, tablets, or laptops for data collection.
  • Crowdsourcing and crowdseeding are real-time data collection methods that involve different technologies. Information is directly obtained from technology users who volunteer their own data (crowdsourcing), or from trained informants in the field (crowdseeding). The most-well known example of crowdsourcing is Ushahidi, an open-source software program for collecting information and undertaking interactive mapping, first used after the 2007 presidential election in Kenya.
  • Social media monitoring extracts information from social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and so on.
  • Geospatial technology refers to global positioning systems (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), and remote sensing (RS). These tools can be used to do a geo-located mapping of violent incidents, for example.
To determine how technology can be used for monitoring, some key elements need to be taken into account: (i) Is there a reliable source of electricity? (ii) How good is mobile and Internet connectivity in the area? (iii) What are the current trends in technology use? and (iv) What languages are needed to access the targeted population, and what is the literacy level?
How can we realize the full potential of new technologies?
Technology has a huge potential that has yet to be fully explored. Some researchers even talk of “Big Data for Conflict Prevention,” which alludes to “the full potential use of Big Data to support conflict prevention efforts.” In recent years, technology has played an increasing role in conflict prevention, but is not yet harnessed to its full and promising potential.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) and the data they generate can support efforts to prevent crisis and tackle causes of violence. ICT can help researchers collect quantitative and qualitative data more frequently in insecure or remote areas, through the use of digital surveys, SMS-administered polling, geo-spatial mapping, photographs, videos, and satellite imagery. These data provide key information about the drivers and warning signs of violence to support conflict-prevention approaches.

How can Big Data prevent conflict? By providing valuable information about individuals and communities in areas—even remote ones—where data are often unavailable, in near real time, with a good level of precision. If we assume that individuals and communities change their behavior when violent events occur, then Big Data can capture these changes. For example, satellite imagery can be used to detect mass movements. An analysis of tweets can help detect growing tensions, frustration, and calls for violence. For instance, before the 2013 presidential elections in Kenya, a search for hate speech was conducted in social media to identify early signs of violence.

Concrete examples, real success
In Sudan, the Crisis and Recovery Mapping and Analysis (CRMA) project undertook participatory mapping of threats and risks in 6 states of Sudan and 10 states of South Sudan. For that purpose, UNDP developed a GIS-enabled desktop database tool. During the 2015 election in Nigeria, Patrick Meier and his team used Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME), a free and open source (experimental) solution that combines crowdsourcing with artificial intelligence to automatically identify tweets of interest during major elections. Crowdsourcing systems have the potential to be used for early warning, if the system is designed to produce frequent, consistent, and complete data. Cell phones can also be used in conflict-affected areas because of all the different data they passively generate each time a cell phone is used.
Technology has also changed the way people respond to crisis. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for the first time, thousands of people volunteered online to support rescue operations. This gave rise to the Digital Humanitarians project which, through crowdsourcing, created a digital crisis map that showed the real-time evolution of the situation on the ground.
Technologies can break new ground in terms of conflict prevention, risk monitoring, and data collection. It is now up to practitioners to seize the opportunities these new tools offer.