Technology at Scale Can Lessen Violent Conflict by Bridging Global Divisions

By Gopal Ratnam

Technology used right and at scale may be the biggest driver of peace in the decades ahead as resource shortages, religious ideologies, economic upheaval, ethnic and political differences fuel a growing spiral of violence around the globe. 

From distributed computing power and big-data driven insights to fast-growing internet access, digital mapping, and mobile apps in the hands of billions already are transforming how people and policy makers manage violent conflicts. As the world’s population grows to 9 billion by 2050, technology may have a greater role to play in lowering tensions, experts and practitioners of conflict management said at the “Scaling PeaceTech: More, Better, Faster,” Summit 2016 organized by PeaceTech Lab.

Hatred of those that don’t belong to one’s group, tribe or clan often lies at the heart of any conflict, and technology either can create more divisions or bring people together, said Gary Knell, president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society. 

Media and technology must “find ways to expose people to the other” because “it’s much harder to hate someone when you know someone on the other side,” Knell said. “We’re in a moment in time that’s absolutely critical to drive technology towards peace or drive toward division...we’ve never had this fork in the road like we do today.” 

Mapping the Future of Peace 

Jack Dangermond discusses the importance of GIS technology for peacebuilding.

Jack Dangermond discusses the importance of GIS technology for peacebuilding.

During a day-long summit participants ranging from map-makers and business executives to app developers and data scientists discussed ways to boost ways in which technology can aid peacebuilding efforts. 

The ancient science of geography now married with computational power is one of those technologies that is promoting better understanding and aiding peacebuilding, said Jack Dangermond, co-founder and chief executive officer of Esri, maker of the ArcGIS mapping software. 

“We’re moving to a time when virtually everything is being measured in time and space,” Dangermond said. “Those measurements are flowing into networks, visualized, analyzed, predictions being made and driving action” toward a smarter planet, he said. 

Digital maps are helping governments and aid agencies deal with issues ranging from border demarcation and management to tracking water resources and food security, Dangermond said. Data-driven maps, for example, help aid agencies decide where to locate effective humanitarian response centers in conflict zones or poverty-stricken areas, he said. 

The challenge is to scale the technology so it’s accessible “to 2.5 billion people and not just elite data scientists,” Dangermond said. With the ubiquitous GPS-maps embedded in smartphones “you’re never lost but the world is totally lost,” as a result of natural and man-made crises, he said. “Can we take this technology and support better understanding?” 

Early Warning Apps 

Smartphones and other mobile devices, whose use is expanding rapidly, are emerging as technologies that can serve as early warning systems for people in conflict zones, as well as for sharing knowledge, said Sheldon Himelfarb, president and chief executive officer of PeaceTech Lab. 

Tech geeks have created apps that help people in Syria and Iraq dodge missiles, detect landmines, and keep journalists in conflict zones out of danger, Himelfarb said. 

“Every day we encounter courageous people like this who use local tech in new ways to tackle age old drivers of violence,” Himelfarb said. 

University research labs and venture capital firms are stepping up to aid development of peace building technologies, Himelfarb said, citing the example of Affinis Labs, a Washington D.C.-based start-up incubator that funds new technology firms involved in countering extremism. 

Prizes to Engage the Crowd 

Challenges, Prizes, and Exponential PeaceTech Panel at the Summit

Challenges, Prizes, and Exponential PeaceTech Panel at the Summit

Encouraging entrepreneurs and tech geeks to come up with new ideas for peacebuilding, by awarding prizes and challenge grants is becoming the norm for institutions around the world, but these approaches have their downside too, said Nanjira Sambuli, research lead for iHub, Nairobi, a hacker space for technologists in Kenya. 

“What strikes me is these ideas of challenges and prizes are fixed as events but are addressing things that are processes,” Sambuli said. The problems of building peace are ongoing, she said. Oftentimes, good ideas continue to percolate after a hackathon or tech event and government agencies as well as non-profit groups must find ways to tap into that innovation, Sambuli said. 

While a two-day hackathon or a prize event may impose a narrow lens on a longstanding problem, such events often are the only way for a government agency to find new talent, said Jason Metheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, a tech lab for the intelligence agencies. 

Hobbyists and tech geeks working out of their garages often are as good as traditional contractors and those working in academic labs, and also much cheaper, Metheny said. Finding such enthusiasts through prize events or hackathons is one way to tap into a much broader pool of innovation, he said. 

Historically, advances in science and technology typically were driven by prize money, and only in the last 50 years have governments around the world institutionalized scientific research, supporting scientists and technologists through contracts and grants, Metheny said. “Before that the norm for the last four centuries has been running innovation through prizes, so we might be returning to that norm” that prevailed in the 17th century, he said. 

Another trend that is increasingly driving the need for prizes is the democratization of technology, said Ann Mei Chang, chief innovation officer of U.S. Global Development Lab at the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

The development of the internet, GPS, microchip and smartphone has enabled connections among people around the world that was not previously possible, she said. Peacebuilding, once largely confined to the physical domain, now has the tech aspect to it and the “challenge is how do you tap that?” she said. 

Peacebuilding through Stories 

While smartphones and other mobile platform-based technologies are indeed at the cutting edge of peacebuilding efforts, a vast majority of the world’s population still accesses the rest of the world through an earlier generation of technology: TV and radio. 

Sultana Siddiqui, founder of the HUM TV network in Pakistan said she used the power of the broadcast media to bridge the gap between what’re considered traditional values and modern norms embraced by a younger generation. HUM features TV serials with stories that challenge practices like child marriage while promoting women’s education and rights, she said. 

Siddiqui said her company also plans to start a news network that aims to air all points of view to promote better understanding between groups that traditionally have opposed each other. 

John Momoh from Nigeria, said Channels TV was doing something similar: promoting peace journalism by highlighting news and events that illustrate cohesion rather than conflict. With a population of 174 million drawn from 500 ethnic groups that speak 365 dialects, Nigeria presents a challenge but Channels TV has been nominated 14 times as the best network in the country and has won the award 10 times, Momoh said. 

Unlike Siddiqui and Momoh, Robert Zaal is not based in a conflict country but represents Radio Netherlands, which trains young journalists and others in China, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Arab world tell their stories. 

Zaal said Radio Netherlands’ work has reached about 230 million people including in Yemen and Ivory Coast. 

In Ivory Coast, Radio Netherlands recently helped arrange a screening for about 50 bloggers of the live proceedings from The Hague of the trial against former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, Zaal said. 

Big Data to the Rescue 

Policy makers across different fields now routinely turn to a new brand of experts called data scientists for help in deciphering patterns that may lead to better interventions and outcomes. In the field of conflict management, although there’s plenty of data, most of it can turn out to be of poor quality, said Robert Muggah, security and development specialist at Igarapḗ Institute, a non-profit group based in Rio de Janeiro that focuses on security and development. 

“We have this false assumption that because of the sheer volume of data we’re generating that our quality of understanding is improving,” Muggah said. “When it comes to some of the basic metrics to judge interventions for peacekeeping or peacebuilding we have a really superficial understanding of what’s going on.” 

Measures of poverty, inequality and youth population bulge and other metrics at provincial level often are based on “predictive analytics, sketchy weighting, and extrapolated from techniques in neighboring countries,” Muggah said. 

Data generated by individuals through social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and other means can be voluminous but tend to hide biases and sometimes can be outright wrong, said Rayid Ghani, director at the Center for Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago. 

Data scientists, who are specialists in their field, sometimes may not be able to tell what is and is not clean and reliable data, Ghani said, because data experts may not understand the subject matter of issues they are asked to deal with, for example, public health or violence and conflict. 

Data for Better Decisions 

The sheer volume of data flowing out of today’s smartphones and computers is likely to grow exponentially in the coming years as cars and other household devices become part of a larger network and start generating data, said Nick Donofrio, chairman of the board of PeaceTech Lab and a former executive vice president at IBM. 

DJ Patil discusses the importance of data

DJ Patil discusses the importance of data

“What you’re doing today” with data “will be nothing compared with what you can do 10 years from now,” Donofrio said, adding that data experts working with terabytes or 1012 bytes of data will have to get used to working with yottabytes or 1024 bytes of data. 

The growing capacity to generate data, not just by governments and other institutions, but by individuals all over the world, needs to be matched by an equal democratization in the access to such data for it to be useful in decision making, said D J Patil, the White House’s chief data scientist. 

President Barack Obama’s administration has made data availability a key goal so data scientists can analyze and help policy makers make good decisions, Patil said. 

Patil cited the example of Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s work from last year, which he said showed that moving a child from a high-poverty area to a low-poverty area led to a 40 percent increase in that person’s lifetime median income. Although the U.S. has had a voucher program to help poor families send their children to better schools, there hasn’t been a conclusive study pointing to benefits of such programs until the recent work based on data, Patil said. 

Policing in U.S. cities also can be improved with better data on how officers are deployed and what incidents they deal with, Patil said. If an officer already has dealt with difficult cases like suicides or other traumatic events then a smart dispatch system can avoid sending the same officer to another high-pressure incident and thereby reduce chances of violence, Patil said. 

Entrepreneurship & Internet Power Dynamics

Extremists may be adept at using Twitter and other technology to spread hate but tech entrepreneurs are doing more to open the doors for impoverished people to access opportunities, said Philip Auerswald, author of The Coming Prosperity: How Entrepreneurs are Transforming the Global Economy. 

In Afghanistan, the telecom company Roshan, owned by the Aga Khan Foundation, introduced mobile telephony in 2003 and began building a network around the country that instantly connected millions of Afghans, Auerswald said. The company drew on its experience from Kenya to launch its M-Paisa mobile money transfer technology that allowed Afghan bureaucrats and police officers to receive salaries directly from the government through their cellphones and avoid corruption, he said. 

Roshan kept the technology open to both ordinary Afghans and the Taliban, ensuring that the technology became acceptable, he said. 

Internet reach around the globe is expanding but whether it has had a meaningful impact on the lives of poor people still remains a question, said Tara Sonenshine, a board member of the PeaceTech Lab and a former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. 

In the next 20 years, however, internet access and the broader effort at digitization are likely to have a dramatic impact on people’s lives because of efforts underway to digitize property records, Auerswald said. 

The promise of documenting and validating the assets of the majority of the world has yet to be realized, Auerswald said. But “this will happen, and all of the world’s property records will be digitized in the next 10-20 years,” becoming the “No.1 development issue for the next quarter century.” 

Peer Economy

Robin Chase making the case for the peer economy during the lunch keynote

Robin Chase making the case for the peer economy during the lunch keynote

Tech-led companies like Airbnb and Uber that characterize the new sharing economy by putting excess capacity to use, may also offer a model for how non-profit and other interest groups may be able to organize themselves to present their case before politicians, said Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, and author of Peers Inc. 

Organizations working on climate change or poverty issues, for example, may be able to tap into the excess capacity of a “pool of citizens who’re informed, who’re skilled and help you make” without having to invest in an infrastructure of lobbyists and expensive visits to Washington to plead for certain policies, Chase said. 

The growth of the sharing economy also pointed to a trend that’s moving the world away from industrial capitalism of the last two centuries toward a collaborative economy, Chase said. 

The same technology that’s helping the peer-driven companies diminish the role of traditional industry, also ought to create platforms for low-skilled workers so they are not left out, leading to greater conflict, she said. 

Digital Peacemakers 

Traditional corporations and established brands threatened by the rise of tech startups are finding new ways to compete with the so-called digital natives. 

One of the ways in which corporations are adapting is to take a project approach, said Tom Monahan, chairman and chief executive officer of CEB, a business consulting firm and also a board member of the PeaceTech Lab. Commercial enterprises are starting to resemble Hollywood movie production companies where actors, technicians, directors and producers come together for a project and then disperse to newer projects, he said. 

The challenge for companies and non-profit groups that evolved before the digital era is to constantly ask the question, “What if we had been born digital?” Monahan said. 

The decision by U.S. Institute of Peace to spin off PeaceTech Lab as a standalone entity also was born of the desire to encourage PeaceTech to think differently, Monahan said. 

USIP made the “incredibly far-reaching decision in saying that the PeaceTech Lab, we’re going to maintain a close relationship with it, but we want it to act like it was born digital,” Monahan said. We have a series of things in the physical world that work really well,” he said referring to the work done by USIP, “and we want to empower this organization to be as successful in a born digital sense,” he said.