Human Rights 2.0?

Firstly, check out Patrick Meier’s blog, iRevolution.

It’s rare that I unhesitatingly recommend a blog for its gripping content and this is one. Patrick’s extremely prolific and this is not the only place he blogs which makes it hard to keep up with his writing, but his significant experience and lateral thinking are evident in any of the posts.

Patrick’s post on Human Rights 2.0 is just one of the posts that caught my eye because Patrick deals with in theory what I am involved in practice – securing fundamental rights of peoples and communities at risk through technology. Patrick showcases an Amnesty International project – Eyes on Darfur – that I first saw at the UN OCHA +5 Symposium last year.

Eyes on Darfur

Patrick’s post with information on AI’s future plans and also the demonstrable difference Eyes on Darfur has already made in Sudan are hugely compelling examples of how technology can meaningfully help strengthen human security.

Human Rights 2.0

On the other hand, I’m a bit sceptical about the term “Human Rights 2.0”. It suggests to me some significant and irreversible progress made globally in human rights protection, when the more egregious cases of HR violations – beginning with the US and extending to governments such as we find in Sri Lanka today – take place with near total impunity and under the radar of the global media. This is not to undermine the importance of initiatives such as Eyes on Darfur, but the Human Rights 2.0 monicker suggests an evolution that frankly is a disconnect from the realities on the ground in many countries around the world. Though technologies such as Web 2.0 can positively transform the manner in which human rights advocacy and monitoring is thought of and actually takes place (InfoShare’s own system is one example) all the technology really does is to strengthen a wider and deeper awareness and appreciation of civil liberties often brushed aside for military and political expediency. In this sense, technology can be a vital witness to the visceral reality of human rights violations (though as I have written before, it may not always be impartial).

So whether it be in helping record incidents or locating them on a map, new technologies give activists new ways to hold those who violate human rights accountable for their actions. However, it is vital to recognise that these new technologies are also available to repressive governments, dictators and paramilitary groups. For example, the purveyors of commercial satellite imagery that AI uses do not (and cannot) necessarily discern between violators and protectors.

Finally, suggesting that we all “upgrade to Human Rights 2.0” is to me confusing, since Human Rights cannot be measured or thought of in the same way as web and Internet technologies. Perhaps the term requires a more precise definition that I encourage Patrick to provide. What would Human Rights 1.0 for example be in contradistinction to Human Rights 2.0? And what are the markers that one has upgraded to Human Rights 2.0? And say for example that initiatives similar to Eyes on Darfur are able to prevent wide-scale massacres, but are powerless to prevent the arbitrary violence against citizens by repressive governments or the continued violation of language rights (with significant implications on the larger human rights context). Would that still be Human Rights 2.0?

None of the presentations I make to human rights and media freedom activists use terms like Web 2.0, UNICODE, AES encryption, over the wire and on disk security, asynchronous access, RSS or GIS – features of human rights advocacy and monitoring solutions I’ve helped develop. For me, buzzwords du jour are less important than the meaningful empowerment of those whose lives are on the line when it comes to HR protection and who don’t have time to become experts in ICT. That’s our job. We all get a high when we see HR activists use our technology – they simply trust the system to deliver results they could not have otherwise achieved, in a manner and media of their own choosing and design. The underlying technology is, for them, invisible and unimportant.

What matters is not Human Rights 2.0, but about being as much of a pain in the arse as possible to those who violate human rights, by recording for posterity and with as much detail as possible, crimes against humanity and human decency.

Conflict Early Warning and ICTs

As noted first in this post, about 5 years ago, when InfoShare first started its activities in Sri Lanka, we designed a ICT framework based on the (what I believe to be flawed) FAST template for early warning that used ICTs to strengthen accountability of action taken or not taken by stakeholders in a conflict to prevent violent outbreaks of violence. 

I’ve uploaded an overview of our conceptual system here. Obviously it’s a bit dated now, but the core principles of the possibility of using ICT in conflict early warning frameworks are worth pursuing (after the Asian Tsunami of 2004, the interest in and frameworks for using ICTs for disaster early warning could be leveraged to design systems specifically geared to prevent, mitigate and effectively respond to violent ethno-political conflict).

Our system was designed with Groove Virtual Office in mind, which at the time we were using quite extensively, but can now be developed (cheaper and better) on any number of comparable collaborative workspaces, including web based versions such as Ning as well as using asynchronous technologies such as Google Gears as used on Google Docs

During my Masters research in Australia over 2004 – 2005, I developed some of these initial ideas further in a paper titled Computer Supported Collaborative Work in the North-Eastern Province in Sri Lanka.

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.

Geo-location and human rights

“…future monitoring efforts should make sure that precise locations are recorded first time. So, here are two questions for our five or so readers: what’s working well on this issue in the real world; and, what’s the most practical way to manage information about electoral boundaries?”

Some thoughts of the cuff, as one avid reader of Paul Currion’s blog and to a post that poses the question above.

  • It’s not always possible, in fact rarely so that even today HR activists can get precise coordinates of a violation or incident. The accuracy of geo-location depends on anything from media reports to first or second hand accounts by witnesses to the violation.
  • Place names are a problem for any system that records geo-location in English alone. In Sri Lanka, while most major cities and town have standard and well recognised names in English, the smaller villages as well as IDP and refugee camps have no standard spelling in English. This raises the real challenge of multiple records dealing with the same incident, persons or place. (The HR system we developed for Sri Lanka works in the swabhasha and we are working on building semantic intelligence further into the system wherein it will flag records that it feels are duplicates).
  • Even with just place names, it’s possible to do visualisations that demonstrate patterns of HR violations amongst certain identity groups, in certain regions and in response to certain events or processes. These patterns, based on rough yet verified incidents, can prove very powerful instruments through which awareness and civil actions can be engendered and sustained to strengthen and proctect HR.
  • Current crop of GIS location devices are too conspicuous. They can’t be hidden easily and HR activists lugging them around in war zones is simply a non-starter.
  • Not always necessary to have precise place names. It’s a given that there have been more HR violations in cities in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka than, say, for any city in the South over the 25 years of conflict. You may need precise geo-location if you have more than circumstantial evidence to take a specific perpertrator to court locally or internationally, but for most purposes of HR advocacy, awareness raising and protection, just having information of HR violations over time at a provincial level is better than none at all.
  • Most of the really accurate geo-spatial datasets reside with government. If the government itself is a significant violator of HR, as is the case in Sri Lanka today, that pretty much means that these datasets are inaccessible for NGOs and civil society organisations working on HR protection. This means that they have to rely on what may be less acurrate publicly available datasets. With most donors unaware of the vital importance of supporting information services to back-stop HR advocacy, many NGOs can’t afford the significant costs associated with the licensing of commercially available GIS datasets. And with all sorts of varying ways of identifying the same or similar locations – from P-Codes to Post Codes, from old names to new names, from merged Provinces to de-merged Provinces and the entire relocation of towns and cities – what you really need are multiple layers (translucency) on all maps that indicate location data.
  • Again, place means different things at different times and in difference instances. For some cases, just knowing that an incident happened in whatever place suffices. In other cases, it is of vital important to know the exact location of the place where the incident occured.
  • Finally, as an aside, for myself and others engaged in HR strengthening through the use of technology, these are not just academic questions – they deal with real lives and a bloody reality. Some of our programmers, unused to the gruesome descriptions of a few real records they entered at the initial testing stages of our HR advocacy platform, had to take breaks from work to deal with their feelings. Our system was conceptualised, development and deployed to actively respond to a context where activists who use it are at high risk of losing their lives just for speaking out on HR abuses. We could have gone for the perfect solution or one that meaningfully helped them do their work and responded to urgent and vital needs in a manner robust enough to hold flagrant violators or HR accountable for their actions. Our choice was clear.

ICT4Peace in 2007: Significant work, applied research and challenges

It’s been an bloody eventful year, literally and metaphorically.

Sri Lanka’s war escalated dramatically over the course of the year, with the LTTE suffering significantly at the hand of a Government hell-bent on its complete destruction. The timbre of democracy in Sri Lanka took many blows, not just through the erosion of human rights and the exacerbation of humanitarian crises in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka, but also through the continuing unconstitutional rule of the present regime. Demonstrating a racism and rabid intolerance mirroring that of the LTTE, the regime in the South displayed a totalitarian bent that in living memory was the worst it has been for democratic governance in Government controlled areas in Sri Lanka.

Work on ICT4Peace was placed against this sombre backdrop. Clearly, though we established significant markers in ICT4Peace writ large, the continuing violence, anxiety, insecurity and war means that there is very little to celebrate. I am convinced however, as never before, that ICTs can make an impact in a number of ways despite the rise of violence.

Human Rights Monitoring, Reporting and Advocacy

Key in this regard is a Human Rights Monitoring, Reporting and Advocacy platform for two leading human rights NGOs in Sri Lanka that InfoShare designed and developing using HURIDOCS. When I first met a representative of HURIDOCS in Geneva in 2007 and told him about the system, his first response was how we had managed to create a world-class system without even one single questions asked of them. Clearly, they were impressed.

Strategically, the system came at a useful time for the two organisations currently actively using it (in addition to other HR consortia interested in using it for their work in SL). The Sri Lankan government’s placement of extremely sharp and loquacious experts of spin and counter-propaganda to man its key High Commissions (Switzerland) and diplomatic fronts (SCOPP) posed a severe challenge to even leading HR advocacy groups in Sri Lanka. These organisations were good at international lobbying and HR advocacy, but unused to collecting, recording, storing and disseminating HR violation in a systematic manner, which meant that what they produced and released in the public domain was mercilessly decimated by the Government spin doctors as partial, inaccurate and untrue.

Moving away from the collection of records from, in some cases, Microsoft Word and Excel, into the highly structured and comprehensive HURIDOCS standard was more of a organisational challenge than technical, as is always the case with most ICTs introduced to the NGO sector to augment their work. Adequate training had to be given and human resources considerably strengthened in order to use the system, which over the coming years we hope will set a local and international standard for strong HR monitoring and advocacy.

Our human rights system features:

  • Web based interface: The world’s first fully web based Human Rights monitoring and reporting system. The database will run on Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, ensuring the highest accessibility and a system highly resilient to changes and upgrades in operating systems.
  • Admin interface: This consists of a full implementation of the internationally recognised HURIDOCS data gathering/interpretation system with a full-featured data management interface with which organisations can enter, edit and manage human rights information.
  • Public advocacy website: This is equipped with charts, GIS maps and reports for data analysis as well as functionality to manage publications, articles and news related to human rights issues.
  • Multiple user access levels that define whether a user can view public information, view confidential information, modify information or site settings. This enables organisations to give selective access to the data management interface to individuals and partners that they may wish to bring into future monitoring work. Further, this enables any partner anywhere in Sri Lanka or abroad enter data directly into the system that organisations can then verify and approve for publication.
  • UNICODE standards based data entry: For person names and place names, the system includes extra fields to enter the same names in Sinhala and/or Tamil. Unicode text is used to make these fields searchable.
  • Data export formats: currently exports to CSV, an industry cross-platform standard that enables users to view information on Excel or any other spreadsheet programme on any operating system
  • RSS feeds of all new and updated content that enables critical updates of human rights to be accessed via email, SMS, mobile phone, PDA or newsreaders
  • Automated periodic (day end/weekly/monthly) situation reports, available on the website as an archive and also available as an RSS feed.
  • Database backup: the data on the server will be automatically backed up daily.
  • Security: SSL will secure all data being transmitted between the user’s computer and the server.
  • Browser compliance: all features are supported on Mozilla Firefox 2, Internet Explorer 6 Service Pack 2, and Internet Explorer 7.
  • Over the wire and on-disk industry grade encryption and data security.

Fully complaint and backwards compatible with HURIDOC’s own (ageing) WinEvSys, our system is several generations ahead of it. We have planned an exciting range of features, from full mobile and PDA integration to advanced data visualisation including GIS that we will progressively build on to the system. I worked closely on the design and development of this system and am looking forward to its evolution.

Citizen journalism and New Media – Groundviews

Groundviews

Groundviews, launched in November 2006, came to be recognised over the course of 2007 as a site for original and path-breaking content on Sri Lanka. The site went on to win the first international award any civil society web based initiative / site has won in Sri Lanka an award of excellence in new communications conferred by the Society for New Communications Research.

SNCR Award

The content featured on the site over 2007 has responded to key events and processes in Sri Lanka with content that, on occasion, would not have been published in traditional media. Ground reports from the embattled North and East were useful foils to critically appreciate traditional media reports and propaganda on the war. Leading news and information websites such as TamilCanadian News, InfoLanka, Colombopage, Global Voices Online and numerous other blogs and websites, both local and international, now regularly link to the site.

Over the course of the year, Groundviews took on the malpractices of traditional media, web censorship, compelling perspectives of life in the midst of conflict, legal and political analyses, articles that critically analysed disaster response mechanisms and frameworks, issues such as the case of Rizana in Saudi Arabia that were largely ignored, at the time, in traditional media and on a number of occasions had to deal with the challenges posed by trolls and other miscreants.

In addition to this, Groundviews digitised and uploaded as well as archived and featured progressive videos on war and peace in Sri Lanka and fully incorporated Facebook into the website (to my knowledge, the first citizen journalism initaitive in the world to begin a Facebook Fan Page as an extension of the main site).

As of today, Groundviews on average gets around 20,000 pages views a month and around 700 page views a day (click here for more stats on the website and its readership).

Citizen journalism and New Media – Vikalpa, Vikalpa YouTube Channel and VOR Radio

Vikalpa

Vikalpa was launched in 2007 to address the need for citizen journalism content in Sinhala and Tamil that critiqued the status quo. Even though Groundviews was and still is a place for tri-lingual content, much of the submissions came to me in English and I didn’t have the time to actively elicit and / or create content in the vernacular from the field.

With ICTA and UNESCO funding, Vikalpa started to generate content from the field on issues related to Groundviews but with an emphasis on the vernacular.

Vikalpa, which is run and edited by a team of two at CPA that I helped train in citizen journalism basics, has developed its own identity. Wholly based on UNICODE standards, that to date poses some problems with input of Sinhala to the site, Vikalpa nevertheless generates around 600 pageviews a day, which is incredible given what I thought (wrongly) would be the more limited audience of web users interested in alternative news and information in the vernacular (Sinhala / Tamil).

Vikalpa is the first and to date only CJ website in Sri Lanka that produces content in Sinhala and Tamil, including audio and video.

Vikalpa Video

To this end, though not yet officially launched, the Vikalpa YouTube Channel was a pathbreaking exercise. Exclusively using the Nokia N93i (as an experiment to challenge ourselves to take mobile phone based news gathering to the limit) the channel was in the 3rd week of December ranked in the top 100 list of Directors on YouTube (ranked #82) for a video we uploaded that featured perspectives of the embattled city of Jaffna in Sinhala, that alone was viewed over 4,000 times. The channel itself has been viewed over 1,300 times since we created it, with many videos featured in it viewed hundreds of times.

Again, I was proved wrong on just how much of an audience there is for CJ content critically analysing war and peace in Sinhala and Tamil.

VOR Radio

Voices of Reconciliation Radio (VOR Radio, Sri Lanka’s first and only civil society podcast website, was strengthened in 2007 over a hundred hours of programming, largely in Sinhala and Tamil, of content that explored social, political, economic, cultural and religious issues across all communities, ethnicities in Sri Lanka, including many voices and podcasts from communities in the East and North of Sri Lanka.

Notable in this regard was full selection of recordings from the first Women’s Tribunal in Sri Lanka on 25th November 2007, that includes deeply moving and compelling personal narratives of violence against women (click here and select November 2007 from the drop down list to get a list of all the podcasts).

Work with the ICT4Peace Foundation: ICT4Peace internationally

ICT4Peace Foundation

In my capacity as Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland, I was part of several interesting meetings over the course of the year culminating in the launch of the ICT4Peace: An International Process for Conflict Management at the United Nations in New York on 15th November 2007.

I penned a brief write-up of this event for the PeaceIT! magazine put out by the Crisis Management Initiative. A full list of documents on this process, including the report of the event, can be found on the ICT4Peace Foundation’s website here.

In addition to this, I also made a submission on behalf of the Foundation at the United Nations OCHA +5 Symposium held in Geneva in October 2007.

The Foundation also launched in 2007 the web’s first wiki that catalogues real world examples and applied research of ICT4Peace.

Publications and writing on ICT4Peace, New Media and Citizen Journalism

I wrote far more in 2007 to web and traditional media, as well as chapters to books, than I did in 2006. Most of my writing, that can be found on this blog, Groundviews as well as on my personal blog, were written as personal responses to and critiques on the situation in Sri Lanka.

Of my writing on ICT4Peace per se, the most notable submissions were:

Other significant developments and writing related to ICT4Peace, New Media and Citizen Journalism

So what?

I’m often asked what all this means. My response is simple. As noted at the beginning of the post, despite the increase in violence domestically, Groundviews, Vikalpa and VOR Radio in particular, but also the burgeoning Sri Lankan blogosphere in general offer a range of rich and varied perspectives on democracy, peace and war in Sri Lanka.

Some of the voices for example featured on VOR Radio are now no longer with us. The perspectives on Groundviews have engendered discussions and greater awareness on issues that traditional media has only managed to cover through stereotypes. Vikalpa has exposed little known facts of life even in Colombo, such as the existence of high security zones within the University of Colombo.

As I note in my article on citizens journalism on Madrid11:

There is no guarantee that Groundviews will foster a new social movement in support of peace. There is no guarantee it will secure peace, in any greater degree, on the ground and in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where it is needed most. There is no guarantee that hate speech will not take over the timbre of online debate. The more Groundviews is successful in fostering new voices in support of peace, the more it will become a target of concerted attacks to prevent its growth.

And it is here that our greatest challenge lies. Not in the technology itself, but in the creation of a social and political movement – one fostered by citizen journalism mediated through new media and new technology – that is able to maintain, in some small way, the hope of a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

This hope fuels Groundviews, not as a simplistic magic bullet against terrorism, but as an increasingly important vehicle for ordinary citizens to record their views in support of democracy as the only way through which terrorism can be effectively combated.

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges I’ve had to deal with this year has been in responding to the significant challenge of trolls and hate speech online. Two spikes of hate speech and trolling on Groundviews – one for around 2 to 3 months in early 2007 and the other, ongoing at the time I write this and after our award, suggest that with every expansion of the sites to new audiences brings with it a share of new trolls and anonymous commentators who seek to use the fora to promote their own blinkered viewpoints that they parade as patriotic. This despite clearly stated guidelines for submissions and the tone of manner of discussion.

Editing and deleting these comments invariably brings the argument by those who have little tolerance for its otherwise (see comments in response to this post), that the sites flagrantly violate the freedom of expression.

Some of the trolls started their own blog posts to name and shame the sites and one other, most recently (and hilariously, I think) started his own blog for posts and comments rejected from Groundviews.

On the one hand, this demonstrates the high visibility and veracity our citizen journalism sites command locally and internationally, in English as well as in the vernacular. A comment or post on any of the CJ sites we’ve created is guaranteed more visibility than a personal blog. This is its own attraction for those trolls.

On the other, I’ve often had to make judgement calls, based on the guidelines and also on what I feel a particular post or comment may engender in subsequent comments and submissions. All of the posts on Groundviews deal with highly emotive and divisive issues, more so in light of the widening, violent disconnect between pro-democracy NGOs (and the public writings of those working in or associated with them) and the larger polity and society in the Sinhala South (and their counterparts amongst the diaspora, who often tend to be more rabid, intolerant and insufferable).

It’s been tremendously challenging to edit Groundviews in particular (and the other sites less frequently) because I’ve had to continuously weigh personal threats to self and family that come in the form of comments and emails against the need to keep the forums as open as possible to content that may rile the pseudo-nationalists and patriots, but are viewpoints that need to be features precisely because they are being erased apace in traditional and other media in Sri Lanka.

The most challenging comments however are those that may be overwhelmingly spiteful, but carry an essence of truth in them that if only the person could articulate sans the viciousness, would be genuinely useful to further debate. Interestingly, efforts to communicate with those who communicate in such a manner have on occasion proved fruitful. One case is with someone called Justmal, who made some rabid comments earlier in the year against me personally and others published on Groundviews, but over time, has demonstrated a marked ability to engage intelligently with the content therein.

On balance, I think that moderated fora work better than unmoderated discussion spaces. The lessons from Moju were well learnt in this regard, even though the challenge of moderating is quite honestly extremely draining with little that comes in the way of thanks save for the content I’ve engendered that serves as a vital record and archive of discussions for posterity.

Final thoughts

ICT4Peace, a field that since 2003 I’ve worked hard to define through applied research and practice, came of age in 2007. Through the work of the ICT4Peace Foundation at the international policy level and my own, more humble efforts in Sri Lanka within violent conflict, I think the acronym and what is means and stands for is now part and parcel of the debates on conflict resolution, Online Dispute Resolution, SSTR, civilian-military relations, crisis management and humanitarian aid.

I’m looking forward to 2008 to consolidate this appreciation of ICT4Peace.

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.