The future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) – Technologies to keep an eye on

I was asked to run the Crystal Ball session at the 2008 Online Dispute Resolution Forum and with Vint Cerf right in front of me, it was an interesting opportunity to go through some of the technologies I felt would change the manner in which ODR systems would be developed and used as well as, more generally, how awareness of ODR would be raised across the world. I called the presentation “Know the Technology” taking from a statement made by a panelist in one of the sessions earlier in the day.

The background to this presentation is encapsulated in a comment I made last year, in response to one by Graham Ross after the 2007 Online Dispute Resolution Forum in Liverpool, England. The points I raised in that comment are still valid.

Slide 2 – Google Maps / Google Earth
I suggested the use of free, web based map mash-ups for ODR, particularly for land / territorial disputes and those that are based on natural resources, demography and ethnic composition. It’s not a new idea, but one that many in the audience I don’t think knew just how is being used even today to transform disputes. As Paul Currion notes, “Geospatial technology will transform the way that people look at the world. Tools like Google Earth and Google Maps offer access to mapping technology for free.” Google Earth (the 3D version) hitherto available only as a standalone app is now on browsers. I’ve used maps to plot election violence and the existence of High Security Zones that contravene International Law in Sri Lanka. One of the most powerful examples of maps being used to save lives is Amnesty International’s Eyes on Darfur project.

Slide 4 – New media, Web 2.0, Twitter et al
The point of this slide was to give a snapshot of the myriad of technologies on the web, internet and also on mobiles – from AJAX to SMS, from blogs to instant messages, from VOIP to video, from emoticons to MMS that are changing the way in which we communicate via and on the web. The suggestion here was that the technologies, as much as ingrained cultures of the users, changed the manner in which interactions took place. Emoticons were, for example, not just seen as eye candy, but a tool that could aid in inter-cultural negotiations by communicating the intended meaning of the written word more accurately. These were all disruptive technologies that with each iteration took communications to an ever increasing user base with more or less equal access to the medium. Blogging platforms for example level the playing field for new voices, allowing those hitherto marginalised to (potentially, relatively easily and for free or very little cost) have as much impact on the web as State propaganda. What would this mean for ODR? Would it help or would it create more conflict? Are ODR tools and technology neutral? What features have been integrated into the current crop of ODR platforms? If not, why not?

Slide 5 – The TSA blog
I said that given that I am a terrorist until proven innocent every time I visit the US, the TSA blog (Transportation Security Administration) was an eye opener on how public input ostensibly makes its way into TSA policies. The content is written in a manner that’s friendly and open, the site itself has generated hundreds of comments as feedback, there is a sensible, open moderation rule set, the content itself is very useful and information, the site is regularly updated and comments responded to and overall a very interesting experiment in how one of the most reviled agencies from the perspective of a foreigner attempting to enter the US can engage in a public relations exercise that is really a conflict resolution / mitigation strategy. This to me is preventive diplomacy in the form of a blog.

Slide 6 – Mobile phone growth
4 years ago, in Melbourne, at the first ODR Forum I attended, I was the ONLY one who spoke about mobile phones and peacebuilding. In Victoria, virtually every single panel and Vint Cerf himself was talking about mobiles being the next platform for web and internet services to reach millions who would never be able to afford and never buy a PC.

Slide 7 – Smartphones
I asked the question, why wasn’t there a single ODR application that ran as a thin client on smartphones? I pictured the new iPhone 3G and the new Blackberry Bold, but I could have also easily said the Nokia N series and a plethora of new phones that really are mini-computers. Rather than treat the smaller form factor and screen size as a negative, when were the developers going to realise that these devices were assets for ODR?

Slide 8 – The iPhone revolutionises mobile web browsing
The stats are clear and incredible. Americans and other users of the iPhone in the DEVELOPED world are using it to browse the web in a manner that no other mobile device has engendered. Though many in the DEVELOPING world use their mobiles phones to send SMS and browse the web, it is only now that users in countries like the US are waking up to the possibilities of the mobile web. When will ODR solutions providers wake up to this new reality? (One solutions provider in fact told me that an iPhone app was in the works – I’m looking forward to that).

Slide 9 – New communities
Strangely, no one talked about Second Life in Victoria. I’ve dealt with Second Life and ODR exhaustively on this blog and suggested that with all the disputes occurring virtually amongst the millions of avatars in Second Life alone, esp. now that you could also access the platform thru your mobile (leave aside other MMORPGs) that virtual dispute resolution could be the next growth industry! After all, SL already has an International Justice Centre and an E-Justice centre!

See my presentation on Second Life below for more salient points:

Slide 10 – Facebook
Using the example of a pending Canadian case against Facebook’s sui generis understanding of and approach to issues related to privacy, I suggested that FB alone would redefine issues related to trust models, confidentiality frameworks and “common sense”.

Slide 11 – Broadband growth
I suggested that the global growth in wired and wireless broadband connectivity laid the foundation for more interactive, media rich ODR frameworks and mechanisms to take the place of / complement the existing crop of tools. Broadband allows for example video conference for free using tools like Skype that can be integrated into ODR tools.

Slide 12 – Telepresence
Cisco’s telepresence technology, though prohibitively expensive, nevertheless shows us the future of video conference. Cisco’s telepresence is the Bentley of video conferencing, but for many, the Volkswagen of the medium – Skype Video – proves adequate, with the new Skye beta version for Windows demonstrating this shift with a stronger emphasis on video.

Slide 13 – End of walled gardens and patents?
Some ODR providers today use patents to protect their ODR products like the incumbent US President George Bush uses the English language – in ways that are wholly nonsensical. I posed three new technologies – Google’s OpenSocial, DataPortability.org and OpenID.net as ways that would challenge the walled gardens of the current crop of ODR solutions. Here’s the scenario – what if your user identity was remotely and securely managed and you could log into and try different ODR products with a single username / password, allowing each system to access your case details as you see fit and seeing which one gives the best solution? No data / user lock in, no giving out personal information to dozens of sites each with varying privacy regulations and security architectures. Simple, effective, neat.

Think not? Think that the best ODR products will always need and warrant patents? Think again. Just take a look at to who has put their names behind Dataportability.org alone.

Free the user and everyone stands to benefit.

So what do YOU think the future of ODR will be, from a technological / technical perspective?

5 comments on “The future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) – Technologies to keep an eye on

  1. Graham Ross
    July 29, 2008 at 6:08 pm #

    Hi Sanjana

    Thank you once again for your stimulating contribution to this year’s Forum.

    Allow me, first of all, to offer some corrections as to the current state of the art. I guess the explanation may lie in the fact that , in the continuing absence as yet of a Human 2.0 who can be at two places at once, you must have missed the technology panel in order to take in the parallel social-cultural panel!

    You say :-
    “…but a year on in Victoria at the ODR Forum this year, no one who demonstrated their products to my knowledge had video as an integral part of the feature set. “

    and

    “Strangely, no one talked about Second Life in Victoria. “

    I did in fact announce and show two developments with TheMediationRoom.com:-

    1.That we now have an audio-video-desktop sharing conferencing facility for online meetings and file sharing managed by the mediator. In addition another speaker on the panel, Jack Draper, showed his SAVIOMM system which is purely video conferencing.

    2.That we have now set up TheMediationRoom in Second Life – built by Manchester Business School. Here parties can talk (audio) in real time with the mediator in private rooms or jointly as well,of course, as sharing files/chat etc.

    You also said:-

    “I asked the question, why wasn’t there a single ODR application that ran as a thin client on smartphones?”

    Although I did not show/talk about our mobile platform, we do have one. In fact, I demoed our then integrated VOIP facility with use of a mobile phone of a member of the audience at one of the evening sessions within the 3rd Forum in Melbourne in 2004.

    There is nothing special about our mobile platform. It is the same software with the design put more simply to better fit the small screen. However, as you point out , cellphone technology has developed such that users can surf the web with ease. As a thin client application, you can in fact use any of our platforms, and no doubt most other ODR appplications, from a smartphone. We have not set out to actively promote cellphone access as I see that as very much client centred. Besides, I do have worries about the impact of too much informality of environment on the mediation process itself and the skill sets applied. Of course when the parties only have access to phones, then it is entirely valid, but we are client led and so far we have not been asked to specifically provide by phone.

    I do not understand why , given the pace of the technology to which you refer, there is any need at all for ODR providers to design tools that are otherwise readily available. By that I mean that, as in your example of ‘mash-ups’ on digital maps, mediators and disputants can readily use them in TheMediationRoom.com, and no doubt with other ODR systems, in any event. Surely this is the whole point about web 2.0. Coincidentally, one of the roleplays in our law school competition involves a dispute with the designer of just such a mapping service and the parties were of course able to link directly to the sites from within the messages posted on TheMediationRoom.com to examine the evidence. Why, therefore, should we have to re-invent the wheel to provide our own mashup?

    You also say:-
    “Think that the best ODR products will always need and warrant patents? Think again. “

    I share your views entirely but think this is largely a non-issue as, in fact, the vast majority of ODR applications, including TheMediationRoom.com, do not have patents.

    Graham

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