ICT for disaster management in the Asia-Pacific region – Chapter for Commonwealth Ministers Reference Book

An adaptation of an essay by Daniel Stauffacher (Chairman of the ICT4Peace Foundation) and I will be published in the official Commonwealth Ministers Reference Book on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

The Reference Book is the Secretariat’s primary communications tool to promote opportunity and potential within the 53 Commonwealth countries and is distributed to all Key Commonwealth Ministers, from Trade to Transport by the Secretariat. The publication will include approximately 35 articles that will be Sub-divided into logical sections that are designed to assist all Commonwealth Ministers and their respective officials in policy development, project initiation, procurement and control, as well as the day-to-day management of ministries/departments.  The Reference Book will also feature relevant, objective case studies on solutions that illustrate effective methods of dealing with a variety of problems and challenges experienced by modern-day Ministries, as well as a complete directory of all Commonwealth Ministries.

Download our essay, ICT for disaster management in the Asia-Pacific regionhere.

Download the original essay with all references written for the UN Global Alliance on ICT and Development (GAID), here.


Myanmar: The urgent need for communications and collaboration

Everyone’s got their knickers in a twist about Myanmar. No laughing matter this. Tens of thousands already dead, a casualty count that could go up to a mind-boggling 100,000, tens of thousands missing, millions displaced and a brutal junta that governs the country to boot. A disaster within a disaster. 

I’ve been forwarded or CC’d into literally dozens of emails this week by those who want to do something. Anything. INSTEDD sent me intimation of Sahana they’ve now got up and running on one of their servers. They are working hard to localise it in Burmese and though most of the modules are up and running (the SMS / email module is not), I sadly haven’t seen any real data on it as yet. INSTEDD’s also working on deploying some interesting technology that can support and strengthen collaboration. Eric and his team I have no doubt will play a significant role in coordinating and collaborating the disaster response. I’ve been sent some amazing KML files of medical and other logistics locations and hubs. Amazing because they are as comprehensive as one can get in a black-hole of a country where no one really knows anything for sure.

However, all the emails I’ve got have are littered with might, may, possibly, if, by chance, hopefully, could be, not sure, I think, last time I checked. Few are certain about anything other than the monumental challenge of addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of affected communities with a regime that’s not exactly helpful. Fewer have actually any experience of dealing with a repressive regime that’s as bad as the Burmese junta. By coincidence I came across an article today on the World Socialist Web Site that notes:

Since the cyclone engulfed Burma on May 3, there has been an incessant campaign in the international media to push for foreign militaries, along with aid officials, to be allowed into the country. Article after article contrasts the paranoia, incompetence and callousness of the Burmese junta with the supposed willingness of the US and other major powers to generously provide humanitarian assistance.

The Burmese junta has clearly demonstrated once again its repressive methods and callous disregard for human life. But the claim that Washington and its allies are acting purely out of concern for the Burmese people is simply a lie. 

The article goes on to make a simplistic case against US intervention that I don’t agree with, but I was partial to the essential critique of aid dynamics. Restraining myself to the dozens of emails I’ve got from some actors who want to do something in Myanmar and their ideas for information and communications technology support, I recall what I noted during Strong Angel III in 2006:

Given the paucity of bandwidth on the wireless networks and the intermittent connectivity in general, much of the information on-site has migrated from the world of bits to the world of atoms. I Information markers in the form of billboards, butcher paper, ribbons, printed maps, cardboard cutouts and scraps of paper have taken the place of the sophisticated information exchange and social networking built into the SA III website, which is by and large inaccesible on-site. This, in and of itself, is a valuable lesson.

For around a week, we had in the staging grounds of SA III more bandwidth that I could have commercially mustered in Sri Lanka. Theoretically, that is. In reality, we couldn’t even connect to the internet. The conflicts between the myriad of system, each in and of themselves offering the promise of connectivity yet together offering only confusion and conflict, was incredible. Collaboration remained a great idea, simply because models of collaboration based on ICT collapsed. We were reduced to physical meetings and Post-It notes. 

I have noticed that some of the same people involved with SA III (and for the record, they are good people with good intentions) are now agog with ideas on communications provisioning for Myanmar. Everyone wants to go guns blazing – which during SA III was precisely what brought down comms for everyone. Spectrum allocation and technical disputes that could have been easily resolved by advance planning and moderation simply did not occur or post facto, were too complex to manage. 

I am not alone in my frustration that the desire to do something often trumps the need for collaboration and a more robust understanding of just what we want to do, how we want to go about it, with whom, why, where and the context we operate in BEFORE we parachute in with money, equipment, love and fresh air. There are others who have expressed their disquiet with what are essentially marketing strategies in the guise of humanitarian relief. 

It sounds cruel, but perhaps people need to die for change to occur. Perhaps we should have taken the word of the junta that all was hunky-dory with its disaster response. Perhaps we should have left it to manage on its own and concentrated our efforts to maintain the fickle interest of global media over the longer term. 

But if that’s not really an option, what can we do? 

  • From an ICT perspective, we can stop marketing our products and start figuring out how to work together. Everyone brings value to the table – the question is how to build synergies, strengthen complementarity, ease conflicts and augment interoperability and best practices.
  • Business can help humanitarian aid, but the questions I raised at Strong Angel III on commercial enterprise and its engagement with relief work and the guidelines drawn up by UN OCHA need to be taken into consideration. There’s a delicate balance between in-country ad hoc solutions and pre-planned international best practices that can feed into deployments. Often, the best laid plans go awry minutes into deployment.
  • Collaboration helps. A powerful transmitter able to provide blanket coverage to a wide footprint but buggers local communications isn’t all that helpful. Spectrum management, bandwidth allocation with multiple pipes, clients both mobile and fixed, data security and P2P network transports are just some of the headaches deployments will have to plan for as much as possible. Strong Angel III’s communications team may be able to help along with others. 
  • Marketers with little understanding of and no interest in collaboration should shut up and bugger off. 
  • Global media, when more robust ICTs are deployed in-country, must take care to not hog the bandwidth better used to save lives. 
  • Sadly, nobody on the comms side is talking with Burmese socio-political experts to bounce off ideas whether plans for in-country collaboration with government and NGOs will actually work. Surely there must be more than a few in the West who can offer this kind of vital feedback? Western assumptions about aid and relief rarely gel with local cultural, social, political and religious contexts.
  • We also know that multiple wifi / wimax deployments without any kind of technical management and spectrum dispute resolution almost guarantee that no one gets connected at all. So why are we still talking about a hundred and one different ways of getting wireless connectivity into the country with little interest in harmonisation of available bandwidth?

The case is often made with great passion and vigour that we must do something to help Myanmar. That’s good. But the responsibility to protect is not just about going in without host nation support to do good. If it comes to that, the international community and the ICT community in particular need to be certain that they don’t add to the choas, are able to provide vital comms support for relief operations from the get-go. 

I doubt that this confidence exists. Is it a case for doing nothing? Clearly not. But I just wish that those who want to help today remember that the same desire led, ironically, to severe communications breakdowns in the past.

Lessons identified perhaps, but not learnt?

Papers and research on ICT in peacebuilding, Online Dispute Resolution, Conflict Early Warning, Disaster Mitigation and Response

A collection of papers I’ve written over the years on ICT4Peace, ODR and the use of technology in disaster warning, mitigation and response.


Daring to Dream: CSCW for Peacebuilding

This study will examine research around the areas of Computer Supported Cooperative Frameworks (CSCW) and in particular, the Locale Framework, to examine the possible use and design of ICT systems that can strengthen efforts at conflict transformation. In doing so, the study will examine in particular Groove Virtual Office® (used by Info Share) using the locale framework as an example of a CSCW system in a peace process.

Click Daring to Dream – CSCW, ICT and Peacebuilding for paper. Click Daring to Dream presentation for PowerPoint presentation.


After the deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami

This document explores the use of technology in the tsunami relief efforts in Sri Lanka and addresses the need to create sustainable and culturally sensitive technology frameworks and systems for relief work and disaster management.

Click After the Deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami for paper.


Online Dispute Resolution, Mobile Telephony and Internet Community Radios

This paper will submit that for the pervasive use of ODR in the Global South (as opposed to its increasingly entrenched acceptance in the Global North) a radical overhaul of its theories, conceptual underpinning and technologies needs to be undertaken. In doing so, it will propose wholly new ODR systems that new technologies that already exist in the Global South.

Click ODR, Peacebuilding and Mobile Phones for paper.


Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) in Sri Lanka

The central thesis of this paper will be to argue for CSCW systems that virtualise aspects of conflict transformation with a view to strengthening real world peacebuilding interventions over the long term. Such virtualisation and its possibilities will be set against the microcosm of the North-East region of Sri Lanka in order to rigorously test the hypothesis that ICT for peacebuilding can address gaps in communication within and between the multiple tiers of society and polity that are part of any peace process.

Click ICT and Mobiles for Conflict Prevention for paper.


Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding

This study will concentrate on the increasing confluence between ICT, conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The proposed study will examine Info Share, an ICT initiative in Sri Lanka that is involved in the peace process, as an on-going experiment in the use of these radical new technologies to augment traditional conflict transformation techniques on the ground to help strengthen an on-going peace process.

Click Using ICTs for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding for paper.


The future of Online Dispute Resolution

This brief paper seeks to explore a few ideas related to ODR that seek to kindle, jar and even anger the imagination to engage with ideas that lie at the heart of ODR systems design and implementation in the years to come. These dialogues in support of shaping next-generation ODR systems is seen as essential to avoid the development of systems that cannot fully grasp and respond to the complexities of social, commercial and political transaction in real and online worlds.

Click Paper written for 4th UN ODR Symposium – Cairo, Egypt for full paper. Click here for the related presentation.


An Asian Perspective on Online Mediation

New information and communication technologies such as the internet offer new capabilities for mediators. Online dispute resolution (ODR) refers to dispute resolution processes such as mediation assisted by information technology, particularly the internet. At least 115 ODR sites and services have been launched to date, resolving more than 1.5 million disputes. A number of these online dispute resolution services have been launched in the Asia Pacific including examples from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Sri Lanka.

However this paper challenges the current paradigm being used for development of online dispute resolution and its application to the Asia Pacific region. Instead, it suggests that a more Asia-Pacific perspective needs to be taken that responds to the patterns of technology adoption in this region. In particular, the next generation of online dispute resolution systems will need to reflect the rich diversity of cultures in Asia and its unique socio-political textures. In doing so, these ODR systems will need to address peacebuilding and conflict transformation using technologies already prevalent in the region, like mobile telephony and community internet radio. Practical suggestions are made for future areas of development in ODR after a brief exploration of key challenges that influence the design of such systems.

I co-authored this paper with Melissa Conley-Tyler. Read the full version here.


Thoughts of technology in the wake of tragedy

The sensitive and creative use of technology can help nurture change processes that can lead to more peaceful and sustainable futures and avoid the pitfalls of partisan aid and relief operations. Providing for mobile telephony that give remote communities access to constantly updated weather and geological information and helping create endogenous early warning systems using local knowledge, using tele-centres to serve as repositories of information on emergency procedures and evacuation guidelines, coordinating the work of aid agencies on the ground ensuring the delivery of aid and relief to all communities, monitoring aid flows and evaluating delivery, creating effective mechanisms for the coordination of reconstruction and relief efforts, creating avenues for effective communication between field operations and warehouses based in urban centres, creating secure virtual collaboration workspaces that bring in individuals and organisations sans ethnic, geographic or religious boundaries, enabling centralised data collection centres that collect information from the field and distribute it to relevant stakeholders are just some of the immediate uses for technology.

Read full article here.


The PC is Dead ! Long live Mobiles !

Eschewing the tendency for PC based ODR systems to impose top-down hierarchies and sometimes exacerbate the digital-divide in the Global South, technologies that use mobile telephony and radio assume that communities are more comfortable using what is familiar as opposed to what is not, however sophisticated and powerful such systems might be. To this end, ICT for Peacebuilding systems must identify and develop existing local / grassroots capacities. In Sri Lanka for instance, this would involve using the very high literacy rate (91%), the ubiquity of radios, easy and low cost access to batteries, one of the most highly developed Alternative Dispute Resolution frameworks in the Global South with supporting legislation, thousands of trained mediators, multiple village level peace networks (very often with little or no communication within and between these social networks) and exponential growth of mobile subscribers and related services, with lower cost of access than PSTN telephones and coverage in conflict ravaged areas where traditional copper-wire infrastructure is still decades away.

Read full article here.


Mediation from the palm of your hand: Forgining the next generation ODR systems

In sum, this paper will submit that for the pervasive use of ODR in the Global South (as opposed to its increasingly entrenched acceptance in the Global North) a radical overhaul of its theories, conceptual underpinning and technologies needs to be undertaken. This paper will also develop ideas first discussed during discussions on ODR for an ADR course conducted by University of Massachusetts in March 2005 and further developed during Cyberweek 2005 in April 2005, in which the author was invited to present ideas of expanding the use of ODR through existing mobile telephony and radio (including internet radio) networks in the Global South. Certain ideas in this paper also stem from a presentation on ODR and conflict transformation given at the UN ODR Conference in July 2004. The author’s involvement in the on-going work of Info Share in Sri Lanka, an organisation that uses technology for peacebuilding, single text negotiations and the design of other conflict transformation processes, also under-gird the assumptions and arguments in this paper.

Read the full paper here.


The Internet and Conflict Transformation in Sri Lanka

At present, and even more so in the future, the importance of Information Communications Technology cannot be ignored by government, civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka. ICT by itself is an impotent tool. What animates it is a culture in which stakeholders use ICT to buttress and build confidence between communities, engender discussion and help in the dissemination of information regarding state-of-the-art conflict resolution techniques and events. There are no easy solutions for the peaceful settlement of protracted ethnic, but a realisation of the power of ICT can help efforts on the ground to bring a negotiated, just solution to war in Sri Lanka.

Read the full paper here.


ODR sans PC said the mobile to the radio

Originally developed for Cyberweek 2005, this presentation on how Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is evolving, particularly in Asia, beyond the Personal Computer and embracing mobile device such as mobile phones. I submit in this presentation a macro, meso and micro level strategy for ODR in developing nations.

View the full presentation Cyberweek_2005.ppt.


Presentation on Role of Technology and Media in Peacebuilding

As part of the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the BBC World Service Trust and the Swiss Development Agency (SDC) hosted a debate on the role (if any) of media and technology in conflict resolution. My presentation covered the many ways through which media could play a role, through public service values and professionalism in reporting, conflict transformation in a context such as Sri Lanka. My presentation, a brief one that lasted for 10 minutes, also touched upon the ways through which InfoShare had engineered several ICT for Peace (ICT4Peace) initiatives in Sri Lanka.

Download the full presentation here.


Thoughts on Democracy, New Media and the Internet – Working Draft

This paper, through the example of Sri Lanka, explores the larger challenges of new media and the internet in the promotion of democracy and peace in the Global South. A central contention of this paper is that internet and new media are inextricably entwined in larger social processes of peacebuilding and conflict transformation. This requires proponents of ICT to engage with the complex dynamics of politics, systems of governance, manifestations of conflict and the social capital in support of peacebuilding if they are to construct inclusive and sustainable frameworks and systems for the promotion of peace.

Read the full paper here.

This was first presented at a conference on Communication Technology and Social Policy in the Digital Age: Expanding Access, Redefining Control, organized by Annenberg Schools for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California on 10th March 2006 in Palm Springs, California.


10 ideas for Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group

This brief paper seeks to examine ten key elements of change that will shape the next 25 years of software development for humanitarianism, peacebuilding and by extension, all collaborative team work that uses Information Communication Technology (ICT). Written into this fabric are applications such as Groove Virtual Office® and new Communications Servers from Microsoft as well as technologies in support of informational archival and retrieval, presence awareness and the mobile web – such as new Microsoft Live technologies, Vista and Groove 12.

Read the full paper here. More information of the Microsoft Humanitarian System Group can be found here.


Creating virtual One Text processes in Sri Lanka

As such, within the larger matrix of OCT for peacebuilding, the central thesis of this paper will be to argue for One Text processes, which fall under the broad rubric of transformative mediation, that virtualise real world processes in order to increase the efficiency, sustainability and success of such processes of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The specific case of Info Share’s work in Sri Lanka will be explored and used to examine the specific challenges that face such systems in the real world. The object will be to briefly explore the creation of new iterations of such systems that will be better able to respond to the dynamic and unique challenges of peacebuilding in post-conflict contexts.

Read the full paper here.

ICT for Disaster Management: Thoughts on the APDIP e-primer by Chanuka Wattegama

ICT for Disaster Management

ICT for Disaster Management, written by Chanuka Wattegama, follows the excellent tradition of e-primers published by the Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP). In sum, as with all e-primers, this is an extremely useful publication for the non-expert to grasp the potential of and challenges to the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the prevention, mitigation and preparedness of disasters.

Though Chanuka kindly acknowledges my input into this publication, I can’t remember telling him anything significant that he hadn’t already thought of or covered in the draft that I went through.

I was very pleased to meet up with Chanuka in Malaysia recently during GKP’s GK III conference, where I picked up the final version of the publication. A few points came to mind as I read through this book.

  • Chanuka correctly notes that ICTs for disaster warning involve a concert of devices, mechanisms and technologies to alert communities at risk. In mentioning Television (pg. 9) as one such medium, Chanuka fails to mention that their use and effectiveness is almost entirely dependent on electricity. Should there be no electricity or if the grid is brought down by the disaster itself, TV’s are rendered utterly useless.
  • On pg. 15, Chanuka mentions that “There are no well-known case studies where community radio has been successfully used for disaster warning purposes.” Emphasis mine. There seems to be a large corpus of literature that presents the proven potential of community radio in early warning but apparently little or no case studies and lessons identified from instances where thy were actually used for disaster warning. (also see point on importance of community radio in long-term disaster recovery efforts below)
  • Box 3 on pg. 20 mentions Reuters AlertNet but fails to, perhaps because the site was launched just before or after the e-primer was published, Preventionweb, a new initiative by UN/ISDR that is still in the process of being developed aimed to increasing knowledge sharing on disaster risk reduction (DRR) issues, for both the general public – including media and teachers – and DRR specialists.

Also important to record in this context is Alertnet’s own evolution this year (2007) to more fully embrace User Generated Content (USG) such as blogs and web 2.0 features such as easy linking of stories to social networking sites and issue, region, country, search query specific RSS feeds. Further, in 2007, Alertnet launched an interactive global map with information on conflict, food security, sudden disasters and health crises.

  • In the same section, Chanuka brings out in Example 2 how Sahana helped in coordinating donor action. In this regard, I have often wondered what became of the Donor Assistance Database (DAD), a system that was created and implemented under the now defunct TAFREN to help to better coordinate and monitor post tsunami recovery aid, with the support and funding of the UNDP. It’s been offline for well over a year now – no indication of what happened, how it was used, how effective it was, how much money went into its development as a matter of public record and why it is inaccessible today (a mirror site gives a glimpse of what it looked like).
  • Box 5, dealing with blogs and tsunami response, could have been expanded with examples from a multitude of other case studies and sources that clearly demonstrate, as Chanuka rightly points out, the effectiveness of USG and new media such as blogs as an alternative communications medium. For more information in this regard, please read Who’s afraid of citizen journalists?, a chapter I wrote for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book published by the UNDP and TVEAP.
  • On pg. 29, Chanuka points to Groove Virtual Office, a programme that InfoShare used extensively for peace and negotiations support operations within the framework of the OneText initiative and also in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. A detailed critique of the pros and cons of the programme, based on our exhaustive field use with multiple actors including local and international relief agencies and political actors after the tsunami can be found here (see pgs. 14 – 20 in particular)
  • On pg. 33, Chanuka points to the low ICT penetration in the Asia-Pacific region and goes to say that “With such low penetration levels, it is extremely difficult to establish any effective ICT-based disaster warning system.” Strangely, this observation runs counter to the work presented by Lirneasia (where Chanuka works) on Making Communities Disaster Resilient at the GKP GK III conference. The emphasis at this presentation was on how a range of ICT mechanisms and tools, coupled with disaster preparedness and response plans drawn up by communities, could help even if the majority of those in communities did not have access to ICTs.

    Finally, those interested in Chanuka’s publication may also wish to read After the Deluge : InfoShare’s Response to the Tsunami. This document explores in detail the use of a range of ICTs in the tsunami relief effort that I and InfoShare used in Sri Lanka and addresses the need to create sustainable and culturally sensitive technology / ICT frameworks and mechanisms for long-term relief work and disaster recovery.

    Chanuka’s publication is one I can highly recommend for anyone looking for a quick and comprehensive overview on the potential of ICTs for Disaster Management and it’s availability as an APDIP Wikibook makes it easy to update this publication with new developments in research and practice.