Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), the financial downturn and innovation

Tucked away recently in the Real Estate section of the New York Times was an article that resonated a great deal with the evolution of Online Dispute Resolution since 2004. The E-Mail Handshake is a fascinating take on how the current economic downturn is influencing modes of communication in real estate deals.

In the current market, with fewer apartments being sold and buyers waiting to scrape the bottom of the market, many brokers say that the immediacy of e-communication often helps them keep deals alive… Can a negotiation be conducted entirely via e-mail? How much and what kind of information can be shared online? Are there times when agents and clients should put their BlackBerrys away and pick up the telephone? Are exclamation points and smiley faces unprofessional?

These are questions that the ODR community has grappled with for years. While the article does not once mention ODR or demonstrates any interest in the resolution of disputes that may arise on account of miscommunication, this is an area rich in study and experience for the ODR community. There have been exhaustive studies on, for example, the intepretation of emoticons particularly between cultures. Again, as this paper notes,

It takes more than computer skill to be able to negotiate one’s interests successfully online. The notion that English serves as a neutral lingua franca is a dangerous myth. Although both disputants may seem fluent in English, natives and non-natives English users do not perform on a level playing-field. Many claim that English is the world language. But to describe English in such terms ignores the fact that a majority of the world’s citizens do not speak English, whether as a mother tongue or as a second or foreign language

And while the greatest minds involved in ODR suggest that avatars may help with negotiations, applications of ODR in the real world suggest that low-bandwidth, textual communications amongst stakeholders (e.g. email, SMS / texting) especially amongst relationships anchored to a one off business interest (e.g. a buyer and broker of a house) are far more common than the usage of full blown ODR systems.

The NYT article does note that, “One of the keys to a successful online negotiation is to make sure agents and clients have met to establish a relationship.” This may work well in real estate client – broker relationships, but in my own adaptations of ODR for more complex work in peace negotiations, this is not always possible or in fact desirable.

The article prompted me to think briefly about some topics I hope the up-coming annual ODR Forum, to be held in Haifa this year, will address.

  • I’ve gone into some detail about technologies I believe will define the evolution of ODR systems. Most ODR systems out there are and look really antiquated. They cannot for example leverage business opportunities that present themselves in the form of resolving disputes that arise in, and must be mediated in, the mobile domain (e.g. communications on Blackberry’s and iPhones). There is only one ODR system I know of today  – the Canadian engineered Smartsettle – that is being engineered to run on a iPhone. How can the industry be nudged to realise that there are business opportunities for innovative ODR solutions and mechanisms especially within the current global economic downturn?
  • Can ODR systems that leverage virtual face to face technologies, like synchronous or asynchronous video (from recorded video testimonials stored in and accessed from the cloud, to Skype and telepresence) be promoted as alternatives to expensive, inter-state or international travel?
  • Ushahidi offers some fascinating and near real time visualisations of ground conditions for various situations – from elections to refugees – along with seamless integration with mobile devices. Can this technology be leveraged for the resolution of some land and resource based conflicts? I believe it can, and I am actively working on a system based on Ushahidi to demonstrate just this.
  • FrontlineSMS offers today a remarkable technology called FrontlineForms, “FrontlineForms allows you to create copies of very simple paper forms on your computer, which can then be sent to a Java-enabled mobile phone through a text message. This phone can then be handed to staff or partners who can then take it to the field and enter the information they are required to collect directly onto the phone (by following a trimmed-down version of the on-screen form you have created for them). Once the data input is complete, the information collected can be sent back to FrontlineSMS as a compressed text message, giving you up-to-date and real-time information. Other solutions are available that provide data collection functionality, but many rely on data connectivity via the mobile phone network, or specialist devices or PDAs. FrontlineSMS does not, and only requires that you have a basic Java-enabled phone and a mobile signal. If forms are completed in an area where there is no signal they will be held in the phone until a signal is detected, after which they will be safely sent.” (Emphasis mine).
  • What implications will this technology have for ODR applications in developing countries (and even in North America)? Can one for example imagine the growth of one business model for ODR that adapts lightweight forms for data collection and dispute resolution amongst clients using only mobile devices, which as the NYT article suggests are in any case their primary means of communication?

Any other ideas? I am really sad to miss Orna, Ethan, Colin, Daniel, Ayo, Frank, Mohamed and others in Haifa, but I know they and others present at the meeting will discuss these issues in greater detail. I believe there is a heightened importance for effective and pervasive ODR in the current economic downturn, where it’s not just about cutting costs, its about getting the best value from existing assets. And that frankly means looking at mobiles and as the NYT articles highlights, new negotiation and communication models that are emerging as a result of changing times.

More innovation, not less, is called for.

3 thoughts on “Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), the financial downturn and innovation

  1. Sanjana, This is a very interesting post. I’m a mediator with ICT background. I just did some (unpaid) professional work with a Canadian NGO on an e-governance project in the Philippines. I now understand your ideas better – i.e., regarding use and suitability of mobiles for dispute resolution.

    I’m wonder though how this could be applied in my home country (Canada). As strange as it seems (given climate of fiscal constraint), it is hard to get government on-board with low-cost ODR solutions – we’re just not used to doing business that way it seems!

    So, as a solo mediation practitioner, I’m wondering how your ideas could be applied here – especially given mobiles are so ubiquitous (even here in Canada)? I’m trying to use ODR (e.g., via Skype), yet your ideas are most intriguing. Wish me luck in connecting with other like-minded people!

    Regards, Ben

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