ODR and Peacebuilding

I delivered this short presentation at the 10th annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Working Group in Chennai, India. As the official website notes,

The world’s leading ODR practitioners, academics, students, and civil society organizations will come together to discuss the resolution of disputes using online technologies. These disputes may range from b2c (Business to consumer) to the prevention of human rights violations in conflict regions, to reconciliation of opposing groups in armed conflict, to disputes over intellectual property on the internet. It also brings together the leading technology developers who design conflict resolution platforms for use legal, commercial, or insurance related disputes.

I’ve been associated with the ODR working group since 2004. Over six years, the tone and thrust of the annual ODR conferences has changed significantly, along with tools and technologies used. Conflict transformation and peacebuilding, still largely peripheral to ODR is however no longer esoteric. The compelling academic research and work of Leah Wing, Orna Rabinovich-Einy, Ethan Katsh and Colin Rule in particular undergird my own approach to ODR, which is to focus more on conflict transformation and how ICTs can augment peacebuilding, as opposed to more commercial, business related disputes arguably less complex and certainly less violent.

This year’s line-up of speakers was excellent, and demonstrated that what is often referred to as the developing world often has innovation and ideas beyond that which the so-called developed world could offer. A clear example of this was Rahul Cherlan, whose emphasis on making ODR platforms in particular more accessible and usable for those with vision impairments resonated deeply with my own submission in this regard a few years ago. His efforts in setting up Inclusive Planet was nothing short of inspirational, and the technologies he has developed to transform the web for the vision impaired more advanced than anything I have heard of before.

Leah Wing with her engaging presentation on Northern Ireland and discourse analysis plus Orna’s presentation on how technology, whether it is directly a party to negotiations or not, is today so omnipresent that it directly affects negotiations were two other very interesting presentations, showcasing that ODR today embraces a variety of disciplines and issues. And even in the strictly legal domain, the manner in which technology is being talked about and used has changed dramatically from 2004, and around the world. Traditional justice systems and court procedures are today being transformed, and though it is not entirely clear how much and how soon it will progress, the UNCITRAL ODR initiative as a global dispute resolution mechanism for small claims is an idea that could not have been thought of were it not for ICTs.

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For my own presentation, I spoke about the One Text initiative from Sri Lanka, of which I helped designed the technical architecture. I also spoke about web visualisation – from election monitoring to flagging the hypocrisy of politicians – as a means to engender moderated conversations online on key issues. Using the example of Nissankamallapura’s Saru Praja Radio, I flagged how ICTs could help even remote villages debate and discuss issues of value to them, through programmes produced and moderated by them.

I threw some challenges to the development of ODR, namely, to look at it more from what one wanted to achieve using technology / ICTs rather than a focus on the technology itself. I noted that for the first time in human history, we were heading towards an addressable humanity – where each one of us will either own or have access to a mobile phone – and the implications of this both for conflict generation as well as for conflict mitigation, early warning and transformation. Allied to this, I also spoke of IP level conflicts on the Internet, that could lead to systemic problems in the technical infrastructure of the web that in turn had real world implications for users and even non-users.

I then used (the brilliant!) Gapminder Desktop to illustrate a key point – the web as it stands now, and by extension ODR platforms and tools as they stand now, are not designed for mobiles. A few years ago, I had to debate the importance of mobiles with leading ODR providers who had only designed and developed their systems for PCs. In just six years, with the explosive growth in mobiles, this argument is now moot, but content and applications for mobiles are still scarce. Underscoring Orna’s point about technology, I then used an illustration from Ross Dawson to make the point that for a new generation, markers and sources of influence that impact inter alia, perception, expression, culture, sense-making and communication, will be from ICTs as well as social / new media. In other words, even the most archaic court system or most complex negotiation would, whether it embraced ICTs or not, be influenced by ICTs.

I ended by flagging some drivers of ODR – like smartphones in the Global North and SMS, IVR and web to voice driven applications in the Global South. As usual, I ended by noting that for me, it was what was done through technology to transform conflict that was more important than the technology itself, though I openly admit that having enough technical expertise to critically analyse and adapt ICTs also helps a great deal.

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