The talk I gave at USAID Sept. 4

For those who were curious about what I discussed with USAID’s Office on Conflict Management and Mitigation on September 4, wonder no more. TechChange’s video guru got me on camera to record the presentation – hopefully it’s useful (or leads to some good arguments at least).

TC-109: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding

I’ll be teaching a course for TechChange on ICTs and peacebuilding next month. I’m really excited to be facilitating it, and I was really thrilled to see the final cut of the course introduction video we produced today:

Hopefully you’ll join us, it’s going to be a lot of fun and some awesome guests will be joining us to talk about their work in the peacebuilding and technology spaces!

Big News: The GDELT Global Dashboard

GDELT just released their new Global Visualization dashboard, and it’s pretty cool. It blinks and flashes, glows and pulses, and is really interesting to navigate. Naturally, as a social scientist who studies conflict, I have some thoughts.

1) This is really cool. The user interface is attractive, it’s easy to navigate, and it’s intuitive. I don’t need a raft of instructions on how to use it, and I don’t need to be a programmer or have any background in programming to make use of all its functionality. If the technology and data sectors are going to make inroads into the conflict analysis space, they should take note of how GDELT did this, since most conflict specialists don’t have programming backgrounds and will ignore tools that are too programming intensive. Basically, if it takes more than about 10 minutes for me to get a tool or data program functioning, I’m probably not going to use it since I have other analytic techniques at my disposal that can achieve the same outcome that I’ve already mastered.

2) Beware the desire to forecast! As I dug through the data a bit, I realized something important. This is not a database of information that will be particularly useful for forecasting or predictive analysis. Well, replicable predictive analysis at least. You might be able to identify some trends, but since the data itself is news reports there’s going to be a lot of variation across tone, lag between event and publication, and a whole host of other things that will make quasi-experiments difficult. The example I gave to a friend who I was discussing this with was the challenge of predicting election results using Twitter; it worked when political scientists tried to predict the distribution of seats in the German Bundestag by party, but then when they replicated the experiment in the 2010 U.S. midterm elections it didn’t work at all. Most of this stemmed from the socio-linguistics of political commentary in the two countries. Germans aren’t particularly snarky or sarcastic in their political tweeting (apparently), while Americans are. This caused a major problem for the algorithm that was tracking key words and phrases during the American campaign season. Consider, if we have trouble predicting relatively uniform events like elections using language-based data, how much harder will it be to predict something like violence, which is far more complex?

3) Do look for qualitative details in the data! A friend of mine pointed out that the data contained on this map is treasure trove of sentiment, perception and narrative about how the media at a very local level conceptualizes violence. Understanding how media, especially local media, perceive things like risk or frame political issues is incredibly valuable for conflict analysts or peacebuilding professionals. I would argue that this is actually more valuable than forecasting or predictive modeling; if we’re honest with ourselves I think we’d have to admit that ‘predicting’ conflict and then rushing to stop it before it starts has proven to be a pretty lost endeavor. But if we understand at a deeper level why people would turn to violence, and how their context helps distill their perception of risk into something hard enough to fight over, then interventions such as negotiation, mediation and political settlements are going to be better tailored to the specific conflict. This is where the GDELT dashboard really shines as an analytic tool.

I’m excited to see how GDELT continues to make the dashboard better – there are already plans to provide more options for layering and filtering data, which will be helpful. Overall though, I’m excited to see what can be done with some creative qualitative research using this data, particularly for understanding sentiment and perception in the media during conflict.

Rigor Versus Reality: Balancing the field with the lab

I am finally able to respond (add) to a post by Chris Moore about the problem of mathematicization and formalization of political science, and social science more generally, as it relates to how the social sciences inform real policy issues.  As I’m finishing a Fulbright fellowship in Samoa, where I worked specifically on research supporting policy making in the ICT sector, Chris’s analysis was particularly apropos. As I read his post I thought “indeed, I’ve seen many an article in APSR that fall into the trap he describes,” articles with formal mathematics and econometrics that are logically infallible, use superbly defined instrumental variables, but have little explanatory value outside of the ontological bubble of theoretical political science. Why do academics do this? How can they (we…I’m sort of one myself) make academic research useful to non-academics, or at least bring some real-world perspective to the development of theory.

Qian and Nunn’s 2012 article on food aid’s effect on conflict is a good example of how formal methods can drive the question, instead of the question driving the method. Food aid indeed has an effect on conflict, and vice versa. To tease out a causal path from food aid to conflict though requires a logical stream that while formally correct, adds a lot of complexity to the argument. The thing that sticks out to me is they have to use an instrumental variable to make their argument. U.S. wheat production fits the requirements to be the variable they use, but do we really think that bumper crops in wheat actually lead to an increased risk of conflict? If so, is the policy prescription for decreasing conflict risk not allowing bumper crops of wheat? In the end they do a fair amount of complex logical modeling, then conclude by saying the data’s not good enough, we don’t really know the interactive effects of other aid on conflict, and that to really understand the relationship between food aid and conflict likelihood we need to explore the question in a different way.

Is there value in this type of exercise? Perhaps, but it’s probably limited to a number of academics who specialize in this type of intellectual exercise. Is this article useful to non-specialist readers or policy makers? Highly (99%) unlikely. Most policy makers don’t have the mathematical/statistical training to really understand the authors’ empirical strategy. If they do, they probably don’t have time to really digest it. That’s a fundamental problem, but it’s compounded by the use of an instrumental variable, which is a pretty abstract thing in itself. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that when we step outside the methodological confines the authors are working in, their analysis begins to lack inherent value. I don’t say this to shame or castigate Qian and Nunn; academics write for their peers since that’s who gives them job security.

So how do we derive value from this work if we want to inform policy? One way to do this is for academic departments to encourage doctoral students to try policy work during summers during the coursework phase. The summers between years one and two are good times for this; they’re pre-dissertation, so a student isn’t in a research mode yet, and the lessons learned during a summer in the field during coursework can feed into the writing of a dissertation. If we’re talking about faculty, departments can look for ways to reward writing for a general audience (about one’s field of specialization). Making public intellectualism part of the tenure file would probably be welcomed by many of the academics I know, who have a passion for their fields and would happily share their insights with public.

This has the added benefit of reducing groupthink or herd mentality, which academics are prone to like any other professional group. Possibly more so, since academic work is internally referential (academics cite each other). It’s easy in such an environment to stop asking why we’re adding a variable to a statistical analysis, or what value it has in a practical sense. By having to step out of the academic intellectual bubble, whether as a summer intern or to write an op-ed that has to be understood by a non-expert, it’s a chance to be in the field either physically or intellectually and re-assess why we’re analyzing particular variables and using particular methods.

At the very least it gives academics some raw material to take back to the lab, even if the ‘field’ is a disconcerting, statistically noisy place.

 

 

Call for abstracts! Proposed ISA panel on Crowdsourcing and Violence

My colleague Dr. Pamina Firchow and I are organizing a panel for next year’s ISA meeting in New Orleans (Feb. 15-21, 2015) on crowdsourcing and the study of violence and violence prevention. Below you’ll find our panel description, and instructions for submitting an abstract to us. We’ll need them by May 23 so we can make decisions on the five papers we will include in the panel proposal that we’ll be submitting before the June 1 deadline. We’d love to see what you all are working on, and look forward to your proposals!

Crowdsourcing Peace and Violence: Methods and Technologies in the Field

Over the last five years the field of crowdsourcing has been increasingly used by researchers and practitioners who study peace and violence. The primary goals of this panel are to discuss examples of successful projects, highlight ongoing challenges of using crowdsourcing and seeding, and frame crowd-based research methodologies based within the framework of established social science methods. The technologies that are used in crowdsourcing are readily available and inexpensive; these include mobile phones, social media, and open source software systems like Ushahidi maps. With all this expansion, however, there have been persistent challenges to using crowdsourcing and crowdseeding for peace and conflict research. Some of these are methodological, including problems with sampling bias, validity, and data integrity. Others are techno-social, such as how people use crowdsourcing technologies in their daily life, privacy concerns, and information security. This panel will feature papers from researchers who are actively using crowdsourcing and crowdseeding methods in their research, continuing the theme of ISA 2014’s panel “Crowdsourcing in the Study of Violence (WD26).” 

Panelists will also be invited to submit their papers to be included in a special journal issue on crowdsourcing in violence prevention and peacebuilding. Abstracts for the ISA panel should be submitted to Pamina Firchow (pfirchow[at]nd.edu) and Charles Martin-Shields (cmarti17[at]gmu.edu) by May 23, 2014 via email in Word format. Titles need to be less than 50 words and abstracts need to be less than 200 words. Please include affiliation and contact information in your abstract!

When Radio Goes Bad: RF communications and the increased violence in South Sudan

I was reading an update about the increasing ethnic violence in South Sudan forwarded to me by a colleague, and noted the fact that radio is being used to organize and encourage violence in South Sudan. For those who have studied or read about the genocide in Rwanda, radio was one of the key mediums employed by Hutu extremists for encouraging and organizing violence. I think there are significant socio-political differences between the increasing violence in South Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, so I just want to focus on the challenges related to preventing the radio-driven organization of violence, since radio broadcasts encouraging targeted violence against civilians were heard during the recent massacre in Bentiu, South Sudan.

We have to start with the laws, regulations and norms of radio broadcasting and spectrum management. Broadcast spectrum has traditionally been treated as a public good, managed by governments. Indeed if we look at the language from the preamble from the recent revisions of the International Telecommunications Union’s 2012 Radio Regulations, it’s pretty state-centric. This gives broadcast spectrum a certain level of sovereignty, and traditionally there is a respect for that sovereignty – generally, jamming another country’s broadcast frequencies is frowned upon, even though there’s a long history of doing so for the purposes of tactical advantage during wartime or in pursuit of psychological operations during the Cold War. Basically, radio jamming historically isn’t something that friendly or neutral countries (openly…) do to each other.

This is important, because along with apparently being expensive and inconvenient, the U.S Department of Defense used the spectrum sovereignty argument to avoid jamming hate-radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Would jamming hate radio have prevented the escalation and organization of violence? Unfortunately it’s rhetorical question since the U.S. never tried, but I’d be inclined to say that it wouldn’t have helped the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. In fairness, much of the organization on the ground was developed over extended periods of indoctrination and training of youth militias, so blocking radio wouldn’t have stopped pre-determined operations that didn’t rely on it. If anything it likely would have had the effect of a panopticon, forcing the organizers to realize there was a much bigger player involved that had the military capacity to selectively jam national communication infrastructure. At the very least this would have caused break downs in vertical communication, possibly giving some nominal advantage to the peacekeeping mission.

So how does this help us frame the disturbing news that radio is being used in South Sudan to encourage or organize violence? Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re going to see large scale radio jamming operations; the governments with the ability to do that still have ongoing diplomatic missions in South Sudan, and using their military assets to jam transmission frequencies would probably be interpreted as a violation of sovereign control of spectrum, as well as a likely violation of South Sudanese airspace. There could be a role for SMS text and multimedia messaging to provide early warning, but the problem is that even if peacekeepers get the text messages, it’s questionable whether they’d be able to protect at risk populations.

Unfortunately once violence hits a certain scale local violence prevention efforts, ICT supported or not, won’t be enough to stop it. Crowdsourcing and ICTs merely become tools that aid in accounting for the violence unless the international community is willing to provide a peacekeeping mission that is manned and equipped to realistically protect the population.

NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine: A political economy of bad options?

Since I’m not an expert on Ukraine, the greater region it’s situated in, or much of the history, I’ve primarily observed and absorbed the various op-eds, arguments and blog posts I’ve seen from others. I don’t really have much to add about Ukraine or the politics of the region itself, but I have found the debate about what the best options are for the U.S. and NATO to be interesting. It seems that we’re encountering the limits of security-centric foreign policy, and profit-at-all-costs national economic outlook. Russia isn’t playing a complex game, the problem is that NATO and the U.S. don’t have the right tools to counter Russia’s fairly straight forward behavior.

As part of foreign policy, security is important, but it has limits. In the U.S. we have big military, big intelligence community, and relatively small everything else. Our military is powerful, but that’s only useful if we’re willing to use it; Russia knows we’re unlikely to put troops on the ground in Ukraine, so they can be pretty provocative along the Ukrainian border and with their special forces. We have big intelligence, but so what? We’re not going to put boots on the ground, and we’re not winning the diplomatic game…so what’s our massive intelligence apparatus gaining us? We’re not going to invade, and our token support to Kiev in terms of materiel, Geneva agreements and IMF packages doesn’t help much when the U.S. and NATO have no real leverage to change Russia’s behavior.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the U.S. has let it’s diplomatic capacity and creativity wane quite a bit the last 20 years. I wouldn’t say that U.S. diplomats are less talented, but I do think we have a pair of political economic problems that keep them from being able to be creative and offensive. We just unpacked one in the last paragraph; foreign policy is increasingly viewed as a security problem, so funding goes to security apparatus over diplomatic capacity. This has a knock on effect of causing anything not directly security related to effectively not be part of foreign policy. In principle energy policy, monetary and banking policy, and trade would be part of a strong foreign policy; in practice, they aren’t really. I’d argue that this is a unfortunate outcome of a national economic zeitgeist that favors short term profit and privatization above all else.

Let’s look at energy. To keep it simple, Russia provides a lot of gas to Europe; if NATO gets too aggressive, Russia will turn off the gas. Russia has the leverage because the U.S. and NATO don’t really have any viable energy alternatives. The diplomats don’t have much to work with because, particularly in the U.S, natural gas and petroleum interests work hard to prevent the expansion of renewable energy sources, and the export of gas and oil, with the help of compliant policy makers. This makes sense for those industries since they want to protect their market caps and profit margins. The problem is that this takes energy policy out of a NATO diplomat’s toolkit. Thus we end up with limited capacity to quickly scale a market for alternative energy, which could replace as least some of the need for Russia’s gas while also driving the price down (gas supplies don’t decrease but demand does). There’s potentially serious leverage for the U.S. and NATO here, but we can’t take advantage of it.

I’ve simplified these issues quite a bit to make my point, but perhaps some simplification is in order. Russia doesn’t need to play a complex game in Ukraine because they have a solution that the U.S. and NATO can’t effectively respond to. Perhaps the West’s real problem is continuing to make increasingly complex arguments to justify our drift toward a one dimensional foreign policy, when what we need to do is make fundamental changes to how we think about the role of domestic investment, research and development, not exclusively as profit-making pursuits, but also as keys to our ability to project power in an increasingly multi-polar world.

 

The Prevention Problem: Thinking about Rwanda 20 years later

Of my areas of interest, the two that stand out are violence prevention and technology. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and I’ve been keeping track of the media coverage which has included the usual themes of never again, and a call to seek the tools and capacity to prevent such events in the future. To really make this happen though there needs to be a differentiation between patterns of smaller atrocities and genocide. This presents a challenge for localizing peacebuilding, especially for those of us who work in the technology space.

First, we have to differentiate atrocities from genocides. There are books upon books worth of arguments about semantics (which are important from a legal standpoint!), but I want to generally focus on differences in scale and intent. A militant group might commit a one-time atrocity to make a political statement, a riot could lead to a military crackdown that spins out of control, one ethnic group might target another over land rights, etc. These can be atrocities, especially if there’s a pattern of events. Genocide, what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago, is different in scale and intent. The scope of violence is an entire identity group, and the intent is the elimination of that group. Unlike an atrocity, this requires state-grade organization and capacity. Indeed, these are rather blunt definitions that ignore a lot of semantic detail, but bear with me.

If our goal is the prevention of atrocities and genocide, and our preferred method is to empower local communities with the tools and skills to prevent violence before it starts, then scale and intention matter. If we take the example of election violence in Kenya in 2007/8, there were many atrocities committed, but the intent wasn’t overtly genocidal. Since that election there have been efforts made to reinforce peace keeping (not ‘peacekeeping’) capacity at the local level through training programs and innovative approaches to information sharing using mobile phones and social media. In this scenario the communities that would be affected by discrete events of violence could prevent the spark at the local level. Compare this to Rwanda in 1994, where the Hutu-led government provided the weapons and logistics to the militias that did the killing, and the aim was the elimination of the Tutsi ethnic group. There had been atrocities at the local level leading up to the genocide (particularly in the north where the Tutsi RPF militia was fighting Rwandan government forces), but when the genocide started in earnest the violence was top-down and totalizing. Local-level violence prevention and peacebuilding methods weren’t going to stop that level of organized killing.

So where does this leave us now? If the goal is violence prevention, then we have to recognize where the local strategies work, and be willing to push for international intervention when necessary. Start by asking,”is the violence extrinsically motivated, and localized?” Are people fighting over a tangible thing (e.g. land, access to water, representation in government)? If so, there are going to be opportunities for local-level peacebuilding and violence prevention. Public information and discourse will play a major role in this kind of peacebuilding, and communication technology can have a significant positive multiplier effect. Is the violence extrinsic and national, for example election violence? This is where intervention from the international community probably needs to happen, but there’s also a large place for localized peacebuilding too. For example, peacekeepers might come to enforce stability but local level peacebuilding needs to happen if the gains from a ceasefire are going to hold up in communities. Communication technology can play a role in linking communities to each other, as well as providing a conduit for sharing needs and information with the national government and international intervenors.

What about intrinsically motivated national level violence? This where local solutions start to lose impact, especially when we’re talking about the violence being carried out by the state against a minority. At this point, it’s unlikely communication technologies are going to be much use; either they’ll amplify negative messages in an already politically volatile space, or they won’t matter as violence becomes ubiquitous. Large, international intervention becomes necessary at this point to force the sides apart and impose stability while a peace process is undertaken.

Localized peacebuilding and technology are at their most effective before large scale violence starts. Communication technology in particular can play a powerful role in connecting communities, and breaking down narratives that can reinforce the kinds of intrinsic, dehumanizing narratives of violence that open the door to genocide. When we think about ‘preventing genocide’ we actually need to be thinking about how we prevent or intervene in the small atrocities which build up to a Genocidal event, because once that event has started it’s too late.

Learnings from ISA

Another March, another ISA conference. 2014 has been good, especially since the networking and socializing was matched by excellent feedback on what I presented. The highlights:

What I thought was a failed experiment in getting Twitter to love me actually teased out some interesting methodological challenges that other panelists on the Crowdsourcing Violence panel faced. Basically, the problem is how to encourage participation in the crowd when there isn’t an emergency. Whether it was crowdsourcing using Twitter or crowdseeding using trusted reporters, we all faced a challenge in getting participants to respond. This makes crowdsourcing and crowdseeding difficult to use as research methods. It’ll be interesting seeing how we all approach this challenge in our different papers and projects, to see if there are ways that incentives or networks can be tapped to get more consistent participation.

My paper on using crowdsourcing to support peacekeeping operations also got some good feedback. The paper was my attempt to think about technology in the context of peacekeeping operations, as opposed to peacekeeping being responsive to the technology available (e.g. how do we avoid deploying a technology solution seeking a problem). I’m going to take this in an institutional analysis direction, and focus on interviews with peacekeeping staff and experts since there is a paucity of documentation on the few crowdsourcing and crowdseeding projects that have been undertaken by missions.

This was an overall excellent week, with solid panels, fascinating topics and good conversation. If you have thoughts or feedback on my papers, feel free to share in the comments section, or shoot me an email!

Headed to Toronto soon…

I’ll be at the International Studies Association annual convention from March 26-30 presenting two papers (never again will I submit two abstracts for papers that have to be written from scratch…) on Crowdsourcing methodology and technology in peacekeeping operations. Should be a lot of fun – feel free to give me feedback on the papers as I get them posted and let me know if you’ll be in Toronto. I’m always up for a coffee, beer or lunch!