ICTs in conflict early warning - possibilities and challenges

By Charles Martin Shields

11 July 2014: How are organisations using communication technology (ICTs) for conflict early warning and prevention? The article looks at three models being used on the ground in Africa to better understand good practice when using ICTs for peacebuilding.

A journalist photographs the police during the 2007 Presidential elections in Kenya. Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/4k18mV by Demosh A journalist photographs the police during the 2007 Presidential elections in Kenya.
Image credit: Demosh

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) and mobile phones in particular can be an aid in early warning and violence prevention at the local level, where both the knowledge and the desire to prevent violence are available.
Conflict early warning, traditionally the preserve of large multilateral efforts and statistical modelling, has taken a local turn in the last seven years. Some of this is a recognition of the inherent problems with using country-level data to try to predict the outbreak of local violence. Another problem is the capacity of large multilateral entities to act quickly to stop violence.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) and mobile phones in particular can be an aid in early warning and violence prevention at the local level, where both the knowledge and the desire to prevent violence are available. To be successful though, ICT supported programs must start with a reliable analysis of local conflict dynamics. Peacebuilders also have to be aware that these tools can be used for organising violence, and be prepared for these possibilities. Fortunately, we have a number of cases where NGOs and communities are collaborating to leverage mobile phones to help prevent violence at the community level.

Last year I published an article in Stability on why mobile phones can be useful in preventing violence, with a focus on Kenyan elections. The key theoretical issue I discussed was that violence is often the outcome of a lack of communication, and that too little information about the intentions of a potentially competing group or community can lead to conflict. Thus, the outbreak of violence is often a mistake, where one group misjudges the intentions of another. In fact, groups of people prefer to cooperate, as James Fearon and David Laitin pointed out in an important article on inter-ethnic cooperation in 1996.

So if we understand violence as the outcome of a lack of information, or an information space where rumours of violence or hate speech predominate, then mobile phones can play a critical role in helping people share information that can defuse violence before it starts.

There are good examples of using mobile phones for violence prevention this way. The main attributes of these programs is that they operate at the local level, and focus on information sharing and narrative change in areas affected by violence.

Una Hakika, run by the Sentinel Project, a Canadian NGO focusing on preventing genocide and atrocities, is a new violence prevention program that leverages mobile phones to prevent conflict. The project, based in Kenya’s Tana Delta region, focuses on preventing rumours of violence from spreading by training communities to use mobile phones to verify information with each other.

Another Kenyan NGO that uses mobile phones and SMS in a similar way is Sisi Ni Amani. They do community trainings on peacebuilding, but also have a network of community members who can choose to receive SMS text messages that reinforce the peacebuilding lessons taught during the in-person trainings. This network also receives and can share information about potential violence, helping to get information into communities so that they can prevent violence before it starts.

A young man charges phones at a UN IDP camp in South Sudan. Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/ndpFQb by Tom McShane A young man charges phones at a UN IDP camp in South Sudan.
Image credit: Tom McShane

In both cases what makes the programs work for preventing violence is the information sharing component. People who would otherwise have to make decisions with a lack of information now use SMS text messaging to check in with neighbouring communities, verifying information and preventing the spread of rumours that can spur violence.

While these are both direct intervention models, there is also participatory research being done that uses mobile phones to crowdsource data about violence risk. This data is then provided to the community so that they can use it for their own violence prevention strategies. Pamina Firchow and Roger MacGinty are leading a project called the Everyday Peace Indicators Project which uses community-level mobile phone-based crowd sourcing to elicit local perceptions of violence risk. The communities then review the aggregated information that they shared via SMS. This information then becomes useful to both the communities who use it to identify tensions before they build up to a violent level, and researchers who use it their academic work.

There is always a potential risk of using SMS text messaging for negative purposes, and indeed mobile phones can easily be used to organise violence more efficiently. Pierskalla and Hollenbach recently published an article on the role of mobile phones in helping organise violence. Mobile phones make it easier to pull a crowd together and lower the costs associated with organising large-scale violence. This is why it is critically important that peacebuilding professionals understand the context in which they are using these technologies. Any project that uses mobile phones needs to start with the basic principles of conflict management and peacebuilding, then add the technology appropriately.

We still have a great deal to learn about how people use these technologies, and how patterns of socio-technical behaviour affect the impact of using mobile phones for violence prevention. What we have seen from programs like Sisi Ni Amani and Una Hakika is that the potential is there, and that violence is more likely to be prevented when communities have the capacity to identify, share information about, and address risks before they turn into active violence.

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Insight on Conflict is the leading online resource for local peacebuilding and human rights in conflict areas. This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict. Published by Peace Direct, Insight on Conflict is the leading online resource for local peacebuilding and human rights in conflict areas.

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Comments

Mustafa Ada on July 11, 2014, 11:59 a.m.

we looking for peace in Darfur

Hal Marchand, Ph.D. on July 11, 2014, 2:21 p.m.

<p> ICT efforts through the use of mobile phones with camera capability-and now video voice equipped are ready-to-use qualitative research instruments. They can be used capture "photo-voice" individual pictures of events or problems at the grass roots level; to capture events in the moment as they emerge via video recorder, and to conduct retrospective community-based qualitative research available o view and grow dialogues.</p> <p>Hal Marchand       </p>

Charles Martin-Shields on July 15, 2014, 8:36 p.m.

Very good comment Hal. The options for using many of these tools for contextual data gathering are pretty impressive - I'd only add that before doing this kind of data gathering, if the aim is to share the data on the web, to make sure that local data and ISP laws provide some minimal protection of privacy so that people aren't put at undue risk.

George Amoh on Aug. 21, 2014, 11:12 a.m.

Thank you so much for sharing. Will be looking forward to learning much to help me in the peace work here in Ghana

Björn on Nov. 27, 2014, 2:04 p.m.

Often it is a lack of information which could be bridged with empathy and/or asking in personal connection. If you take Rosenberg's "Unexpressed fear is almost always taken as aggression by the other person." literally, when detecting aggression the question to ask might be: Who isn't communicating his/her fears effectively enough? Something for the SMS texting: "Unexpressed fear is almost always taken as aggression by the other person."