Massively distributed intelligence: Two social gaming exercises and ICT4Peace

“10 folks in a small apartment in Egypt used social media and cell phones to start a revolution, and 17 days later the president of many decades is out of power.”

That’s clearly not what happened, but some people will believe what they will especially if simplifying complexity is an opportunity for personal profit or gain. Teaching at the Folke Bernadotte Academy recently, I noted that so many ‘experts’ today lay claim to understanding the underlying dynamics of social and new media’s interplay with democracy, revolution and justice, but few actually have a clue beyond telegenic soundbites and well crafted sentences. How then to understand complexity? One is to live it, but most don’t have that luxury, or want it. For over ten years, my interest in ICTs for peacebuilding stems not just from a theoretical or academic interest. It is my life, what I do, what I champion, and where through failure I’ve learnt more than any PhD thesis has taught me. It’s also, for obvious reasons, not a life that offers much space for open reflection, the time for introspection, or scaling up micro-projects that show potential to have wider impact, and application. Speaking about his new book Revolution 2.0, Wael Gonim notes,

“I don’t personally trust any tool,” he said. “I trust the people behind the tool.” And that remains the most important lesson of Revolution 2.0. Technology is just an enabler. It is what people decide to do with it that matters most.

Emphasis mine. Eight years ago, in June 2004, for my Masters thesis titled Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding , I wrote,

Successful conflict transformation does not come in the form of technology per se, but in the ability of societies to organically develop their social capital to then engage with the possibilities of developing non-violent creative ways of addressing inequality, exclusion and legitimate grievances.

At the end of the day, computers and technology don’t create just and lasing peace. Technology can only augment the human imperative – we make peace between ourselves and within ourselves. ICT is at best a powerful catalyst that aids change. People make the difference.

It sometimes takes a revolution in a larger country to bring to the world’s attention truths self-evident to me after even just a few years of attempting to use ICTs to strengthen peacebuilding, within cycles of violence. How can this learning be more widespread? Two ideas present themselves today, and both are social experiments using mobile communications and social media on a scale hitherto never seen.

The first is Tag Challenge, which is described as,

“…a social gaming competition in which participants are invited to find “suspects” in a simulated law enforcement search in five different cities throughout North America and Europe on March 31, 2012. In order to win, a participant or team must be the first to successfully locate and photograph all volunteer suspects—the nefarious and elusive “Panther Five”—and submit verifiable photographs to the contest organisers.”

As a blog post in Wired avers,

“Exactly how teams will pull off this manhunt, even the Challenge’s organizer’s aren’t sure; finding one man among millions won’t be easy. But it’s clear that the job will require dozens and dozens of sleuths, and a way to share tips almost instantly. ‘How will teams mobilize and coordinate this network?’” project organizer J.R. deLara asks. ‘Unknown.'”

The registration page of the second exercise looks positively boring in comparison. And the objective, far less glamorous than the compelling fiction of hunting down jewel thieves. It’s to hunt down QR codes. And yet, the gaming principles are very similar to TAG Challenge, and you know when DARPA’s sponsoring something, that they are dead serious about the analysis and indeed application of results.

As an article on Tech Crunch notes,

“So, as DARPA puts it, this is more a test of exchanging information via social media. You’ve got people all over the place scanning these codes, which are supposed to represent water, food, generators, and so on. You advertise what you’ve got, leverage your social connections, start a website, make an app — however you want to do it. The winner is either the person who collects all the codes or the person with the most when the contest ends on the 12th.

You’re not going to rank even if you scanned every code for a hundred miles. You need the others to volunteer their information, and they need you to do the same, with the shared goal of getting all that info in one place as fast as possible. It’s a fairly good representation of the problem they are investigating.”

Exercises of this nature have been held before (DARPA’s own Red Balloon experiment being a good example) but the scale of both TAG Challenge, which spans many countries, and CLIQRQuest, which spans the entirely of the US, is unprecedented. No one team, or even a geographically dispersed organised group stands any chance of success in either of exercises if information isn’t shared, if ways of communicating that information in near real time aren’t figured out, if ways of archiving, geo-fencing, plotting on to heat maps, then distributing that intelligence to hundreds of people via persistent means aren’t figured out or if personal, institutional, geo-spatial, technical, cultural or other impediments to sustained information sharing aren’t ironed out. In sum, these two exercises encapsulate the complexity one often sees in complex political emergencies and many humanitarian operations, where the challenge is to maintain operational efficiency and effectiveness in austere physical and communications conditions.

Why is this important for ICT4Peace? Chances are DARPA and the US State Department want to farm the experiences, techniques, tools, platforms and means through which large groups of people swarm together for a common purpose, over a limited time. Through TAG Challenge they may learn how different people in different countries approach the same problem. Chance and good luck can come into play, but the challenges of verification, logistics, coordination and collaboration will be common across all game theatres. Through CLIQRQuest DARPA may find secrets about motivational techniques used by the most successful of the participants to glean information from others vital to their own tasks, and how viral campaigns to broad base the challenge of securing information (in this case taking a shot of QR code and sharing that, even if one is not part of the competition) can be created in a short time through various incentives. Chances are that all this learning will go primarily into initiatives like Nexus 7 – multi-million dollar projects with no discernible impact on human security or justpeace.

If shared more widely though, the raw data from studying the two initiatives can feed into better models, tools and platforms that can help in real world peacebuilding – from systems that can very rapidly adapt to communal interests and ground conditions to back-end analysis platforms and visualisation engines that help analysts make sense of thousands of disparate data streams in real time, useful for example in peace negotiations to understand, in near real time, the mood swings of a vote base based on key points in a proposed peace agreement. It can also be used in peacekeeping, where even in austere conditions, the network of people in a particular context, through the information they can provide, is more useful for operational responses than HQ generated situation reports, or analyses.

As Wired goes on to note,

George Washington University graduate student J.R. deLara looked at these contests — and others — as part of a State Department-sponsored conference on trans-Atlantic security and social media. The contests “were making these claims about the ability of social networks to accomplish real-time tasks in real life. That this wasn’t just a parlor trick,” deLara tells Danger Room.

“So we thought: Let’s test this. Let’s test this question,” he adds. “Could you really use these strategies to find a person of interest, a vehicle of interest, or some actionable intelligence?”

Actionable intelligence can mean many things, but in the domain of peacebuilding, could mean better tools and models to help us understand the implications of what we are doing, have done or propose to do in order to strengthen peace and justice. If one agrees with the submission that peacebuilding today is inextricably entwined with how social media is produced, disseminated, consumed, comprehended and then acted upon, these twin exercises hold great value for those interested in the systems design perspective of peacebuilding, as well as engineers and students interested in mobile, desktop and web applications better able to help people communicate vital information.

It is unclear to what extent both exercises will provide this information even to participants, leave aside a wider public. But useful nevertheless to keep an eye on both, as get a glimpse into how in the very near future, peacebuilding processes can and should be designed around.

The technology will matter. But the people who choose to use it, and how, matter more.

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