Modern Technology and Its Potential Role in Peace Building and Conflict Prevention

On August 20, the Hague Institute for Global Justice organized a high level panel on ‘Peace Technologies’ together with the newly established Peace Informatics Lab of Leiden Univeristy. A discussion was held between experts from civil society groups, governmental institutions, academia and the private sector to exchange ideas and examine what role modern technology can play in peace processes or in the prevention of conflicts. The event was an important opportunity to share knowledge in what is considered to be a revolutionary field. This blog will provide a brief summary of this event as well as give some background information on this particular subject.

A key term in the discussion was the term ‘Big Data’.  In general, ‘Big Data’ refers to the exponential increase in the volume and speed of information being created every day in our digital, hyper-connected world. ‘Big Data’ in relation to conflict prevention and peace building is still  ‘a new field of practice in the making’ and is up until this point mostly characterized by its potential of playing a positive role in resolving conflicts. Over the last decade, technological innovations have been applied to modern warfare. We should now also take advantage in researching how these technologies can be used to prevent, to mitigate and resolve conflicts.

The Peace Informatics Lab of Leiden University  aims to be the leading knowledge hub for scientists and practitioners interested in applying ‘Big Data’ analytics in the field of peace and security. Currently, the Peace Informatics Lab is developing several cutting-edge ‘Big Data’ approaches for fostering peace, security and prosperity.

During the discussion, it was emphasized that, for the first time in human history, we are able to measure an ever-growing number of individual positive prosocial behaviors, mainly through Social Media platforms.

These new communication tools can contribute to positive engagement  by helping to initiate contact between groups of people that fear each other. Online dialogue allows for people from conflict groups to come into contact with each other, overcoming resources and operational constraints. The data coming from such interactions can be used to accurately study and analyse certain trends and needs within a conflict and the ways in which they evolve over time. Another added value of these online networks is that they can serve as important communication channels to exchange information to local populations about available humanitarian services, alerts or warning signals about which areas to avoid.

Some inspiring examples that have been documented include the use of real-time data during the disaster response in Haiti and the Philippines.

Another form of acquiring relevant data which was discussed is through crowdsourcing. However, crowdsourcing still faces many shortcomings relating to issues of reliability and credibility of information.

In the field of Peace Studies, these are interesting subjects that deserve our attention and that still need much exploration and research. At the moment, no major national or international initiative exists to systematically look into the opportunities and limitations of using ‘Big Data’. Furthermore, there is no institution so far that can provide a ‘home’ for those who would like to share lessons learned in this emerging arena. Lastly, no educational trajectories have been established yet that can cater to a new ; digital native community’ of knowledge brokers.

‘Big Data’ as we know it is still extremely complex. Most work on ‘Big Data’ in the field of peace and security focuses on predictions. In spite of this, we do need to remember that it can serve as an important resource in the study and resolution of conflicts and is therefore worthy of our attention.

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