As I learned at a conference on scaling peace technology at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC last month, the romantic notion that we can build a better world through data isn't over, after all.
Researchers hope that new technologies can detect the signs of conflicts earlier than ever before, but governments and non-governmental organizations are still figuring out how to move from theory to practice.
While our relationship to data has become more complicated since big data became a buzzword at the end of the last decade, hope endures that the wonders of our technology-infused age can be used to give policy makers more insight into the future and evidence to act in the present. Some government-funded research suggests that Twitter data can be used to predict when protests will erupt.
Governments and non-governmental organizations have been learning how to release and apply data for positive social change, from energy to healthcare. More of the public is now aware that the massive amounts of data generated by mobile devices, sensors, and social media can be analyzed and applied by corporations and governments in the service of discrimination or repression.
Whether conflicts are driven by religious differences, changes in climate, or territorial aggression, the makers of tools like the Open Situation Room Exchange are trying to make more data available to people who want to build peace. More devices and connected citizens create more data about what's happening in the world, the thinking goes, which in turn can improve the response.
For instance, could signs of expanded ethnic violence in Burundi be detected earlier, leading to African peacekeepers being deployed to prevent atrocities? Might analysts mine location data from mobile phones to gain early warning of the strength of a popular revolution in Africa? Could development workers trying to help hatch embryonic democratic institutions in a country rebuilding after a civil war build consensus around a constitution using social software?
In the future, makers of peace technology hope to detect violent extremism and conflicts before they explode into war, acting to defuse or manage them, and to rebuild comity between aggrieved parties after civil wars have devastated nations.
Jack Dangermond, the founder of geographic informations systems software giant Esri, extolled the power of maps to inform people about world events. Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar, explored how collaborative consumption, participatory platforms, and peer-to-peer collaboration can help channel excess capacity towards peacemaking. DJ Patil, the US government's first chief data scientist, talked about the role of open data in criminal justice reform, healthcare, and education.
If you listened closely to the men and women on stage in DC or the audience members posing questions, you could hear skepticism about the challenges that face those who would build peace through technology. A panel focused on data and conflict prevention highlighted problems with limited data availability or biased data, both of which pose significant challenges to its utility.
The GDELT Project, which monitors and visualizes global media reports, by definition does not include data about what is not reported due to censorship, state-controlled media, or other limitations to press freedom. The Homicide Monitor visualizes a global data set of murders, but relies primarily on national data that the Igarapé Institute acknowledges has gaps and limitations.
While new tools and platforms for verification like Storyful are coming online, historic lows in trust in media institutions coupled with the rise of citizen reporting create conditions ripe for rumors and incendiary rhetoric to spread. None of the journalists in a media panel at the peace tech conference spoke directly to the ways broadcast media or social media can accelerate conflicts or spread misinformation, or what to do about it.
Some attendees, like National Geographic CEO Gary Knell, left the PeaceTech summit optimistic that technology can create more connections than divisions. Knell suggested to the attendees, however, that the world faces a major fork in the road: whether societies use media for positive storytelling or use it to create more tribes that gravitate to information sources that confirm their existing biases or prejudices.
Humanity's track record with the internet and smartphones suggests that many people will use their newfound publishing power for both good and ill. The same is true of data analytics, social media, digital maps, sensors, and apps, all of which figured into the conversations and sessions at the summit in Washington, DC.
Some people have adjusted their behavior as a result, adopting strategies that improve their ability to keep their data secure, but people will have limited recourse to hide from sensors in smart cities.
The same tools and technologies that can help governments detect growing risk for conflicts can also be used to search and surveil. Whether governments use them for war or peace will be up to the people who lead them and human nature, which has proven highly resilient in the face of disruptive technologies.
- Old challenges and new horizons for networked activism (TechRepublic)
- Open data, crowdsourcing, and sharing economy tech take on new roles in disasters (TechRepublic)
- More than economics: The social impact of open data (TechRepublic)
- In Mexico, open government includes social justice, press freedom, and innovation (TechRepublic)
- David Kobia: Ushahidi Co-founder. Humanitarian. Avid cyclist. (TechRepublic)
- Aliya Rahman: Former Code for Progress Director. Tech and social justice activist. Martial artist. (TechRepublic)
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.