Parley for Peace and Online Dispute Resolution

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It’s tough to find a company engaged in ICT4Peace & ODR with a sense of understated humour. Parley is thus a rare find – from its name (imaginative and resonant) to the manner in which it sells itself. While I think it’s tag line is hugely ambitious and may only ever be successful and relevant in commercial disputes (Negotiations, solved it goes), Parley defines itself as:

Parley is the first software that lets negotiators easily use current research to improve the results of their negotiations. It helps to identify relevant issues and resolutions, evaluate the parties’ preferences, find efficient agreements and track the negotiation history.

What interested me the most was the scenarios, and in those listed, one on the Middle – East conflict. Sadly, the average American consciousness does not extend beyond the Middle-East and Afghanistan when it comes to ethno-political conflicts and terrorism, but Parley’s tongue-in-the-cheek approach to the Mid-East conflict is wonderfully refreshing:

Parley can be used to build lasting agreements in international conflicts. In Mideast.parley, included in the trial version, we analyzed the mideast conflict. You can find a detailed description in our blog.

Please note that we can’t promise World Peace until version 2.6.

When you do visit Part 1 and Part 2 of the blog entries dealing with the Mid-East conflict and the software tool’s visualisation of negotiations options, the humour continues:

Parley analyzes 21,600 different possible agreements. A negotiation that’s more complex than the middle east peace process, such as a lease agreement in NYC, can have millions of possible contracts. The analysis takes a few seconds and we’re presented with a nice graph.

Of course, any CR specialist will find loop holes and inaccuracies (though to the developer’s credit, no gross over simplifications of the conflict are evident), the point I wish to note here is that the manner in which Parley is introduced makes even a seasoned and peace negotiations hardened CR specialist want to read and find out more about the programme. Just on that point though, even though I was animated by the description, I still couldn’t install it – as this is a Windows only programme.

This is disappointing.

Along with many others, I’ve told developers for the past 3 years at least that increasing web services (and increasing features, reliability and ubiquitous access through mobile devices) makes it rather inadvisable to stick to a platform (or indeed browser) dependent model. I’m not advocating open source per se, but certain web based, open standards based, models that can be access by any computer (incl. the OLPC) and an increasing plethora of mobile devices that I foresee will be, a few years hence, the primary means through which ODR processes will be conducted.

Parley also seems to be deeply steeped in the Harvard Negotiation Process (HNP) model, which inter alia, attempts to locate the problem separately from the people who are embroiled in it. This is not often possible, or desirable, in the transformation of complex and long standing ethno-political disputes, especially those that are violent. The developers of Parley, again to their credit, acknowledge this:

This conflict is 50 years old, and it won’t be solved by software. Strong emotions are involved, and they won’t be overcome without the will to compromise.

Which is why its then confusing to me as to how, beyond the obvious commercial interest in positioning Parley to be a tool that’s useful to analyse and understand the Middle-East conflict, it will be used by those on involved in actual negotiations to help the process progress. This is not an indictment on the inapplicability of Parley, but rather, to caution those in search of technology to help processes that a careful selection is needed – software and tools that are built for commercial disputes and those of a familial nature often lack the complexity and adaptability to deal with ethno-political negotiations.

InfoShare’s Groove based One-Text system (now dated, but designed by me & others to respond to an actual process of peace negotiations in Sri Lanka and Nepal) offers a glimpse into how systems such as Parley can feed into the designs of tools and platform that are specifically geared for conflict transformation in the future.

If only for the extremely agreeable manner that Parley presents itself, I wish them well, and hope they are able through their experience in the development of their tools, move quickly into a web services model that I can try out for myself.

2 comments on “Parley for Peace and Online Dispute Resolution

  1. Matthias Winkelmann
    December 5, 2006 at 12:28 am #

    Thank you for the kind words. To address two points you made:

    Web services are great, but for some software, a GUI application still has some advantages:

    – the User Interface is easier to customize, especially when you deal with graphs etc.
    – people don’t necessarily want to enter their private data into a system controlled by someone else
    – you can’t use a web service when you’re offline, i. e. in a plane or at the negotiation table

    I’d love to offer a Mac version and we’re thinking about offering one. All of the development was done on macs, as the newer once are now able to boot into windows.

    Regarding the use of software in negotiations:

    As you quoted, software doesn’t solve problems by itself. In the case of the Mideast Conflict, I suspect that lots of people have vested interests in the conflict and actually want it to continue. The analysis just helps to find a good solution once people decide they want to solve it.

    best wishes,

    Matthias

  2. ict4peace
    December 5, 2006 at 11:19 am #

    Hi Matthias,

    Thanks for responding to the points I brought up. I’m very pleased to note that there will, hopefully in the near future, be a Mac version to play around with.

    My submission for your consideration of a web services platform was cognisant of the points you bring up. It’s important for me, however, that peace processes are based on open standards for information exchange between various systems – and data lock-in in the silos of OS X or Windows is to be sub-optimal than a web based system that would offer a thin client – say running on Java – that interfaces with web services.

    We adopted a hybrid approach in Sri Lanka in the early days of our peace process support using Groove Virtual Office, a quasi-P2P application that allowed for offline access as well as online collaboration, albeit running on Windows.

    It’s because we soon ran into the limitations of a puresly fat client approach that our work today focuses more on web based applications that run on any PC and on any browser, riding the wave of open source fervour that is around us as well.

    But my suggestions were more than lip service to FOSS – and was based on, as I’ve written earlier in this blog, a strong belief that as mobile devices get more complex and capable, we need to devise ways through which online dispute resolution (ODR) and negotiations support systems (such as Parley) will run on them – incl. PDA’s, smart phones and a new generation of multimedia capable phones such as Nokia’s N Series, that fully utilise 3G services to render information on their screens that were hitherto only the domain of PCs.

    This is not to say that I disagree with you, but rather, to submit that a complementary approach to the further development of Parley would be to introduce web based services that can be accessed through whatever client end solutions you develop – giving negotiators the ability to work offline on key data and then, when connected, use online services as well.

    I realise however that you may well be a small development team and that you are currently doing your best – I value your work and also your interest in ethnic and other identity based conflict. I can only caution you, after years of working in this field (and indeed, living in a country with death all around) that software support for peace processes need to be innovative, adaptive, creative, responsive to impossible demands set by the process itself, and adopt a spectrum of technologies for access and information sharing – OS, browser or proprietary technology based solutions may offer unique features, but the lack of interoperability, the lack of standards, the lack of flexibility and the lock into systems which the process itself soon outgrows often leads to the exacerbation of violence, distrust and conflict amongst the parties concerned.

    I wish you well in your endeavours,

    Best wishes,

    Sanjana Hattotuwa

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