Operationalizing Peace Operations Reform

Clearing the Decks After a Year of Reviews: Operationalizing Peace Operations Reform, organised by ZIF, the Centre for International Peace Operations, was held from 25 – 26 February just outside of Berlin. Agenda here.

I was asked to make a presentation on New Technologies and New Media as it related to UN peacekeeping. The presentation can be found below, and in large part, it is based on the submission made at re:publica 2015 on The future of tech and peacekeeping.

Download the presentation as a PDF here.


The workshop also employed a talented graphic artist to visualise the presentations.


UAVs and peacebuilding: Some thoughts

My work with UAVs is largely conceptual, framed by growing up in a context of war, deeply informed by having to deal with the enduring legacy of violent conflict even post-war and anchored to the inalienable yet often callously erased rights of communities and individuals around safety, security and privacy. My interest in UAVs results from the potential they bring to bear witness – for me, an active process of recording for posterity that challenges – as a consequence of recording and as a consequence of recorded material published in the public domain – historical narratives written solely by those in power, or command power. It is therefore an interesting bridge technology if you will, one that in many contexts, a few social and political elites can employ to bring about, as a consequence of their flyovers and resulting imagery, a sousveillence accessible by many others, holding accountable those who aren’t used to being recorded in any manner.

The normative assumption here is that the sunlight of greater scrutiny around processes, incidents and actions that serve to humiliate, discriminate, repress, stifle or censor, in the form of videos and photographs, can contribute to a change in perceptions that govern illiberal practices and undemocratic policies. UAVs are the latest entrants to a contest around bearing witness with a view to changing public opinion that has existed for much longer, and will continue to rage on. While I am sceptical of claims around how UAVs can irreversibly change attitudes and practices around violence, claims around the potential of this technology (and family of remote controlled craft) to generate perspectives that would not otherwise have been framed deserves our fullest attention.

This is why in March this year, I flagged a number of concerns and ideas around the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes, which fed into the creation of UAViators Network, led by the indefatigable Patrick Meier. Some of the points I flagged in March have resonated widely in the discussions around the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes, including,

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. 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. 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.

Since March, I’ve curated on Flipboard a magazine that deals with the use of drones for non-lethal, non-offensive purposes anchored to peacebuilding, peacekeeping, the protection and saving of lives, environmental conservation, wildlife protection and humanitarian aid.

More useful thinking on this score was recently published by Helena Puig Larrauri (Drones, ethics and conflict), which in turn generated a response by Patrick Meier (On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention). Helena ends where I’d like to begin, noting that “local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power”. In March this year, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Navi Pillay noted in her Opening Statement to the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council that,

… the development of new technologies – such as drones and lethal autonomous robots – which push us to the outer edge of our thinking on how to ensure our rights are protected, social media and new information technology which raises the question of where the public and private space lies and the importance of on-line and off-line freedoms..

Helena’s post deals with a lot of these concerns, and bears no repitition. There is however a section of her post that I find interesting to think through a bit more,

An open conversation with communities can include considerations about the potential risks of drone-enabled data collection and whether communities believe these risks are worth taking. This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account.

I am unconvinced that informed consent, which is in turn usually based on assurances over the use and reuse of information voluntarily disclosed, means whatever it meant even just a few years ago. What was once largely paper based and subsequently digitally stored in institutional silos is increasingly digitally captured and widely shared between various actors responding to the same emergency and crisis. There is simply no way any single actor in a coordinated, unified response can assure an individual or community that information they give out will only be used for the purposes they are sharing it for. From cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure to more simple data loss from misplaced USB drives and tablets, from a lack of coherent, systemic guidance around the sharing of field information in the public domain, to a lack of awareness around the use of (geo-tagged) social media updates from the field by aid workers, informed consent based on assurances over the restricted use and sharing of data today are essentially misleading, and thus, ethically questionable. This is brought into sharp focus when the generation of imagery and information is from UAVs, which, depending on geographic frame, no one community or individual can give informed consent around the use of. Different communities even in relative geographic proximity (belonging to different ethnic groups and tribes) can have competing interests around the use of UAV imagery, which for example, can demonstrate land use that is discriminatory even as the primary overflight requirement was around damage assessment. Informed consent in contested geographies thus is a problem exacerbated by image acquisition by UAVs, and Helena’s point about the ability of communities engaging critical with UAV operations needs to be further problematised by framing this ability in the context of pre-existing conflict dynamics.

This has an implication on what she goes on to suggest, which is that,

As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs

I agree in the main, but in light of what I’ve noted above, the devil is in the details – what exactly is community-ownership or community-driven implementation of UAV operations in a context where the ‘community’ itself is deeply divided, within itself and with other communities? I have yet to encounter UAV use for conflict transformation that has multiple (and often, violently divided) communities as custodians of operational mandate and downstream imagery.

As somewhat of an aside, there is also the question of the ‘neutrality’ of humanitarian actors, who both uncritically and often parade this term as somehow the basis upon which they are able to operate even in deeply divided societies rent asunder by violence. Any humanitarian actor – domestic of international – deploying UAVs to support what may be a humanitarian operation particularly in a conflict zone risks, simply by virtue of this deployment, being immediately perceived as somehow partisan or seeking to undermine the legitimacy of one or more actors in that conflict by information acquisition that risks upsetting the status quo. The adoption of UAVs therefore is not without attendant risks around perceptions of operational mandate, no matter what the intended use case is.

Patrick’s response to Helena raises a number of vital questions that build on the points Helena articulates, and bears no further input from me save to say that the questions are centre and forward in how those of us interested in the use of UAVs for non-lethal purposes. What I found both complementary and interesting to this post was a more recent post by Patrick, looking at fears, Concerns and opportunities around the use of UAVs in conflict settings. Patrick and his research team at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have compiled a list of fears and concerns expressed by humanitarians and others on the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.


It’s a wonderful framework to build on. For example, concerns in the related spreadsheet around ‘Privacy / Data Collection / Surveillance’ don’t address what should be concerns around data retention policies around information acquired by drones. If for example UAV control rooms are geo-physically located within a conflict zone, or imagery acquired through overflights is stored in a data-centre that is close to or in an active conflict zone, the threat of physical intrusion and the hostile copying or deletion of data is a very real threat. There is in parallel the threat of cyber-attacks around critical infrastructure, and what safeguards humanitarian organisations in particular have around imagery acquired by UAVs, that especially in conflict zones, can through design or inadvertently result in imagery that can be used in judicial and investigative processes around accountability.

The greatest challenge around the use of UAVs in conflict zones, as per Patrick’s on-going research, comes from the use of UAVs by the military. Interestingly, even if the use of UAVs is for purposes of peacekeeping, the use of UAVs, in the same region, by actors for peacebuilding is placed at risk, simply because the operational mandates and access to data vary profoundly depending on who is actually in control of the flights, and how. At least one division needs to be made – of armed actors actively taking an interest in UAVs and opting to target them, and the trauma communities impacted by offensive drone operations may have regarding non-lethal UAV over-flights designed to help, not harm. Armed actors pose operational risks to UAV operators, not just in terms of equipment lost to violence, but the the possible loss of life depending on where a targeted UAV and its payload crash. The psychological trauma communities may experience on account of UAV overflights in a region prone to drone attacks is an entirely different problem, because while it doesn’t place UAV operations at any risk of being shot down from the sky, it poses even greater ethical challenges around the use of this technology even for the best of ends (it certainly doesn’t help in this regard that a living Nobel Peace Laureate is responsible for the most amount of lethal drone attacks in just one country).

I don’t see an easy or immediate resolution to this. As Patrick avers correctly, UAVs are going to get smaller, cheaper and able to fly longer with heavier payloads. Five years hence, even small NGOs with shoe-string budgets will have operational capability for hyper-local UAV overflights, with or without official airspace regulatory oversight, government authority or, in some cases, military clearance. On-board computing power would also have increased around collision detection, leading to swarms of UAVs with different capabilities flying over and gathering increasing amounts of information. Will this stop the military from using drones to attack what it considers are targets? Will the military’s use of drones in any way curtail the growth of UAVs in the service of peacebuilding? I believe the answer to both questions is no.

Are these challenges entirely new? At the conclusion of the Strong Angel III exercise in August 2006 I noted,

While the technology for secure communications already exists, the protocols of information exchange – by whom, for what limited purposes, confidentiality of sources, institutional agreements that don’t rely of personal largesse, ownership of information, the manner in which it will be shared, why and with whom etc – are issues that need a global compact between States and trans-national civil society, so as to support SSTR operations and at the same time safeguard the operational processes, complex relationships and human security of NGO personnel working in conflict zones.

UAVs today highlight what are enduring challenges around the use of technology in peacebuilding in general and especially so-called dual use technologies – which can be used for offensive purposes as well as in do no harm frameworks. UAVs do bring them a unique set of challenges, especially with the incredibly rapid democratisation of a technology that didn’t exist in any commercially viable form till just around a year or two ago. UAVs also highlight more deep seated problems around information generation, consent, sharing, aggregation and retention – and fundamentally, whether eyes in the sky will deter the worst amongst us. Perhaps not. But I would hesitate to dismiss the utility of UAVs in peacebuilding altogether.

For example, Sri Lanka’s post-war militarisation of the North is well documented through available facts and figures, as well as comprehensive satellite imagery analysis. What if Sri Lankan NGOs were to use UAVs to monitor post-war militarisation of the North? Regular over-flights could generate compelling insights around, inter alia, land use and population flows. While I doubt the use of UAVs in this manner would pass muster with government, it is also the case that along with eyes in orbit, eyes in the sky in the years to come will – independent of official approval – provide insights into inconvenient ground truths. The central challenge for me is not around the use of UAVs in peacebuilding (it’s an inevitability), but what to do with the content they acquire and generate in order to ensure timely, meaningful action is taken to protect human dignity, secure human rights and hopefully, as a consequence, save lives.

Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice | A Treatise on Technology and Dispute Resolution

Till I received a PDF of the chapter I wrote for Online Dispute Resolution: Theory and Practice: A Treatise on Technology and Dispute Resolution as it appears in the tome, I had entirely forgotten about it. Ethan, Daniel and Mohamed are three of the finest minds in ODR today, and writing this chapter for them was how I wish it would be for every invitation to contribute to a book – exciting and fun. Glad the book’s now out and on Amazon. Sri Lanka’s postal service has eaten my first copy, but another I’ve been promised is on the way. Looking forward to reading the other chapters as well.

As I note in the start of my own, titled ‘Mobiles and ODR: Why We Should Care’,

The events earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in the region commonly referred to as the Middle East were powerful markers of how information and communications technologies (ICTs) undergird struggles for democratic governance. It is not only these struggles they support. ICTs are in and of themselves mere tools, and are increasingly used by repressive governments for their own parochial ends, in stark opposition to those who seek to foster democracy and strengthen human rights. This is a double-edged sword, for the same ICTs that help bear witness and strengthen accountability are those that place activists at greater risk.

It is no different with mobile telephony and communications. The mobile phone is to many in this region as well as in my own region – South Asia – their first PC. Mobiles today are more capable in fact than average PCs were a few years ago. They are more pervasive, affordable and utilitarian. The mobile today is first a device for the exchange of information through text messages (SMS), including mobile commerce, and only then a device for voice conversations. In the case of smartphones, the mobile is even more akin to a PC, revolutionising in the vernacular as well as in English, the way content is consumed, disseminated and archived through text, video, audio and photography.

Few in the world of ICT for Development (ICT4D) saw this coming. Fewer in peacebuilding and conflict transformation saw the potential for mobiles even a few years ago. My Masters thesis and other academic writing at the time, based on my work in Sri Lanka using ICTs and mobiles to transform violent conflict, is still flagged as some of the first forays into what has today become a praxis and theory far more studied, yet perhaps still as misunderstood.

ICT4Peace: Beyond Crisis Mapping

At the invitation of Crisis Mappers, I delivered a presentation on ICT4Peace to an audience from around the world at an ungodly hour in Sri Lanka yesterday. Though Jen Ziemke’s notice on the Crisis Mappers website noted that I would be talking about the latest in the field, when in fact I spoke about the failures and challenges of my work in Sri Lanka for over ten years in using ICTs to bear witness to violence, in citizen journalism, in electoral democracy and in response to disasters.

Crisis Mappers promises to make available a recording of the session in the coming week, which I will link to once online. In the meanwhile, here the presentation around which my submission was based on.

The penultimate slide, #20, engaged the audience the most and was developed from the tweets I authored live on the ICT4Peace Foundation’s account during the Crisis Mappers conference in Boston, in October last year. Download a PDF of these tweets here. These are issues that I have spoken and written on widely, and I think require more robust attention – or more accurately, as much attention as the more optimistic accounts of crowd sourcing and crisis mapping get in the global media.

Behind the scenes: How to upgrade a citizen journalism website

Updated 22nd December 2010 with list of plugins used on the site.

Groundviews launched its new version today. It was a radical departure from the look and feel of the old and first version to the new avatar.

Old / original version

Groundviews New
Current version

Counting articles and comments, Groundviews has, at last count, well over 5.5. million of words of content published since 2006. This does not include the photos, audio and video featured on the site. The sheer size was its own worst enemy – once an article went off from the homepage in the previous version, readers had a hard time rediscovering it. Site search was ineffective, inaccurate and slow to boot. While the site had a distinct look and feel loyal readers had come to love, it was evident that a lot of the content useful for researchers and historians, as well as serious readers, was simply too hard to access.

The new site officially launched today with key improvements. What was done to enhance the features, readability and discoverability of content is not something any other media site in Sri Lanka comes even close to achieving today.

How did we do it? Key to the new site were the following three considerations.

  1. Content discoverability and enhanced search features
  2. Mobile phone and mobile browser friendly content, with particular emphasis on Apple’s iOS based devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)
  3. Integration with Facebook and Twitter

We didn’t move away from WordPress, which from the get go has served Groundviews well. That said, there was no plugin on WordPress capable of serving the search functionality we required. We turned to Google’s Custom Search Engine instead. For $100 per annum, the CSE we created is the most comprehensive search currently available for a site, bringing to bear Google’s power (including boolean logic operations and specific filetype searches) to enhance content discovery on the site. To complement this new search engine, we created a new Archive page on the site, making it easier to visually navigate to content published in the past.

Groundviews, through the WordPress Mobile Edition plugin, already automatically rendered content on mobile devices to suit each device and browser. This plugin was retained in the new version. The option to go to the full site is present and works best with iOS, Android and Symbian devices.

A strict a standards based design and the switch to HTML5, non-Flash based video was done with Apple’s iOS devices in mind, which don’t run Adobe Flash. All the videos, and the scrolling features on the homepage, are non-Flash based, and work perfectly on any iOS device.

The earlier site had patchy connections to Facebook and Twitter. The new site streamlines these connections. At the end of each article, tight Twitter and Facebook integration make it possible to highlight the story quickly and easily. In addition to this, we continued the use of Apture, first introduced to the site over a year ago. Featured on sites like the Economist as well, Apture comes into its own when one scrolls down any page. The resulting header makes it easy to search for content, as well as post anything to Twitter or Facebook. An added bonus is that double-clicking on any word, or set of words, opens an Apture window that searches Groundviews for that key word or phrase, as well as the wider web. It is an elegant solution that helps retain readers on the site.

Several new technologies are incorporated on the new version of the site. Google’s Feedburner now powers email subscriptions to site content. Full feed RSS is provided by default. The idea that readers have to come to the site itself to read and engage with content is laughable, and yet one that animates the majority of news websites in Sri Lanka. In addition to email subscriptions and full feed RSS, another new technology is the site’s tight integration with Instapaper. As Instapaper’s website notes,

“Instapaper facilitates easy reading of long text content.We discover web content throughout the day, and sometimes, we don’t have time to read long articles right when we find them. Instapaper allows you to easily save them for later, when you do have time, so you don’t just forget about them or skim through them…. The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it. Instapaper helps you bridge that gap.”

It’s also important that Instapaper has iPhone / iPad apps, making it very easy to save and read site content on these devices, with seamless content synchronisation.

As noted in the email sent out announcing the launch,

“The site update has preserved links from the previous avatar and Google indexing. What this means is that references to site content made for example in academic journals are still valid, and that existing indexing of site content on Google is unaffected by the upgrade.”

The point about preserving Google indexing is important because over 2009 and 2010, the website of the Daily Mirror, one of Sri Lanka’s leading mainstream media newspapers (published by arguably one of the most profitable and tech savvy media houses, the Wijeya Group) underwent around over 3 major revisions. One revision completely rendered the Google indexing of the site’s articles worthless by changing the internal site links. Further, even today, this leading online news site offers a pathetic search engine seemingly designed to hide content rather than expose it. As I noted in Daily Mirror’s online woes reveal an industry issue,

It is one thing to know about web and new media, quite another to strategically leverage it to strengthen brand identity, content consumption and forge new models of participatory, independent and indeed, investigative journalism. Though newspapers in Sri Lanka have embraced the likes of Twitter, Facebook and web media, there is no real understanding of any of the platforms, the manner in which content needs to be tailored for each of them, the varying consumption and delivery patterns or through them, how consumers can be made to engage with the news in more engaging ways.

Underlying technology aside, the new design uses a new typography and layout, leveraging white space, line spacing and content placement to enhance readability.

Other key plugins for WordPress used on the site are:

  1. Akismet, for handling automated comment spam
  2. WP Captcha Free, complements Akismet, and guards against comment spam from contact and comment boxes
  3. Audio player, for MP3 playback
  4. Similar posts, for reader retention and content discoverability
  5. WP-Print, for easy formatting of a post for printing
  6. WP-Post Views, for displaying how many times an article has been read
  7. WP-CommentNavi, for page navigation on the site

The design, content migration and technical features were implemented by Cezar Neaga. It is almost impossible to find WordPress expertise in Sri Lanka to the level of complexity Groundviews demands. Cezar’s keen eye and technical proficiency helped a great deal to realise our core requirements for the new version.

At the end though, what drives a site is its content. All of the design elements and technical features are anchored to the international award winning content featured since 2006 on Groundviews. The new site makes this content more easily accessible and more visually appealing. It is also the basis for new, compelling ventures in citizen journalism lined up for 2011 and beyond.

Watch this space.

Groundviews and ICT4Peace profiled in Fast Company

Fast Company profiles Groundviews and my work on ICT4Peace in an article by Jenara Nerenberg published today on their website.

Hattotuwa now serves as Special Adviser to the Geneva-based ICT4Peace Foundation affiliated with the United Nations to leverage his real-world experience in new media and citizen journalism to help with crisis response, early warning and disaster mitigation. In that role, Hattotuwa designed and developed the Crisis Information Management wikis of the Foundation and was hailed by the UN for that effort.

In a region that is generally considered unsafe for journalists, Groundviews is viewed as one of the most outspoken publications and Hattotuwa continues to collaborate with journalists and crisis response professionals in Pakistan, Nepal, and throughout South Asia. And when governments attempt to silence dissident voices or their electronic communications get tapped, Hattotuwa advises journalists and human rights activists on remedial measures that can be taken.

Read the full article here.

The demise of G.ho.st: Two years too late

TechCrunch reports that G.ho.st will shut down in two weeks. I extensively reviewed G.ho.st in 2008 after fantastic claims made in the media and by its makers that the online OS was somehow so novel as to contribute even to peacebuilding in the Middle East.

Two years ago I called G.ho.st a sham, destined for failure. It’s a wonder that it lasted so long.