Friday, 24 June 2016 15:56

Technology for peace?

 PeaceTech2

This week mediatEUr was invited to give input on the Roundtable on Uses of ICTs for EU Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding. Miguel Varela, our Dialogue and Innovation Officer, shared our view from the work we have been doing in the last two years.

 

The first thing you need to know about mediatEUr is that we are a small organisation working in areas as seemingly disparate as peacebuilding, mediation and dialogue on the one hand, and design and technology on the other. My job is to link the two fields, which is why I have spent the last two years using computers to make dialogues more visible and more likely to be followed-up and taken into action. 

 

When we first started working in Ukraine, we had two very simple questions: what’s the situation with dialogue in Ukraine? What can we do to support it? We found a great deal of dialogue knowledge and capacity, but we also found it was quite atomised. So naturally we thought the most reasonable thing to do would be for us to help build those bridges, and technology gave us a chance to do so. We designed something called the Dialogue Support Platform, an in-country and online infrastructure that does two things:

 

  1. It connects dialogue actors to one another, and helps them build their professional capacity through shared learning.
  2. It maps out the content of dialogues to detect and analyse patterns and recurrent themes.

 

The key is that we do not use technology to conduct dialogue, but to capture it and share it with others. Instead of replacing indigenous methods, technology serves as a complement to dialogue. 

 

This last year, as we piloted the platform in Ukraine, we have found the exact same challenges that the WOSCAP research shows (the difficulties with creating impact and scaling up, the fear to adopt new methods, the whole bit), so I would like to share with you how we have addressed them. Three things that have been very helpful for us: 

 

  1. Working with a team on the ground
  2. Owning the technology we are using so that we can shape it to local needs
  3. Cooperating with other iniatives
  4. Counting on a donor/partner who is ready to take on a project that will see changes throughout its life cycle. This last bit is important, I think, if the EU seeks to support this kind of work: innovation can hardly fit a logframe and will require constant learning and new ideas — what is usually called a “lean approach”

 

Dialogue is long-term and not particularly measurable.

 

This has been a key challenge for us in Ukraine. Dialogue is slow, and at times frustrating. It is easy to get caught in a situation with little (apparent) progress. By introducing technology and visualizations into it, we risk exposing how hard it is to make measurable progress in dialogue, while neglecting the great work it does at building relationships. That created some resistence from our users, so we had to find a way around and design something that would not pose a threat to dialogue processes: the key for us was to maintain the mapping as an added value while making sure we addressed the expectations and professional needs of our users. 

 

From communication to action

 

A second challenge we have faced is tied to the four functions of peacetech that the WOSCAP project has identified: data, communication, networking and mobilisation. At the moment we are working mostly on the three first, and focusing on producing a wealth of knowledge that can eventually lead to mobilisation and change.

 

I think this is where one of the biggest challenges for peacetech lies: the bridge between knowledge and action, or sometimes the lack thereof. WOSCAP talked about it in their study as well: you build knowledge, but what is the capacity to respond to that knowledge? You build networks, but how strong is their engagement, and how far can they impact policy and promote change in the country? Here it is important that we take what Helena Puig, co-director of Build Up, reminded us at the conference: 

 

"Technology is just a tool." 

 

Indeed, technology must not be a substitute for human interaction, especially not in a field as personal as dialogue and peacebuilding. Operationally, that means thise of us working on peacetech need people who can look at our technology and know how to extract the lessons and promote them: attending meetings, knocking on doors and talking to others. More importanly, we need people who can help us fine-tune that technology to the specific needs on the ground. That is why we designed our platform as a dual system: something that works online and offline. There are so many ways in which this dual nature has helped us:

 

  1. Because local actors may see technology as a threat in the first stages. The WOSCAP study notes that local NGOs are more likely to use tech for communications and to share voices than for analytical purposes. This is only more true with dialogue work, a field where too much analysis (or insensitve analysis) can pose a risk to a relationship building process. Because of its long-term nature, dialogue data can often appear stagnant, and trying to introduce hardcore analysis will make local actors reluctant to engage. We managed to work through people’s concerns only because we had someone on the ground who did a fantastic job at knocking on doors and building trust. And even so we ended up with a product that is radically different from what we had in mind.
  2. Because technology is not available everywhere and, where it is, not everyone is used to working with it in a professional environment (or even willing!). Yes, most of us know Facebook, Minecraft or Snapchat, but not everyone wants to use such personal tools for professional purposes. Someone on the ground will take soundings on how what the needs are and how people are reacting to the technology we propose.
  3. This ties in directly with the fact that not all tools are right for all scenarios. Exploiting existing technology is good in order to build on each other’s experiences and bypass some stages in the production, but tailoring is important. Working with existing systems is good as long as it fits our purpose. If not all peacebuilding approaches are right for every conflict, not every technology is fit to every effort , and sometimes technology might even be an obstacle for communication— we faced this in our own work when we tried to use Facebook to instigate working groups. Again, a person on the ground can help identify what is needed, what works, and what does not. NGOs are not used to working with techies, but it pays off to integrate developers and engineers into your team so they can help achieve our objectives.
  4. Because technology can be quite spectacular and build expectations. Putting too much emphasis on it without a person on the ground who can work with people and show them how to use it can create frustration. 
  5. It goes without saying that if we want to have any impact from the technology we’re using, we also need to talk to donors and policymakers, and that something only an in-country team can do. 

 

If the situation is flexible, so must our donors

 

This is the kind of situation one faces on the ground: it is flexible, it is dynamic, and it requires management and funding that is equally as responsive. Providing a funding mechanism that can help young NGOs get their hands into technology (through workshops and pilot projects) can go lengths in changing the way we think and modernising reporting to make it more accessible.

 

Does peacetech work? 

 

WOSCAP is absolutely right: peacetech is happening, and it comes with opportunities. But does peacetech actually work? In Ukraine, bringing technology has helped us in several ways:

 

  1. Connecting peace initiatives that used to work in isolation or even oppose each other. Today the same initiatives are designing joint dialogue strategies to bring lessons from West Ukraine into the East.
  2. Giving stregth to dialogue actors by promoting more cohesion in their work, and highlighting their success stories. This has provided them with access to funding, and has connected international organisations to their work.
  3. Surprisingly, bringing the big international organisations a bit closer by promoting cooperation and identifying joint areas of work. As a good colleague puts it, the lack of coordination is a problem that is poisoning our field; the only way we can ever truly coordinate is by learning what each of us is doing, and technology makes that so much easier. 

 

Technology is not the same as “likes”

 

As a Mediation organisation, we approach technology with the same principle that we approach peace: begin with the small ones and reach up to the big ones. Working incrementally. There is a misconception that technology somehow needs to be massive. We see this in the great push around us for big data, but also in the simple fact that most of the tech services we would think about right now are massive social media services. Technology is so much more than that — it is accessibility, dynamism, mathematics, analysis, connecting with those who are on the other side of the line or simply a new way to capture information and present it much faster than through a lengthy report. 

 

These are things that we can use even if we do not appeal to thousands of users and attract millions of “likes”. If the EU or any other donor is to understand and incorporate technology effectively into its peacebuilding work, it needs to embrace all of these aspects, not only those that are mass-driven and so, so hard to reach. From my point of view, that goes by:

 

  1. Incorporating dynamic, tech-friendly people into the teams, and bringing in ICT experts into strategy work. Forget about the “IT department” and start talking about your tech-savy strategy-building team.
  2. Providing for flexible monitoring and progress indicators that are so important for this kind of work, and incorporating ICT expertise into the review of tech-savy projects. You cannot review a project with strong ICT components if you do not truly understand peacetech.
  3. Promoting the use of modern technologies in external and internal communications and work, and streamline its use to accelerate reporting systems.
  4. Allowing for small grants for new (“start-up”) peacetech projects. Yes, some may say we have enough pilot projects, but if we are to ever scale them up we need to continue support them, and encourage them to work together.
  5. Working with start-up incubators to identify emerging programmes and innovators, and promote hackathons for peace. Facebook, Google and other tech mastodons should be approached, because they have a great amount of resources and their power is undeniable, but working with young and upcoming developers and startups can help the EU get its foot into the field in a much less convoluted way.
  6. Addressing technology specifically in the work plans and strategies for the Instrument contributing for Stability and Peace. The WOSCAP study highlights that only 12 of the 300 projects under the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) have ICT components — not surprising when you realise the word technology is not mentioned even once in legislative documents.

 

Peacetech is happening. Now let us make it work.