New Publication! “PeaceTech: The Liminal Spaces of Digital Technology in Peacebuilding”

I’m excited to share a new collection of essays published in International Studies Perspectives that I produced with Pamina Firchow, Roger Mac Ginty, and Atalia Omer. Our essays cover a range of issues in using technology for peacebuilding and stabilization, and add to the growing body of work being done on how digital technology is affecting how we engage in social processes, contentious politics, and community-level peacebuilding.

Happy reading, and looking forward to others’ opinions and takes on the Forum!

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.


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!

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.

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!

Finding Big Data’s Place in Conflict Analysis

Daniel Solomon recently posted a piece on how we conceptualize (and often misconceptualize) the role of big data in conflict event prediction. His post got me thinking about what role big data plays in conflict analysis. This comes on the heels of Chris Neu’s post on the TechChange blog about the limits of using crowdsourcing to track violence in South Sudan.

This is one of my favorite parts of Daniel’s post: “Acts of violence don’t create data, but rather destroy them. Both local and global information economies suffer during conflict, as warring rumors proliferate and trickle into the exchange of information–knowledge, data–beyond a community’s borders. Observers create complex categories to simplify events, and to (barely) fathom violence as it scales and fragments and coheres and collapses.”

The key question for me becomes: is there a role for Big Data in conflict analysis? Is it something that will empower communities to prevent violence locally, as Letouze, Meier and Vinck propose? Will it be used by the international community for real-time information to speed responses to crises? Could it be leveraged into huge datasets and used to predict outbreaks of violence, so that we can be better prepared to prevent conflict? All of these scenarios are possible, but I’ve yet to see them come to fruition (not to say that they won’t!). The first two are hampered by practicalities of local access to information, and bureaucratic decision making speed; thus, for me the interesting one is the third since it deals directly with an analytic process, which is what I’ll focus on.

When we talk about prediction, we’re talking about using observed information to inform what will happen in the future. In American political science, there has been a trend toward using econometric methods to develop models of conflict risk. There are other methods, such as time-series analysis, that can be used as well. But the efficacy of these methods hinges on the quality and attributes of the data itself. Daniel’s post got me to think about a key issue that has to be dealt with if big data is going to generate valid statistical results. This key issue is the problem of endogeneity.

To start, what is endogeneity? Basically, it means that the data we’re using to predict an event is part of the event we’re trying to predict. As Daniel points out, the volume of data coming out of a region goes down as violence goes up; what we end up with is information that is shaped out of the conflict itself. If we rely on that data to be our predictor of conflict likelihood, we have a major logical problem – that data is endogenous to (part of) conflict. Does data collected during conflict predict conflict? Of course it does, because the only time we see that stream of data appear is when there’s already a conflict. Thus we don’t achieve our end goal, which is predicting what causes conflict to break out. Big Data doesn’t tell us anything useful if the underlying analytic logic that was used in the data collection is faulty.

So what do we do? There’s all kids of dirty, painful math that can be used to address problems in data, such as instrumental variables, robustness checks, etc. But these are post hoc methods, things you do when you’ve got data that’s not quite right. The first step to solving the problem of endogeneity is good first principles. We have to define what are we looking for, and state a falsifiable* hypothesis for how and when it happens. We’re trying to determine what causes violence to break out (this is what we’re looking for). We think that it breaks out because political tensions rise over concerns that public goods and revenues will not be democratically shared (I just made this up, but I think it’s probably a good starting place). Now we know what we’re looking for, and a hypothesis for what causes it and when.

If the violence has already started, real-time data probably won’t help us figure out what caused the violence to break out, so we should perhaps look elsewhere in the timeline. This relates to another point Daniel made: don’t think of big events as a big event. Big events are the outcome of many sequential events over time. There was a time before violence – this would be a good place to look for data about what led to the violence.

Using good first principles and well thought out data collection methods, Big Data might yet make conflict analysis as much science as art.

*This is so important that it deserves a separate blog post. Fortunately, if you’re feeling saucy and have some time on your hands Rene Decartes does the topic far more justice than I could (just read the bit on Cartesian Doubt). Basically, if someone says “I used big data and found this statistical relationship” but they didn’t start from a falsifiable proposition, be very wary of the validity of their results.