On May 7 I was invited to give a talk as part of a brown bag lunch panel hosted by the UNDP’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Response (BCPR). This panel also included input from senior staff from BCPR and the E-governance team in the UNDP’s governance policy shop. We expected 20-30 participants from within the UNDP; what we got were about 50-60 participants from across the UN system. Clearly there is interest in how technology, particularly mobile phones and crowdsourcing technology, can enhance and support development, conflict prevention and good governance. So what are the challenges that make integration difficult?
The biggest challenge that came up in the discussion was making sure data was up to institutional spec. When the ‘crowd’ is your source, the quality of the data varies significantly. Statisticians use the word “noise” to describe data points that crowd into a dataset without adding value. In a case like Haiti, where Ushahidi did its ground breaking work after the earthquake in 2010, noise could be a text message with no geographic reference (you can’t map it), or just texts with comments like “Why did God do this to us?” They might be part of the story, but if the goal is to map events and respond to them then these texts are noise that can be distracting in a time-sensitive situation.
UN-OCHA produced a crowdsourced map of the revolution in Libya that went a long way toward integrating the lessons learned from Haiti in terms of information governance. Most importantly, they had their parameters for trusted reporters and information security defined before they launched the map. If you launch a crowdsourcing program without a plan, you’ll spend the bulk of your time putting out fires. The second thing they did was they started with a “bounded” crowd of trusted reporters, and kept the map private until they had a grasp on the information environment. This meant they had a diagnostic sample of data to compare reports to as they expanded the size of the crowd; if they started getting odd reports that didn’t jibe with the initial “bounded” group, it was an indicator that perhaps the reports were not true or required further verification.
The second take away from the brown bag was that technical preparation is key. We did a short interactive game with the participants using Crowdmap and FrontlineSMS. Everyone enjoyed it, but the most important take away was seeing all the ways that things break and fail, even in the controlled environment of a UNDP HQ conference room. First, the entire presentation was built on the assumption that I would be able to use my MacBook Pro. Unfortunately I couldn’t get on the UNDP public wireless…so onto Plan B. We loaded the presentation onto the little Lenovo laptops that UNDP assigns to staff. But we needed two, since one had to have the Crowdmap up, which necessitated switching the AV cable back and forth. Then we found out that the Lenovos only supported Internet Explorer (IE). This is fine generally, but Crowdmap doesn’t play nicely with the version of IE the UNDP uses. In the end, we built a map from the text messages sent in from the class, but the most important lessons were not technical, they were planning. I built an entire presentation on a critical assumption; internet access. When this fell through the whole presentation had to be improvised on different computers, with different ergonomics and a different operating system. This happened in a simple exercise at UNDP HQ in New York; imagine the potential chaos in store in a disaster or conflict setting if planning isn’t done really well!
What we learned is that planning is the key component; technical knowledge doesn’t help much if the team running the program is always scrambling to keep up with a changing environment. At the same time, technical knowledge plays a key role in the planning process. The more aware you are of the uses and limitations of tools like FrontlineSMS and Crowdmap, the more effectively you can deploy them to support the work you are already doing. In the end, a clear-eyed approach to what the goals of your project are, and a concerted effort to both prepare as much as possible and be prepared for a changing environment will lead to a successful tech-enhanced conflict prevention or disaster response program.
Interested in learning more about how technology tools like mobile phones, maps and social media can be integrated into conflict prevention and peacebuilding programs? Check out TC-109: Technology for Conflict Management and Prevention and learn more with professionals from government agencies, international NGOs, and the United Nations!