So I started writing to shake off the rust before the grist mill of academia starts back up later this month, and writing becomes a demand instead of a pastime. Earlier I wrote a piece where I delved into my excitement and skepticism about how technology will lead to peace and stability. This not to that it doesn’t play a role, but I’m increasingly less convinced of the size of this role. We’ll pick up where we left off on the political economy of data ownership. This topic is one big reason I’m hesitant to be more excited about the impact of technology on peacebuilding.
It’s amazing the ways that that we can share information quickly across geographies and bounded social networks, and in this regard the impact of technology is exciting. It gives us relatively real time data that could be used to respond to events as they unfold (‘could’ is the operative word…there have been a great many events where excellent data was systematically ignored and no response came, e.g. Rwanda in 1994). But, setting aside institutional lags and the politics of resource mobilization, crowdsourcing technology can open up novel information flows that traditional intelligence collection processes don’t normally tap.
But does this lead to liberation in the broader sense? In the immediate time frame, sure, especially if people have the information to secure the environment around them without the help of outside intervenors. But what about in ten years? This is where the political economy of data ownership becomes an issue. While it was awesome that 10,000 people shared texts on a mobile phone system in the past, this data doesn’t go away; it lives on in a server managed by a multi-national, or if the mobile provider is government owned, then a government database.
Not to get too 1984 on everyone, but in many conflict environments good government today doesn’t predict good government in five years. Conflict-affected countries tend to experience cycles of political behavior, and these cycles often come with changes in government based on ethnic or political blocs. I think it’s fair to point out that asking people to share information on a political event could come with unintended consequences, not least of which could be a malicious government tracking people down a few years later who may have made their dislike for a political party or ethnic group known on a crowdsourced map by texting in.
Does this risk mean that we stop running these kinds of crowdsourcing programs? Obviously not. Does it mean that as the technology becomes more routine to use, we should put some serious thought into the second-level legal and political risks associated with crowdsourcing? Absolutely.