The future of technology in peacebuilding: Presentation at MIT Media Lab

In early April this year, I was invited to deliver a keynote address at the inaugural Build Peace conference, held at MIT Media Lab. My presentation was given, almost to the day, twenty years after the Rwandan genocide. Just before I went on stage, we all observed a minute’s silence to remember the victims.

The genocide wasn’t on my mind when I made the slides for the presentation, but brought into sharp focus the thrust of my submission, which was to look ten to fifteen years into the future, and how information and communications technologies (ICTs) would feature in both the genesis and inflammation of complex political emergencies (CPEs) – in other words, violent conflict – as well as aid in peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

I knew when preparing for the keynote that the previous speakers, discussions and breakout groups would showcase and debate what had happened over the past couple of years around the adoption and adaptation of ICTs for peacebuilding, and what was for most today, the state-of-the-art in using ICTs for conflict transformation. From even before my Masters thesis in 2004 and related research based on my technical input around a real world high-level conflict negotiations process, I  submitted that ICTs would invariably change the praxis and theories of conflict mitigation and transformation.

I was, and remain deeply skeptical about fourth generation early warning architectures – less around recent and rapid advancements in say algorithmic filtering and predictive analytics around big data, and more around the enduring and often tragic lack of any political will to act on warnings, which technology has been unable to influence.

My presentation wasn’t about the present. It was about how with the evolution of technology, violent conflict itself, as well as the frameworks around its transformation, would change. Given the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, and just as I was ascending the stage to deliver the keynote, I could not help but wonder – for all the apps, services, websites, tools and platforms showcased during the workshop, could any of us be certain that another genocide could be prevented, or acted upon quicker?

I began by briefly touching on my own experience with technology for peace-building, stretching over 12 years, starting with input into the technical architectures of the One-Text negotiations process in Sri Lanka, the setting up of Groundviews and examples like 30 Years Ago, which use web media to interrogate the violence around Sri Lanka’s anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983. In outlining my vision for the future I noted two caveats – the future is never really what we imagine it will be, and attempting to envision or outline it requires us to also acknowledge that we are products of our own ‘filter bubbles’, a term derived from Eli Pariser’s book and TED Talk.

I didn’t talk about a single technology by name in my presentation, opting instead to look at ICTs in peacebuilding from a meta or conceptual level. The first concept was that of radical inclusion, where like it or not, voices hitherto at the margins, periphery or violent erased could and would record their stories, and disseminate it to a wider public, through a range of media. I anchored this concept to three examples from Sri Lanka – how citizen journalism and civic media had helped  bear witness and flag the murder of Ganesan Nimalaruban, thousands of citizens, largely Tamil, abducted even post-war,and the plight of IDPs whose lands had been appropriated by the State. Here were stories, I submitted, that wouldn’t have been recorded were it not for a range of advances in technologies to record, disseminate, archive and engage. I argued that whereas in the past, a conflict negotiations process was anchored largely to the politics and optics of inclusion, technology’s development would see this focus change to the management of exclusion, in a context where everyone – spoilers included – had a voice as powerful as the actors involved in a negotiations or peacebuilding process.

I then looked at the development of algorithmic analysis and modelling of conflict in particular, but society and polity in general, called it a new math of discrimination. Again taking from Pariser’s seminal work in this regard, but also looking at access to the web from a rights perspectives, I noted that how we experienced the web, and how our actions on the web and Internet were recorded, were governed by architectures of power and control invisible to us, residing in not just (illiberal) governments, but more often, in multinational corporations. I posed the question as to how in the future, someone utterly dependent on the web and Internet for basic needs, and discriminated against as a consequence of purchasing, viewing, browsing or downloading habits, could critically question the algorithms behind the targeting.

If anyone doubts the power of algorithms to shape our work, spent fifteen minutes watching Kevin Slavin’s TED Talk. What futures are we allowing corporate math to decide for us?

I then looked at the Internet of Things (IoT), and how what I called an ‘addressable world’ – including both the animate and inanimate – would change our interactions within and between, for example, communities, networks and identity groups. I have for a while followed in earnest the development of the game Watch Dogs, and posited the game’s unique narrative as one that wasn’t entirely removed from a very real future scenario. I asked the question, when does intelligence turn into surveillance? I asked how one could even remotely maintain control over privacy within ecosystem of competing owners, location sensors, proxy indicators, sentient nodes, ambient observation, pervasive automation.

On Slide 21, I posited key challenges from a rights and ethical perspective around the IoT, anchored to who controlled it. I submitted that no one at the workshop – which included some of the world’s leading minds – and few outside it had even begun to think about the implications the IoT would have on conflict transformation, including for example systemic (IP level) conflict resolution between networks, the possibility of low-level network failure leading to a cascading failure of higher-level essential services, and a new discrimination born of those who could afford to tailor the IoT to their needs, and those hostage to it.

I went on to speak about the privatisation of information on the web, including in peacebuilding domains. Noting that current conflict transformation models largely looked at conflict through a liberal democratic lens, or some form of an inclusive, participatory, discursive model of systemic transformation, the corporate ownership of content could mean that in the future, shareholders of key companies would have more power and control over public domain information than any government or transnational authority like the UN.

In discussions with close friend and tech visionary Ruha Devanesan, leading up the conference, we concurred that it was important to underscore the importance and existence of ICT innovation and intellectual resources within contexts of violent conflict. We were both concerned about the articulation of ICTs for peacebuilding as a new ‘white man’s burden‘ – where it was the West that was the sole repository of knowledge, innovation and technologies for conflict transformation.

Here I pitched a novel idea – the setting up of a Peace Tech Corps, on the lines of the hugely influential and valuable Peace Corps. In addition to the focus on ICTs for peace-building, I submitted that the enterprise could be a South-South exchange, focusing on innovation, knowledge resources and experience of those who lived in, came from and fight against violence, to help others in similar circumstances. In a nod to the compelling iHub concept, I also called for the establishment of tech incubators for peacebuilding.

My submission then focused on how peace negotiations would change as a consequence of the evolution in ICTs. I wondered what, for example, the future of the Chatham House rule would be in a world of wearable, digestible, biologically implanted, omnipresent computing. Slide 32 reflected peace negotiations as they stand today – closed door, high-level meetings attended by an elite, from which the majority of society and even polity is excluded. Vint Cerf, just before the Build Peace, appeared on a very interesting Google Hangout, and spoke towards the end of a future wherein fridges, connected to the Internet, could be used in an attack against the Bank of America. I went further, and asked what implication a DDoS attack using devices connected to the IoT could have on the information backbone and communications around a complex peace negotiations process. Instead of just leaving it at that, I also asked participants to visualise a future where the first building blocks of inter and intra-communal understanding could come, at an IP / systemic level, by our fridges and TVs exchanging, respectively, what the ‘other’ community ate and saw. The banality of reality TV and utterly unhealthy food consumption, seen through TVs and home appliances that communicated the very ingredients of life as it were, could help raise awareness around commonalities, shared hopes and desires, through family recipes, common ingredients and bad TV.

Could there be an IP range, for the IoT, dedicated to peace through peaceful means?

In contrast to the negotiations at the UN Security Council or even the Belfast Agreement at Stormont Castle, I looked at the rapid evolution of life-logging, and how a myriad of such content streams – one, theoretically, possible for each person on the planet – would fundamentally revise and shape conflict transformation processes. I asked how the realities of violent conflict, streamed live to millions of devices from multiple perspectives across a range of media could help or hinder a negotiations process. This I said was the future of Big Data, going beyond the merely episodic to a continuous, live, ever increasing stream of feeds we can already see the growth of today.

Fundamentally, I asked, how would technology change the way those born into the world today – digital natives – perceived justice?

I ended by looking at why technology in peacebuilding matters more than marketing spiels, snazzy presentations or visually compelling apps. I noted that the focus and intent of technology matters, and that it must always be directed to the strengthening of dignity and be used in within an ethical framework.

In painting a largely dystopian future, with open challenges to use the evolution of ICTs to strengthen peacebuilding and conflict transformation, I ended by appropriating Browning’s verse, calling upon participants to think beyond what they had seen, debated and imagined over the duration of Build Peace and anchor intellectual and technology development to what must be, yet still is not.

My presentation can be downloaded as a high-quality PDF from here, or viewed below.

A video of my submission, recorded live, can be seen below.

An ethical and rights based framework for non-lethal use of UAVs and drones

Cross-posted from the ICT4Peace Foundation’s blog.


I March this year, Patrick Meier wrote to me and to Daniel Stauffacher, the head of the ICT4Peace Foundation, to give input into what at the time was a draft note around creating a global network of civilian UAV pilots to support humanitarian efforts. The draft concept note was a compelling call to focus on what is already a growing practice of using UAVs for non-lethal purposes, ranging from post-disaster needs assessments to their use in development programmes. The stigma justifiably associated with and perception of UAVs as vehicles of lethal harm is rooted in, to date, their predominant real-world use as offensive machines of war, anchored to discourses on terrorism.

Meier’s vision, as Daniel and I saw it, was to create the space and a platform to study, explore, champion and critically analyse examples where UAVs were used “in a safe and ethical way that gains public acceptance and trust” by creating “a global volunteer network of responsible civilian and hobbyist UAV pilots to facilitate information sharing, coordination and operational safety in support of humanitarian efforts.”

I took the lead in responding to Patrick’s draft and focussed on,

  • Issues of spectrum management, so as to avoid mid-air collisions and radio frequency interference that in high density operations, can lead to inadvertent harm to operators and others in and around flight paths,
  • The pre-dominant need for ethical frameworks to govern the use of UAVs in humanitarian domains and contexts, and a rights based approach to their introduction, including the information collected as a consequence of their operation.
  • To create a global forum for an open, civil discussion on the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes
  • The need to differentiate (in terms of operational ceiling but also based on intent) UAV operations in humanitarian contexts with UAVs that provide Internet access, for example, as mooted by several companies to date.
  • Working with existing groups and platforms like Crisis Mappers, OpenStreetMaps and Tomnod to see how UAV derived imagery could be used to crowdsource and expedite analysis.
  • How higher frequency of image gathering along with better resolution, the greater possibility of community ownership of and access to UAV acquired information, far lower operational costs in comparison to satellite image acquisition and analysis, faster capture to delivery mechanisms and other factors position UAV imagery as that which can complement (not replace) traditional satellite imagery based analysis and responses around disasters.
  • The challenge of regulating or governing UAV use around disasters, and despite these challenges, the need for some sort of regulation and governance around their use via a Code of Conduct and other enabling legislation on international and domestic levels
  • The need to proactively generate ideas and critically analyse use cases around UAV use in non-lethal contexts, so that best practices can be drawn up from their increasing use globally.

Subsequent to this feedback and the launch of, the Foundation was invited by Patrick Meier to become one of the network’s founding advisors, comprised of some of the world’s leading thinkers, researchers and operators of UAVs in non-lethal domains.

FlipBoard magazines on ICT4Peace, Crisis Mapping, Big Data, Drones and more

I’ve been for a while a daily consumer of content through FlipBoard. I first downloaded it on to my iPad Mini around 3 years ago and have since found it an indispensable app to keep up with the information and news I want to follow. It helps that it’s also one of the best looking apps around for smartphones and tablets. Over time, the app allowed users to curate and publish, using the app, their own magazines.

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I launched the Groundviews FlipBoard magazine in 2013, which to date remains the only media related magazine published out of Sri Lanka on the platform.

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Also last year, I launched FlipBoard magazines around ICTs in peacebuilding and another on crisis mapping. Leading up to the International Crisis Mappers Conference 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya (ICCM), I created and formally launched at the event a FlipBoard magazine around Big Data, with a specific focus on the humanitarian and peacebuilding domains. These three magazines I curate on behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation.

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In March this year, I created and launched a FlipBoard magazine on the use of UAVs/drones in humanitarian relief and for non-lethal purposes. This also I curate on behalf of the ICT4Peace Foundation.

There are close to 2,000 subscribers in total for these magazines, which is indicative of the reach of the FlipBoard apps across multiple mobile platforms (it started off only on iOS) and also the interest in consumers to get their information and news presented in a visually compelling format. FlipBoard’s bookmarklet makes it easy to add content from the web as I am browsing – though what’s hardest is to keep in mind each magazine’s focus as I quickly go through pages on the web.

I’ve always been interested in the power of digital published, and design oriented platforms like FlipBoard (I’ve also toyed with OnSwipe some years ago) to take standard web fare to new audiences, and especially a younger demographic hooked to their mobile devices. While the metrics don’t allow me to ascertain whether those who read updates through FlipBoard on any of these magazines go on to visit the respective web post or web site, it is clear that using the app, consumers are making the choice to engage with web content in a particular way – perhaps because of the stylish presentation, perhaps because of the devices they use it on, perhaps because of the social sharing features now baked in, perhaps because they curate their own FlipBoard magazine, or perhaps because they just consume content differently.

Big Data: It should be about people and how it impacts their lives

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On the invitation of, I wrote earlier this year an article looking at Big Data from the perspective of someone who lives in a country post-war, but reeling from systemic conflict, human rights abuse and under an illiberal, authoritarian regime.

The article was published in April on’s site, as part of an excellent collection of writing on Big Data for development.

As I note in my submission,

“[there are challenges] for civil society in post-war Sri Lanka and similar settings: to convince fellow citizens that data in the public domain can strengthen democracy post-war — but also alert them to the fact that no matter how benevolent data systems seem, any platform that hordes information without meaningful accountability or oversight endangers peace and courts violent conflict.

Simple measures can help meet that challenge. Compelling data driven journalism initiatives that use big data to interrogate social and political issues can help flag trends and patterns around governance. And civil society can use big data to strengthen its own research and advocacy, without relying on anecdotal evidence alone.

Civic education, for one, can alert people to both the benefits and dangers of big data. Global institutions like the UN have a role in this, and through big data they could even improve their effectiveness.

Importantly, these conversations need to put a human face to big data — to treat the datasets not as de-personalised information seen in the aggregate but as vast collections of individuals, who all have rights. If we lose sight of this, big data risks becoming a tool of and for the worst of us, when it should give life to and strengthen a more democratic future.”

Silence over months: What I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka and internationally

It’s been a while since I updated this blog – nearly a year in fact. My previous post, in early July 2013 was around a presentation I made on digital archives at an exhibition in Colombo. Coincidentally, I am now preparing for another public talk on digital archives (Capturing the Ephemeral: Archiving our digital present), towards the end of this month, at the American Centre in Colombo.

I’ve not been blogging in part because I’ve been tied up with work and travel at Groundviews and with the ICT4Peace Foundation. This has involved,

  1. 30 Years Ago: A first of its kind multimedia, web-based exploration of the anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, in July 1983. The online curation led to a physical exhibition in Colombo at the Park Street Mews, Warehouse D (see photos here), and also some really interesting discussions with people who had lived through and experienced the pogrom, as well as those born long after it, and dealing with the enduring trauma it resulted in. I also did this interview with Vikalpa in Sinhala on why it was important to never forget Black July.
  2. Setting up a website in Sri Lanka to look into issues of web and Internet censorship, funded by Google. Internet Media Action was launched late last year, and is intended to serve as a platform that collects and disseminates information around best practices in keeping information and communications secure, threats to the freedom of expression online, the ways through which ISPs and government undermine privacy and consumer rights, examples of web censorship particularly in Sri Lanka, and other content related to the promotion of an open, free web. My submission at the launch of the network flagged how the Internet and web play an integral role in shaping post-war Sri Lanka’s democratic future. See photos here.
  3. In October 2013, I was a speaker at the inaugural Lasantha Wickrematunge Memorial Lecture, held in Toronto, Canada and organised by Sri Lankans Without Borders (SLWB). My submission was anchored to the post-war mainstream and web based media landscape in Sri Lanka, and how in addition to violent pushback from government and on-going attacks against journalists, the mainstream media itself was to blame for unprofessional, unethical and openly biased journalism. I was joined by Stewart Bell, a Senior Reporter at Canada’s National Post and was especially pleased to share the stage with J.S. Tissainayagam, the award-winning journalist-in-exile.
  4. I was the only Sri Lankan invited by Google to take part in the Google Ideas conference in New York, in partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations and Gen Next Foundation, titled Conflict in a Connected World. The Summit aimed to build awareness of how conflict is being transformed by today’s connection technologies. Through a series of panels, presentations, and your participation in one of a number of labs, Google hoped to expose current online threats, contemplate future trends, and bring attention to tools and approaches designed to empower people in the face of conflict or repression. I participated in an off-the-record breakout lab on Activists and Cyber-security, with other leading technology providers and activists from Asia.
  5. In late October and early November, I was in Berlin, co-teaching a training programme on Crisis Information Management with the Center for International Peace Operations, based in Berlin. I focussed on OS-INT (open source intelligence) and new media, including source verification and neo-cartography. I also conducted a session on digital and web security. Photos here and a description of the training programme can be read here.
  6. I conceptualised and moderated a panel discussion on Big Data at the International Crisis Mappers Conference (ICCM), held for the first time in Nairobi, Kenya. The video of the panel is now online, and an overview of what was discussion can be read here. Speakers included the distinguished Jon Gosier (D8A Group), Anahi Iayala Iaccuci (Internews) and Emmanuel Letouzé (University of California-Berkeley). I was also live tweeting from the event – see Day 1 and Day 2.
  7. During ICCM 2013, I also gave a presentation on innovation using ICTs, particularly as it related to practices in the humanitarian domain. I also spoke with the GSM Association (GSMA) around an idea that could help victims in a sudden onset disaster send SOS requests out without any direct action on their part.
  8. Though not directly related to my work on ICT4Peace, I launched a book of very short stories, anchored to Sri Lanka, titled ‘Short & Sweet‘. Almost two years in the making, the book was widely acclaimed as a refreshingly different and interesting take on Sri Lanka’s violent histories.
  9. In early March 2014, I led the conceptualisation, design and delivery of a new ENTRi course on the use of new media for crisis management. The training was conducted in collaboration with the renowned Zentrum für Internationale Friedenseinsätze gGmbH / Centre for International Peace Operations (ZIF), based in Berlin, and introduced participants to a variety of new media tools and platforms used in the collection, presentation, verification, and dissemination of information. Particularly exciting, personally speaking, was to see Cedric Vidonne from UNHCR, Rina Tsubaki from the European Journalism Centre which recently published the acclaimed Verification Handbook and Eoghan Mac Suibhne, from the world renowned social media verification agency Storyful, also participate in the training as guest lecturers. I penned a report of the programme here, and there’s lots of photos of it here.
  10. Also in March, I delivered a presentation and participated in a Q&A session with the Crisis Management Centre (KMZ) of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs on big data and social media’s role and relevance in crisis management, with a special focus on emergency and crisis response from a governmental perspective.
  11. Again in the same month, I met with the Peace Mission Support and Rapid Response Section and the Methodology, Education and Training Section at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights around the need to embrace new media and ICTs to strengthen High Commissioner’s mandate. It’s really great to see OHCHR embracing ICTs at the HQ and field mission levels to strengthen their mandate, but what I focus on is more the field level secure comms needs and challenges, and not so much the institutional IT investments around database harmonisation and business intelligence platforms. I have been asked however to give input into these investments over the course of this year, so that they are in line with challenges from the field and technology advancements that, particularly in a post-Snowden world, help secure communications better.

Some of the work above merits longer blog posts, which I hope to pen in the days and weeks ahead. I also hope to keep this blog a bit more updated, despite a workload that shows no signs of easing up.

Granularity of many vs. the vantage of the few: Photography and activism today

I made this presentation at the American Centre in Colombo yesterday, at the invitation of Nooranie Muthaliph, Project Lead of the interesting Rotaract Shutterbug competition organised by the Rotaract Club of Panadura. I was asked to

  1. Create awareness of these powerful mediums used by different communities and people in bring about change and,
  2. Generate interest of people in Colombo/ Sri Lanka to explore these tools and use them for change.

I am never convinced of the civic consciousness of Sri Lankan audiences, especially when you call upon them to bear witness to, as best they can and as much as they can, structures and forms of violence, or even just examples of good governance. Nature, colours, scenery, wildlife, still-life and portraits for example remain the domains most photography in Sri Lanka reflects, sans any real connection to or interest in framing more contentious, marginalised yet critical facets of peoples, society and life beyond. This was acknowledged by a photography teacher of over 20 years present in the audience, who said that creating this bond between society and photography was both vital, yet exceedingly difficult.

I guessed the audience to be in their mid to early 20s, a time ripe for activism and mobilisation. Sadly, the largely enervated response to my own presentation, and the excellent points made by blogger and friend Dinidu de Alwis – who unlike myself, is actually a professional photographer – suggested to us both that this was not an audience who  would risk a shot that endangered their precious equipment. Though understandable (professional grade body, lens and other equipment costs are astronomical in Sri Lanka, leave aside insurance) therein lies the rub, for without a drive to bear witness, having the best equipment dangling over hip or shoulder is more fashion accessory than tool for social change.

Sri Lanka needs more look at this! photos instead of look at me! photographers.

In my submission, I traced the origins of bearing witness to social upheaval, from painting to the birth of photography. I noted that in painting historical events, much like the colour of dinosaurs, the final product on canvas did not in fact depict any real ground truth, and was often a product of many narratives, including fiction, often spun or recalled by the victors, if it was a revolution or war depicted. The primary distinction with photography was that though framed and partial, a photograph (we didn’t get into the ethics of airbrushing or digital image manipulation) did in fact depict truer colours, and with greater immediacy and veracity, events and people who weren’t always part of the winning narrative.

I showed some iconic paintings of the French revolution and the American civil war, plus one of Goya’s masterpieces on the Peninsular War, and compared these with equally iconic and moving images from this year’s uprisings in the Middle East. I then briefly looked at what’s changed in the economics of creation, the technologies used and the manner in which images were produced and disseminated.

I then posed the question, for open discussion, as to whether professional photography (e.g. war photographers) were, no pun intended, a dying breed. Flagging the courage, conviction and work of Chris Hondros, a photographer from Getty killed in Libya, I asked whether the paradigm of bearing witness through photography had now shifted radically to citizens, and within that group, activists in particular.

Anchored to a quote by the American photographer Chase Jarvis, I looked at the evolution of mobile phone based photography, and the fact that the most popular ‘camera’ on Flickr is actually the iPhone 4. Through the next series of slides I explored what this confluence of professional photography and activist photography via mobiles and other point-and-shoot cameras meant for activism. I used the example of the horrific first images of Menik Farm, Vikalpa’s photojournalism in capturing political activism, the compelling high definition productions by the photographers involved in the Moving Images initiative, the compelling use of photography to communicate poverty research in Sri Lanka,  TED Prize winner JR‘s use of photography for social and political activism and the use of Twitter in the dissemination of in situ photography.

I then touched on how in a post-PC world, mobiles and tablets were re-shaping, radically, the way photos were taken, manipulated, disseminated and consumed. The day before the presentation, I coincidentally had a great Twitter conversation with senior journalist and professional news photographer Amantha Perera. The title for this blog post comes from one of my responses to him. In my presentation I went on to show how young people, for little money, using off the shelf equipment and standard point and shoot cameras, were changing the way we saw the world, and changing how their immediate neighbours and communities engaged with their environment. I talked about the challenge of curation and sense-making when there’s a ton of photographs to sift through, and finally how tools like Microsoft Photosynth can change the way we see and engage with the world.

I ended on a non-technical note. Showcasing the iPhone app of Groundviews, I said, not without some vexation, that the greatest challenge to activism today, in Sri Lanka and many other places, was not so much the technology to bear witness, but the willingness of citizens to do so. Without that spark, that inner calling to stand up for what is right not because it is a fad, popular or because of fame, no D-SLR, smartphone or even the amazing Lytro will result in the kind of social, cultural and political reform this country so desperately needs, post-war.