Over the past decade there has been growing interest in using the internet and other communication technologies for conflict management and peacebuilding. Two key areas have emerged: (1) using publicly available data on events and social dynamics to monitor and predict escalations of tensions or violence, and (2) harnessing the increased access to the internet and mobile telephones to promote positive peace. In both areas exciting innovations have developed as well as encouraging results.
In the first area, perhaps the most comprehensive information source is Kalev Leetaru’s “Global Database of Society” or GDELT Project that “monitors the world's broadcast, print, and web news from nearly every corner of every country in over 100 languages and identifies the people, locations, organizations, counts, themes, sources, and events driving our global society”. The event database alone covers 300 categories of peace-conflict activities recorded in public media since January 1979, while the identification of people, organizations and locations enables network graphing of connections in media records.
Another widely used open data source is the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) that covers political violence and events in Africa since 1997 and releases weekly updates to provide close to real time coverage. ACLED releases its own monthly conflict trends report and its data has been used in almost 300 research projects to date.
Making data easily accessible and available is only part of the solution: there is still the task of using the data to understand how conflict and violence emerge and whether predictions can be made to mitigate escalations. USAID and Humanity United recently ran a modelling competition for applicants to develop algorithms to predict mass atrocities. The winning application put forward an algorithm that could predict atrocities in regions with limited or no past history of mass violence. One problem in the forecasting literature is the trade-off between “false positives” – predicted episodes that do not actually occur—and “false negatives” – unexpected episodes that do occur. If we know many of our predictions of conflict may not materialize this will surely influence our planned policy responses to these predictions.
In another application of publicly available data, Chris McNaboe of the Carter Center has been tracking the development of opposition groups in Syria from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Through mapping out factions and defectors he hopes to better equip parties working to resolve the conflict as well as help humanitarian groups work more safely in the region. Another technological innovation is Dlshad Othman’s app that aims to warn Syrians of approaching SCUD missiles. Experts watch for SCUD missiles and when one is spotted, phone messages are automatically sent to Syrians at risk of being affected.
Separate from these efforts to use publicly available data to monitor, predict and forewarn of violence and security threats, there is a growing cluster of new methods to communicate information to and among individuals and groups affected by violence. Sisi Ni Amani and Una Hakika have both used SMS technology to address tensions and mitigate violence in Kenya. Following the 2013 elections, Sisi Ni Amani used mass SMS to de-escalate tensions by communicating messages that aimed to help Kenyans realize their common needs irrespective of political divides, while Una Hakika, which translates to “Are you sure?” in Swahili, was used to interrupt the spreading of false rumors. A recent workshop at the Media Lab at MIT brought together peace-tech innovators to share ideas on how to build peace. Some of the ideas that caught my eye included: masterpeace.org – an online community to share news about peacebuilding activities across the world; Libyan Youth Voices – a forum to fill the media void on information relating to youth issues in Libya; using SMS for participation in peacebuilding in Mali; provision of open data on elections in MENA; Naqueshny - an online forum to enable peaceful discussion and debating on Egypt.
The internet alone is unlikely to solve conflict – something that Vint Cerf, Chief Evangelist for Google, makes clear in an excellent discussion with Jane Holl Lute, a former UN Peacekeeping and US Government Official. However, the use of technology to promote positive peace is gathering momentum and is adding to every peacebuilders’ toolkit. The ability to tap into large swathes of data to monitor tensions should help us pre-empt violence before it has the opportunity to escalate, while the increasing global connected-ness of individuals across the world can bridge gaps between cultures and identities, helping us to peacefully learn about our commonalities as well as our differences.