Joining the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik!

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (German Institute for Development Policy) in Bonn, Germany! I’ll be working in their Governance, Statehood, and Security group, doing research and providing policy advice on forced displacement in fragile and conflict affected countries.

I’m excited to have the opportunity to put my skills and knowledge to use working on this topic – I’ll be able to continue applying my knowledge on technology and development to this topic, while also working with experts on migration, geography and economics to produce policy-relevant scientific research.

The intersection of academia and public policy is the space I most enjoyed occupying during my PhD studies, so I’m thrilled to be in a place where my research can speak directly to critical policy issues in the development and peacebuilding fields!

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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!

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!

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.

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!

New post on the TechChange blog!

I just had a new post go up on the TechChange blog – I haven’t written for them in a while, so it feels good to be writing for them again!

Here’s a brief intro, and you can read the rest here:

“In recent years, mobile phones have drawn tremendous interest from the conflict management community. Given the successful, high profile uses of mobile phone-based violence prevention in Kenya in voting during 2010 and 2013, what can the global peacebuilding community learn from Kenya’s application of mobile technology to promote peace in other conflict areas around the world? What are the social and political factors that explain why mobile phones can have a positive effect on conflict prevention efforts in general?…”

Nancy Ngo, one of the TechChange staff members helped get it written, so a big thanks to her for getting it up!

Disaggregating Peacekeeping Data: A new dataset on peacekeeping contributions

Jacob Kathman at the University of Buffalo has an article in the current issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science about his new dataset on the numbers and nationalities of all peacekeeper contributions by month since 1990.  This is a pretty fantastic undertaking since peacekeeping data is often difficult to find, and no small feat given how challenging it is not only to code a 100,000+ point dataset, but do it in such a way that it complements other datasets like Correlates of War and Uppsala/PRIO.  I’m particularly excited about this dataset because it highlights something I’ve been interested in, and will continue to work on throughout my career: gathering and coding historical data on peacekeeping missions so that social scientists and economists can start producing quantitative research to compliment the existing case study-oriented research on peacekeeping operations and practice.

As Kathman points out, there has usually been a focus on case study approaches to researching peacekeeping.  This makes sense: most of the research is geared toward identifying lessons learned from mission success and failure, and is meant to be easily integrated into operational behavior, instead of addressing theoretical issues.  This also reflects the ad hoc nature of peacekeeping; a mission gets a mandate to deal with a specific issue, and missions tend to be short (with some exceptions), so the data tends to be mission and context specific which lends to case study research approaches.  As civil wars became the norm in the 1990s though, missions expanded their roles to include war fighting, humanitarian aid delivery, medical provision, policing, and other aspects of civil society.  This meant that peacekeeping missions became part of the political, economic and social fabric of the post-ceasefire environment, and over the last ten years social scientists started studying the effects of peacekeeping missions on ceasefire duration and economic development, among other things.

One of the things that has lacked, and that Kathman’s dataset helps with, is data about the missions themselves.  Studies, such as Virginia Page Fortna’s excellent book on the effect of peacekeeping missions on ceasefire durability tend to rely on conflict start-stop data to make inferences about the impact of peacekeeping.  Studies of peacekeeping and economics also run into the same issues; researchers have used baseline effect on GDP of peacekeeping missions, but this is a blunt instrument approach and suffers from problems of endogeneity.  Caruso et al’s analysis of the UN mission in South Sudan’s positive effect on cereal production treats the UN mission as a mass entity, but is unable to show comparative impacts on food production across missions since there isn’t finer grained mission data readily available.

Given the need, I would suggest pushing forward with datasets that contain not only data on troop contributions, but also data on mission expenditures, since peacekeeping missions have effects on the local economy which could be positive.  The problem is that the positive effects might not be seen without finer grained data on how missions use their money in the country they’re operating in.  Do investments in durable infrastructure make a difference to the durability of peace and economic growth?  What about focusing on local provision of goods and services where available?  At the moment data on these things is hard to find, but would be useful to conflict researchers.

Kathman’s paper is worth a read since he gives us a road map for how to develop further datasets on peacekeeping missions.  More datasets like this are important for the theorists who do research in the abstract, but can also help inform better processes for mission mandating, procurement and staffing.  If you want to download the datasets, Kathman has them in zip files on his website.