“When Information becomes action: How information communication technologies affect collective action during crises”

Committee: Thomas Flores (Chair), Agnieszka Paczynska, Todd LaPorte

Video of the defense is available here!

Over the last 10 years, the dramatic increase in access to information communications technologies (ICTs) in developing countries has spurred popular efforts to use them for crisis response and violence prevention. As access to mobile phones and the internet has expanded, a key question remains: Do people actually use these tools for participation in governance processes? The results from my case studies and survey data strongly indicate that they do not. Even among groups we expect to be technologically savvy, for example the young, urban and/or wealthy, patterns of information gathering during crisis are still oriented toward traditional broadcast media and elite messaging. Instead, the evidence from my case studies and surveys indicate that people make decisions about the vilidity and actionability of information during crises based on complex social and political factors that are tangentially related to technology access.

This dissertation contributes deeper theorization of the role of ICTs in crisis response, drawing on the political science and sociology literature on collective action and violence prevention. This social-theoretical grounding is important because while technologists and engineers have pushed for innovative use of ICTs in crisis response and international development more widely, there remains limited understanding of how these technologies, and the information shared across them, are used by communities to support socio-political processes, including violence prevention and disaster response. To make my theoretical argument I frame crises and crisis response as a collective action problem; communities who are trying to have a peaceful election or manage limited resources after a natural disaster have to keep people engaged in the collective process of maintaining stability. What ICTs do in this scenario is lower the barriers to information sharing across large populations and wide geographic spaces, which is a key aspect of maintaining a collective action process.

Using case studies of election violence prevention in Kenya and disaster respose in Samoa, as well as survey data on the preferred sources and mediums of information people use to take action during crisis, I hypothesized that when people have access to a full spectrum of ICTs they will prefer gathering information though horizontally integrated digital social networks, instead of via vertically integrated broadcast media. I also hypothesize that these effects will be larger among younger, more urban, and wealthier survey respondents. In both the samples from Kenya and Samoa, people across all demographic groups overwhelmingly prefer broadcast and official information when making decisions about what to do during elections and after natural disasters, which ran contrary to my expectations. What is more important to respondents when deciding which information to trust and act on is their previous social and political experiences during elections and post-disaster recovery. Access to government services, political representation, and the geographic distribution of social and familial networks were more salient to respondents when they were deciding where to gather infromation and how to act on it.

To bring the theoretical and empirical analysis back to the larger question about the use of ICTs in crisis response and violence prevention, I analyze a selection of interventions where interational organizations used ICTs in crisis response and violence prevention, discussing how different agency programs encouraged (or failed to encourage) local level information sharing and collective action. This will provide theoretically grounded context for how peace and humanitarian operations practitioners can better develop and tailor technology-supported programming to be more congruous with local information sharing behavior. The dissertation closes with an analysis of the overall findings, implications for the field of technology for peacebuilding and disaster response, and future avenues for research.


Part of my research was funded by a Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship during the 2013-14 academic year. I was in Samoa, seconded to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology where I worked in ICT policy advising and managed surveys that are part of my dissertation research. More on this is available in these posts.

For those who are interested here’s my dissertation proposal as an audio file:

You can download the slides here and follow along.

I presented my case studies and survey results at the Build Peace conference in Cyprus. You can check out the talk here. I also presented sections of my dissertation at the ISA Global South Caucus in Singapore in January 2015 and the ISA Convention in New Orleans in February 2015.

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