The Challenge of Conflict Data

The last two posts I wrote focused on the social and political structures that drive data collection and availability. In these posts I was primarily talking about statistics in wealthy countries, as well as developing countries that aren’t affected by conflict or violence. When it comes to countries that are beset by widespread conflict and violence, all the standard administrative structures that would normally gather, process and post data are either so compromised by the politics of conflict that the data can’t be trusted, or worse they just don’t exist. Without human security and reliable government structures, talking about data selection and collection is a futile exercise.

Conflict data, compared to other administrative data, is a bit of a mash up. There are long term data collection projects like the Correlates of War project and the UCDP data program, both of which measure macro issues in conflict and peace such as combatant types, conflict typologies, and fatalities. Because both projects have long timelines in their data they are considered the best resources for quantitatively studying violence and war. Newer data programs include the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project and the Global Database of Events Language and Tone. These projects take advantage of geographic and internet-based data sources to examine the geographic elements of conflict. There are other conflict data projects that use communication technologies to gather local-level data on conflict and peace, including Voix des Kivus and the Everyday Peace Indicators project.

This is just a sample of projects and programs, but the main thing to note is that they are generally hosted by universities and the data they gather is oriented toward research as opposed to public administration. Administrative data is obviously a different animal than research data (though researchers often use administrative data and vice versa). To be useful it has to be consistent, statistically valid in terms of sampling and collection technique, and available through some sort of website or institutional application. If the aim of the international community is to measure the twelve Goal 16 Targets in the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in countries affected by conflict, international organizations and donors need to focus on how to develop the structures that collect administrative data.

We can look to existing models of how to gather data, particularly sensitive data on things like violence. Household surveys are a core tool for gathering administrative data, but to gather representative samples takes a lot of work. It also requires a stable population and reliable census data. For example if a statistical office gets tasked by a ministry of justice to run a survey on crime victimization, the stats office would need to interview as many victims as possible to develop sampling tranches. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey is an excellent example of a large-scale national survey. One only needs to read the methodology section to grasp how large an undertaking this is; the government needs the capacity to interview over 150,000 respondents twice a year, citizens need to be stable enough to have a household, and policing data needs to be good enough at the local level to identify victims of crime. Reliable administrative statistics, especially about sensitive topics like crime victimization and violence requires: Functional government, stable populations, and effective local data collection capacity.

While many countries can measure the Goal 16 Targets, countries affected by conflict and violence (the ones that we should be most interested in from a peacebuilding perspective) fundamentally lack the political and social structures necessary to gather and provide reliable administrative data. Proposing a solution like “establish a functioning state with solid data collection and output processes at the local and national level” sounds comically simplistic, but for many conflict-affected states this is the level of discussion – talking about what kind data to collect is an academic exercise unless issues of basic security and population stability and institutional capacity are dealt with first.

After Paris, Now What?

Like many people I’ve been following the events in Paris with shock and sadness. I’ve watched the narratives evolve out of the tragedy, and a few resonate with me.

Western leaders have seemed incapable of any kind of creative response to ISIL and the wider risks they pose. I responded on Twitter to an article about the knee jerk reaction to declare war on ISIL and to ban Syrian immigrants from entering Western countries. There’s something almost quaint to this thinking; it’s like it’s the 1940s and we’re storming the beach head, fighting another nation state’s army. There’s a place for a significant military response against ISIL, but if there isn’t a correspondingly big diplomatic and civil society effort that pulls a lot of competing sides together, ISIL will continue dividing and surviving. To those who say we don’t/can’t negotiate with our enemies, I say learn your history. The U.S. routinely negotiated with the Soviet Union for 40 years, often with the risk of a nuclear exchange on the line. The current state of affairs in the Middle East is partially the outcome of a long decline in U.S. diplomatic capacity, and an over reliance on force and securitization. Unless we change that, ISIL will continue to survive as an organization.

It’s hard to make policy or design a complex response if people are fundamentally ignorant. This person thinks the problem is that terrorists leave their own country (read: Syria) and attack the West:


Based on the known attackers’ nationality/residences, his solution is to keep them in…Belgium and France? While he’s just some random guy on Twitter, it’s problematic that a majority of U.S. Governors as well as Republican presidential candidates have the same outlook. Will stopping refugees make a locality safer? Unlikely; as far as we can tell the attackers weren’t refugees. Indeed, trying to sneak a terrorist cell into Europe via the refugee routes would be the worst possible and least efficient way to get them to a target. They could drown, get stuck in Serbia/Hungary/Croatia/etc, get picked up at one of the myriad check points between Syria and Western Europe, or freeze to death sleeping rough in the woods.  Objectively it would be stupid for ISIL get terror cells into the West this way; by extension would be stupid to assume that blocking refugees will keep terrorists out (especially if they’re already citizens of the country to be targeted, and living in that country). Stupid policy decisions will neither mitigate the threat, nor address the humanitarian crisis.

This brings us to the last point. Stupid policy decisions are usually the outcome not only of objective analytic failure, but also an abdication of one’s moral grounding. 30 U.S. Governors and however many candidates remain in the Republican primary have, in saying they won’t take refugees, allowed ISIL to set the terms of their moral obligation to their fellow humans. They’re the worst kind of cowards, the kind that use a humanitarian calamity to gain political points while living in a publicly provided security bubble. It’s a sad commentary on the moral fabric of the U.S. that people of so little integrity and humanity can make it as far as they have in politics.

The only way to defeat the ISIL’s of the world is through a smart, humane, morally grounded set of policies. Force will be necessary, but so too will smart diplomacy, and a recognition that we have a moral obligation to aid the victims of a brutal regional conflict.


Build Peace 2015

I was invited to be a speaker on the panel on behavior change and technology in peacebuilding and Build Peace 2015. The panel was a lot of fun, with some fascinating presentations! You can find them on the Build Peace YouTube page. Here’s mine:

This was a particularly fun conference, pulling together practitioners, activists and academics in a setting that breaks away from the usual paper/panel/questions format of most conferences. Looking forward to next year!

Building Peace #5: PeaceTech

I’m excited to have my work included in Building Peace’s latest issue on technology and peacebuilding. This is my doctoral topic and one of my main interest areas, so it’s exciting to see it become an increasingly important topic in the conflict resolution and peacebuilding sphere.

Here’s a link to the entire contents of the issue. I particularly enjoyed reading Jen Welch’s article on games and peacebuilding, and Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström’s piece on how government can integrate new technology into foreign policy.

If you’re new to the space have a look at the issue – it’s a great contribution to a new and exciting area of peacebuilding and conflict resolution!

Dachau: A concentration camp up close

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau memorial outside Munich, Germany. First, I encourage everyone who can to go, it’s a superb and moving memorial. Particularly though, as someone who studies violence and the political economy of conflict and who also studied German political history, I was wondering how I’d feel visiting one of the primary nodes in what used to be a huge system of slave labor and death camps. Intellectually I know the history so instead I decided to try to feel the place, focus less on the historical plaques and explainers and more on the way the place made me feel as I walked through.

The buildings have displays and information throughout, covering the history and evolution of the camp as part of the wider system of Nazi politics and economics. Dachau was one of the earliest camps established, with the primary purpose of holding political prisoners from the local area starting in 1933. The camp evolved over time, providing slave labor to the region’s commercial, and later armaments, industries as over 188,000 people passed through it. Dachau would be used to funnel people designated “Lebensunwertes Leben” (loosely “life unworthy of life”), men women and children with developmental disabilities, into the T4 program’s euthanasia facilities. It was also a medical test site; the German air force performed tests on prisoners including how long the body took to completely shut down due to hypothermia in frigid water and the effect of low atmospheric pressure on the body (prisoners often died of embolisms during these tests).

When it was liberated in 1945 over 67,000 prisoners occupied it, and the surrounding network of work camps. This is a huge number since the camp was built to hold 6,000 prisoners. As World War II drew to a close and more prisoners were transferred from other camps closer to the front to Dachau to prevent their liberation, the mortality rate increased dramatically due to outbreaks of dysentery and typhus.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing was the persistent sense that the entire set up of the camp was meant to make you feel nothing; the layout was mechanistic and utilitarian. I didn’t feel a sense of doom or evil when walking around the camp muster court, through the narrow prison complex where people were tortured, or along the grassy ‘kill zone’ next to the camp wall. Instead I felt an overpowering sense of order. Dachau wasn’t a death camp, per se, but a labor facility. If you could work and were over 14, you stayed at Dachau; when you couldn’t you were sent to a death camp such as Buchenwald Treblinka* or Auschwitz to be killed (assuming you didn’t get worked to death at Dachau). It was a deeply unsettling realization to internally ‘feel’ the design of the camp so clearly. As a labor camp the point was maintaining order and efficiency. The more those two things could be internalized by the prisoners, regardless of their fear, terror, or hopelessness, the more effective the camp would be. As I walked through the facility, it wasn’t the atrocities committed in the camp or the terror experienced by the prisoners that resonated. It was the way that 82 years later the design of the space itself could continue to instill a numbing sense of mechanistic inevitability.

There was one section where I didn’t feel this though. In the northwest corner of the facility is the crematorium. It has a small gas chamber, most likely used for experiments instead of full-scale killing. There’s a narrow trail into the woods to the right of the crematorium that you can follow. It led to a quiet wooded area, and for a few minutes the oppressive control of the camp lifted. I felt a vague sense of peacefulness. I walked 20 yards down from the crematorium in foliage dense enough to no longer see the camp facility. Then I saw a plaque, which read:


I looked up and it was woods to the cement camp wall, but about 15 yards farther down the trail was a second similar plaque:


The inscription is harder to read because I wanted to capture the entire space. Unlike the other execution range, this one has been maintained. The tablet reads “Execution Range with Blood Ditch.” From the trail to the wall is about 10 feet, pistol range. The blood ditch is the small indentation in the ground next to the trail, where blood could collect and drain away. The wall, of course, is where you stood to be executed. As I read the tablet, I realized I was standing about where the executioner would stand. I turned to my back to the wall to get a sense of what a prisoner would see, and could only see the woods. They were thick, empty, and cut off sight between the camp and the execution range. This was the only place where a pure sense of terror struck me. Going back to applying meaning or a feeling to a place, this was a space that wasn’t meant to moderate your feelings. You weren’t in the numbing order of the camp anymore; you could feel terror as much as you wanted because once you were here, you were going to die. Bodies were cremated nearby after execution and the ashes were dumped in these same woods. They don’t have exact numbers for how many people were murdered in this wooded corner of the camp, but ‘thousands’ is the low end with an upper bound of 10,000+. They have a tomb of the unknown victims near the execution ranges:


This was the one spot in the camp where emotion finally overwhelmed me. It was the absolute lack of industrialization that was so striking. The hugeness of Nazi killing is hard to conceptualize. It might shock the conscious, but it exceeds our ability to really feel it. It’s just too big. But in this corner of woods I could feel a sense of overwhelming sorrow. I could connect to an individual’s experience, away from the massiveness of the camp. Taken from a home and perhaps a family, head shaved and identity taken, worked brutally until being roughly shuffled in front of that gray wall in a nameless wood, and summarily executed. Not knowing where your family was, or if they’d ever know where you were. My initial feeling of peacefulness had been completely replaced by lonely anguish, which is the only thing I could imagine someone would have felt when they looked up, perhaps at the low sun through the trees or into the eyes of their executioner.

As I reflect on the feeling I found that wooded execution range to be a perfect summation of the Nazi view of those they considered sub-human. The death camps, due to the massiveness and collective murder, bestow the victim with an identity; Jewish, Roma, Slavic, etc. In dying together, there remained some collective identity. But the Nazi ideology viewed these groups as less then that, not worthy of identity. The death camps are searing symbols of the Nazi state, but these woods felt like a more accurate distillation of Nazi ideology. They were where you went after you were stripped of an origin, an identity, a name, your humanity, and turned into a cog. When you no longer served the purpose of a cog you were nothing. You were murdered in the woods, burned to dust and thrown back into those woods with the other unknown, untraceable thousands before and after you.

*Correction: A kind reader pointed out that Buchenwald was not a death camp. Indeed, there were no death camps on German soil. I have added Treblinka as an alternate example, and apologize for the mistake.

Initial Reflections on the Charlie Hebdo Attack

By now news of the tragic shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris has made it around the world. Since I work in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, it’s been interesting seeing how the narratives about freedom of expression and the role of religion have circulated on social media. As I’ve sifted through the articles and posts I’ve wondered how to honor the lives of those killed, while finding ways to find common ground between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

One of the first themes I saw percolating around my Facebook and Twitter feeds was one of anti-religion sentiment. I’ve seen commentary that treats this as a referendum on religion generally, and Islam specifically. The problems with this line of thinking are multi-fold. Fundamentally this argument is a non-solution, since religion isn’t going to go away. By extension it discounts the many religious actors who are pro-peace. Finally, this position suffers from attribution error. IS/ISIL/ISIS/Daesh do what they do because they crave power, not because Islam is an inherently violent religion (any more than any other religion or concept of social order, at least). The vast majority of Muslims don’t subscribe to IS’s interpretation of Islam in the same way that the vast majority of Christians don’t subscribe to the Biblical interpretations of the KKK.

The second theme I’ve seen is the importance of freedom of expression. Whether one agrees with Charlie Hebdo’s editorial tastes or not, there’s no place in a liberal society for silencing opinions with violence. But just as we face a big challenge in not allowing this act of violence to be a referendum on Islam and religion generally, we also have an opportunity to expand the space for political satire. In the Middle East there is a flourishing anti-IS brand of satire. Much of it is brilliant, and shows there is a large population in the Muslim world that finds the retrograde politico-theorcratic goals of IS and related extremists to be unacceptable. This is common ground on which the Western and Muslim worlds can both stand in support of liberal social ideals.

The way to honor the lives lost in Paris is to refuse to let the extremists, wherever they are and whatever their affiliation, dictate the terms on which we relate to each other across religious and political divides.

Peacekeeping tech with Dr. Walter Dorn

I got to interview Dr. Walter Dorn of Canadian Forces College about his work on technology and peacekeeping for my TechChange course on technology for conflict management and peacebuilding – a good interview that lends some operational and political insight for using these tools in peacekeeping settings!

Upcoming events!

Unfortunately the last few months have been fairly low output in terms of blog posts. This can be credited to resettling after returning from Samoa, getting back to work with the tech community in D.C, and of course getting a dissertation written. I have had the chance to get myself on a few panels this month and next to discuss my research, though. I’ll be joined by some awesome people too, so hopefully if you’re in D.C. you can come out and join us!

October 15: Brownbag lunch panel at the OpenGovHub hosted by the Social Innovation Lab, FrontlineSMS, and Ushahidi.

November 5: Guest talk at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service about my research in Samoa, and larger issues of using ICTs for crisis response.

Later in November: Dissertation proposal defense at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (exact date TBD). Open to the public!

Hopefully you can make it out to one or more of these, I think they’ll be really interesting!


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!