Peacebuilding through Technology: Crafting digital platforms to facilitate peace

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Technological innovation – traditionally a key agent in the theatre of war – is now playing a vital role in imaginative efforts to advance peace.

Leading-edge research that has reconciliation at its heart and technology at its core is enabling people to engage in peacebuilding processes as never before.

Edinburgh academics are helping to shape the emerging discipline of peace technology – PeaceTech for short – as it subtly changes the dynamics of conflict resolution.

Historically, only the powerful accessed technology in times of war, but today’s hi-tech advances are giving individuals and civil society organisations a voice in efforts to create more stable societies.

With access to mobiles, cloud computing and the web booming in low and middle-income countries, new avenues of engagement are opening up. A new research hub, based in the University’s Political Settlement Research Programme, is seeking to ensure these roads lead to lasting peace.

While most of the attention on technology’s role in peacebuilding has focused on social media – such as its part in the Arab Spring – PeaceTech is wide ranging and multi-disciplinary.

It involves technology, data and digital media, and uses mobile phones, digital applications, geographical information systems, social media and even digital gaming to achieve peace.

At Edinburgh, experts in Informatics, Art and Design, Political Science and Law are breaking new ground with tech companies and NGOs – most notably Beyond Borders, a not-for-profit organisation that facilitates dialogue and cultural exchange.

Researchers are equipping people with tools to help them communicate, mobilise and organise, then challenge the dominant conflict narratives dictated by those in power.

Such change is welcome. Peace builders have too often focused on tools such as diplomacy, mediation and consensus-building among those involved in fighting, bypassing those most at risk and those who have used peaceful means for change. PeaceTech empowers those caught up in conflicts to identify their own measures of peace.

PeaceTech is also changing perceptions. Technology is often blamed for tearing society apart – spreading fake news, driving recruitment for terrorist groups and amplifying social divisions. PeaceTech shows a different side, harnessing the power of people and data to rebuild.

Technology alone is not a panacea. Academy Director Christine Bell says: “Peacebuilding requires a national conversation that shapes negotiations by reality-checking politicians and combatants as to what must change. That means youth – the next generation of leaders – as well as women and unaligned minorities need to be included in the process.”

Sustainable peace, says Professor Bell, also demands a multi-layered approach that includes states, citizens and the technology that offers individuals a more vital role than ever before.

Transformative technologies are already saving lives – whether they are apps that help citizens avoid missile strikes, platforms that counter the spread of misinformation, or open-source software that speeds emergency responses.

They are also building fairer societies: simple voice response systems mean people’s wages are no longer going missing; crowdfunding campaigns are backing efforts to tackle gender-based violence; and digital campaigns helping people lobby for political accountability.

Apps can also help people navigate Government bureaucracy, voice messaging can promote citizens’ rights and social media analytics can tackle violent extremism. Tech innovators are sidestepping governments to create cryptocurrencies independent of a central bank.

“Edinburgh wants to be part of this growing network,” says Professor Bell. “We have a unique energy with strengths in law, politics, informatics, gender studies and creative industries.”

The University’s world-leading research in data-driven innovation is another key component; so too is Edinburgh’s pioneering Political Settlements Research Programme. Its unique database – called PA-X, a Peace Agreement Access Tool – which tracks the progress of 150 peace processes since 1990, is being revitalised.

Peacebuilders worldwide have already benefited from its collected wisdom. Now legal researchers are working with experts and students in Informatics to devise new, interactive visualisations of the PA-X data that will help them to reach new audiences.

These data visualisers are part of a wider team that includes app developers, experts in mobile phone technology and social media analysts. Natural language processors, web developers and cyber security experts are also on board. All have a common goal – finding novel solutions that make it easier to access to technology in challenging contexts.

Peacebuilding is ever-changing, frequently fast-moving – particularly for those making sense of events on the ground. Anything that offers clarity and context is highly prized.

High-speed analytics allow researchers to capture and interpret flows of data, giving teams better and faster capability to identify trends, tone and behaviour.

Key to all of this are experts in text mining, who can coax actionable insights out of unstructured data, and researchers immersed in the semantic web, who can structure and tag web pages so they can be read directly by computers.

“Information is of no use if people can’t understand it and access it in manageable chunks,” says Professor Bell, “so technology can prove invaluable during negotiations. Even the simplest of survey apps will take people’s questions – and their solutions – and create charts and graphs that are easy to grasp.”

Tools created at Edinburgh are informing present-day negotiations. An app, developed with UN Women and the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, offers insights into how peace deals have previously made provision for women. Similarly, a series of infographics lets negotiators see at a glance how power-sharing agreements have evolved worldwide.

Other initiatives are making an impact. They include an interactive map detailing where peace agreements have been signed across the globe, and what they contained.

Elsewhere, an interactive timeline of events in Yemen – ravaged by civil war since 2015 – is giving peacebuilders access to earlier agreement texts in Arabic and English.

The timeline is part of an inclusive peace-making project, Yemeni Voices, which is being developed with London School of Economics and a host of Yemeni partners, and is supported by the UN and the Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen.

Data, of course, can only describe what has already taken place – skilful negotiation that uses a range of inclusive peacemaking tools will determine the future.

Yemeni Voices – a project which the Edinburgh unit is supporting uses digital tools that enable stakeholders not represented in the peace process to better understand, analyse and share views about unfolding events.

The context in Yemen is challenging – there is limited electricity and poor mobile phone connectivity; internet provision is controlled by different groups in different areas.

“Face-to-face still has a place, but is not always an option,” says Professor Bell. “Yemen shows how challenging consultation can be. Many interested parties have left the country, safe movement is tricky, convening people is difficult. PeaceTech offers a possible creative solution by which mediators can get input from citizens.”

Professor Bell says the Yemeni project illustrates two challenges typical of all PeaceTech initiatives: “The first is how to initiate conversations between peacebuilding practitioners and tech experts that can involve data and accessible tools, and be politically helpful.

“They must also navigate the key principle of conflict resolution, which is to do no harm. Conversations have to take place across cultures, languages and domains of expertise, and ensure security. It is not easy.

“The second challenge is how to channel all that expertise into real-life solutions – so, even if there are great conversations, how do we create useful tools that help bring about peace?

“Our work is experimental,” says Professor Bell, “so it will be some time before we can understand what is successful and what is not. For us, creating more interactive and inventive ways through our comparative data is a form of early success.”

To learn more, visit the PeaceTech website.

About the Author: Ronald Kerr is a journalist and the Head of News at the University of Edinburgh.