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Published on July 31st, 2014 | by EJC

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ICTs In Conflict Early Warning – Possibilities And Challenges

This article was written by Charles Martin Shields and originally published at Insight on Conflict on 11 July, 2014. Republished with permission.

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.

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.

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A journalist photographs the police during the 2007 Presidential elections in Kenya.
Image credit: Demosh (Flickr)

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.

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A young man charges phones at a UN IDP camp in South Sudan.
Image credit: Tom McShane (Flickr)

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.

About the Author:

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Charles Martin-Shields is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His research focuses on how individuals and response agencies use communication technologies for crisis management and violence prevention. He recently completed a Fulbright-Clinton Public Policy Fellowship in Samoa, where he did research and advised on telecommunications policy and disaster response. Previously he managed TechChange Inc’s peacebuilding and conflict management training, and worked with the U.S. Institute of Peace. Follow on Twitter: @cmartinshields 

Image: Ken Banks

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