Critical thoughts on the Liverpool ODR Forum – April 2007

The 5th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Liverpool, England was above all else, a chance to see Beatles memorabilia and have a pint at The Cavern.

Richard Susskind made an appearance, and the conference started off with a statement by Daewon Choi, who set the stage for my panel on ODR and Conflict Transformation.

Two of Daewon’s points are worth repeating here:

Paragraph 13 of the Geneva Plan of Action of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) encourages “the ongoing work in the area of effective dispute settlement systems, notably Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), which can promote settlement of disputes.” And the WSIS went further, as Paragraph 36 of the Tunis Commitment states that the Members States “value the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to promote peace and to prevent conflict which, inter alia, negatively affects achieving development goals.’ We can thus consider ODR as a tool not just for economic dispute resolutions, but as a tool for peace, health and social development.


In the Asia and Pacific region, ODR also has an enhanced role as an empowerment tool for rural and poor people who have little access to dispute resolution by other means.

In return, the rest of the world will benefit, as the next generation of online dispute resolution systems emerge from Asia and the Pacific, that will reflect cultural diversity of the region, its unique socio-political textures, and the specificity of its ICT, more mobile phone oriented than PC oriented.

These echoed what I’ve submitted as ideas to this august & expanding group of lawyers, mediators, negotiators, system designers and ADR practitioners since 2004. Sadly, not a single of the systems that were displayed during the sessions were sensitive to these points.

I begin then with the worst. All of the ODR systems showcased in Liverpool were around 4 years behind the curve of current developments in technology. Juripax was the most interesting, and most in tune with tenets of inter-cultural negotiations and new media. The rest of the systems looked (and indeed were) old, based on legacy databases, textual, visually unappealing, horrendously complex, operated largely in English and in general, no better than the Groove based One Text system we developed, with absolutely no international support for the design or implementation of, in Sri Lanka 4 years ago.

At the time we had (through the features built into Groove Virtual Office) secure VoIP, synchronous & asynchronous data communications, multimedia support, multi-lingual support through PDF’s, Instant Messaging, direct Windows XP operating system integration for folder content synchronisation, GIS and decision support tools, with more security for on disk storage as well as point to point communications than any one of the current crop of ODR solution can speak of. Though InfoShare soon outgrew the limitations of our Groove based platform, and its a singular pity that leading systems designers and ODR platforms have yet to avail themselves of developments in technology such as Skype, AJAX and new media to create systems that are easier to use, faster to respond, adaptive, multi-lingual, visually appealing and above all else, more effective.

This is not the first time I’ve strongly encouraged ODR developers to take heed of these new developments, but the resistance to change from those who are conceptually prisoners of the PC-based ODR solutions paradigm is significant. Clearly, the need to raise awareness on and develop solutions for mobile phones for ODR is yet to fully take root.

Two other points are worth mentioning. One, as I’ve noted earlier, not a single  mainstream ODR system was geared to address, even in a small way, the needs of those who are differently abled and visually challenged. Two, the lack of a standards based data format for ODR makes it impossible to migrate information from one system to another. Although ODR XML standards have been discussed in the past, nothing seems to have been developed to date that provides a standard for information & data exchange between various ODR systems.

On the positive side, this was the most interesting Forum in terms of those who were genuinely interested in the use of technology for peacebuilding. My presentation and ideas resulted in an offer to contribute two chapters on ICT4Peace and Serious Games for Peacebuilding, topics which I’ve covered extensively on this blog, in an up-coming publication on ODR by the University of Liverpool. It was also a pleasure meeting Leah Wing, whose presentation on Northern Ireland’s reconciliation process was insightful and instructive for those who sought to develop technology to support such fragile processes. At the end of my presentation, I urged those present to think of a larger humanity and of more urgent crises such as Darfur.

I hope the message was heard.

Daewon’s points about the use of technology in Asia serving as an example to the rest of the world are prescient. While on the one hand ODR has matured tremendously from even 3 years ago, there’s much to be unlearnt and learnt by this community if mainstream solutions are going to address the protracted and complex ethnic, social & political conflicts I’ve proposed ODR needs to deal with.

Not all have to join in. But the development of better ODR systems will require the collective wisdom of all those who are already designing, implementing & using such systems.

On balance, I think Liverpool was a turning point in the acceptance & awareness of conflict transformation in ODR, which as I said in my presentation, will possibly always remain at the periphery of mainstream ODR, but will be increasingly an important part of the overall body of practice and theory. As ever, the aisle, mens-room and hotel corridor conversations were the most delightful – such as dealing with the English Barrister who came up to me and said that he loved my presentation, but thought that using Second Life for conflict transformation was quite silly given that cricket was a far better way of resolving disputes!

Most everyone quoted their favourite Beatles song’s during their presentations and intros, and I finally found one by John Lennon that captures the essence of what I’ve for years said at these Forums.


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5 thoughts on “Critical thoughts on the Liverpool ODR Forum – April 2007

  1. Sanjana – you are absolutely right to say that the platforms shown at the 5th ODR Forum did not demonstrate the latest technology. In our case, this is a conscious decision to keep the entry point low. I covered this point specifically in Cairo with a slide of a ladder showing the need to get people on that first rung , including advocating ODR as a preparation tool for in person DR, rather than alienating the market with too fast a promotion of the leading edge technologies. You have to remember that in order to gain uptake its the traditionalists who have to be convinced not those already on message. We are ready to include Skype – indeed I did a live demo at Melbourne (3rd Forum) of integrated VOIP – as well as synchronous messaging and multi-media facilities, which are not demanding to integrate these days, but will only introduce to users once they are comfortable with the notion itself of using online communication. You must understand that currently the (very few) ADR practitioners who use email think they are way ahead of the game for that fact alone. I love what you are doing and where you are taking the peace building theme to the Forum and I can’t wait to see TheMediationRoom having all the latest toys in the box, but there is marketing sense right now in keeping the technology bus waiting just a little while at the stop until more get on board.

  2. Dear Graham,

    Thanks for responding. This is an interesting discussion, since you assume that users need to ease into online communications more in order to introduce new features such as those that I’ve enumerated in my post. I argue the contrary, that the introduction of features that make the experience of ODR better and more effective will engender confidence in the systems, and in turn, expand the number of users. I can’t prescribe definitively what path you should take, but from my own experience, I would suggest that the introduction of features needs to be done proactively. The One Text and citizen journalism sites I’ve developed are using technologies to foster online conversations that are entirely new to Sri Lanka as a means of conducting dialogue on extremely emotive issues. As noted, even 4 years ago we were able to create systems that engaged stakeholders at the highest political levels, some with no experience of technology or negotiating through new technology. Clearly, something worked in what we did, for the requests were for more technology to support the discussions as opposed to less, which I put down to the multi-media and multi-lingual approach we adopted, that lowered the learning curve for those new to technology.

    One can also find an interesting parallel, inter alia, in the development of cartography on the web. Once, all we had was static images with superimposed layers of graphics – slow, unwieldy, requiring broadband access to even access a low-resolution map and generally difficult to use. That we did use these maps, with all their failings, is more about having to do with what the technology is as opposed to being satisfied with it. It took Google, and Google Maps, with its use of AJAX, and open API and after the acquisition of Google Earth, the development of KML, that revolutionised the manner in which cartography is now everything from visually appealing to truly useful. Besides, it runs on mobile phones!

    So clearly, innovation has a role to play in evolution, and my central argument is that I don’t enough of it with the current crop of ODR systems. This is on account of a variety of reasons, and frankly, easier from the outside to critique than to change from within, especially if one has sunk millions of dollars into the development of a systems that parallel development in web / internet technologies have rendered obsolete. But the growth of Skype, Flickr, Google Maps for business, YouTube and social networking technologies and sites in general point to what many thought was plain silly at the time of their launch. The millions of users for whom such technologies are now second nature proved the nay-sayers wrong, and I can only submit that a new generation of web users, used to such cutting edge website, will find present-day ODR systems frustrating and soporific. And since they are the one who in the future will constitute your consumer, the signals to me are clear – change or perish.



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