In the company of giants: International Mediation Institute (IMI) and ICT4Peace

Diane Levin’s blog gives a pointer to the International Mediation Institute (IMI) and a special section on its web site to recognize the work of bloggers writing on ADR and ODR.

Diane Levin aside, there are giants in the field of ADR / ODR featured here. It’s humbling to be in the company of these blogs and bloggers, though I am perhaps the only person without any legal background or training to be featured here!

A little over two years ago, when I started this blog, it was the first and only one on the web to deal with ICT for peacebuilding. Today, it’s praxis and theory is no longer embryonic and there are hundreds of examples of the use of ICTs in everything from conflict early warning to mitigation and transformation.

My interest in ODR was piqued when I realised that the principles behind ADR and especially when technology was introduced as a fourth party shared many similarities with my approach to and understanding of ICTs in peacebuilding.

That’s an interest that will only continue to grow, nourished in large part by the inspiration found in the content of the blogs featured on IMI’s catalogue.

Face to Face mediation a thing of the past?

Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times

A recent NY Times article on advances in video conferencing and its use, fuelled in large part by rising transport costs, brings together two aspects I have studied from the frame of peace negotiations – inter-cultural mediation and virtual interactions.

The article notes:

There is a certain paradox in telepresence, in that it is all to simulate the richest form of human interaction: people talking to each other, face to face. And it is not a perfect substitute. Ms. Smart, the chief of human resources for Accenture, still travels about 10 days a month. “You don’t learn about other cultures in telepresence,” she said. “You get things from being there, over breakfast and dinner, building relationships face to face.”

Telepresence is all the new rage. To the companies that make telepresence solutions, the term video conferencing to describe their products is as outrageous as calling a Alfa Romeo 8C Compretizione just a car. It so is not.

Cisco was the first off the block with this new generation of virtual meetings that uses a combination of positional audio and video cues, high-def screens undergirded by good broadband connections to make the entire video conferencing experience that much more real.

But therein lies the caveat for those of us in Sri Lanka. We don’t have good broadband, severely vitiating our ability to save the planet by using these technologies (and even the more humble but for most situations quite capable Skype Video).

For the countries that can and do use telepresence (and Skype Video) the potential for its use in mediation needs more serious study. I know of a couple of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) providers who are now keenly looking at incorporating Skype Video into their ODR products (some already have Skype VOIP built in). Richard Susskind at the ODR Forum in Liverpool in April 2007 spoke about telepresence, but a year on in Victoria at the ODR Forum this year, no one who demonstrated their products to my knowledge had video as an integral part of the feature set.

As a slight aside, although the iPhone 3G doesn’t support it, most 3G Nokia’s and other phones support voice calls, enabling even those in the field to connect using video. My greatest problem with video calls is that they just don’t work for me. For one, holding up a camera to one’s face and talking just makes one loud and obnoxious. The resulting jitter results in migraines for everyone else. And the quality is really still quite poor.

But the question is does telepresence or at its most basic, Skype video, have the ability to build bridges across cultures? Or more specifically, does it do this any better than say email, POTS or VOIP? I think so and disagree with the assertion that you don’t learn anything about other cultures through online video interactions. At the most basic, there are the visual cues. For sure, such cues are mediated through the webcam (which is not the same as the cues one would experience in a real world F2F meeting) but for the sensitive speaker / mediator, they are still valuable markers of those “in the room” that are simply not available through email, a teleconference or even on VOIP.

I’ve worked from a home office set up for over two years. Most of my interactions are over email, but because of the deteriorating security conditions in Sri Lanka, voice communications related to human rights protection and humanitarian work in particular now go through Skype. I rarely use Skype video, but have used it once or twice quite well late in the night.

Point is, I communicate daily with a range of people across the world, work on peacebuilding, innovate and produce multimedia content all from an abysmal “broadband” connection. I avoid rush hour / school traffic and don’t even have an office space anymore in Colombo.

On the other hand, I have already logged more air miles this year than I did for all of 2007 and I can’t see that decreasing. My experience with work at the UN at a high-level is one example of group discussions and the management of competing group dynamics that simply cannot be managed virtually.

So I take the point that telepresence even today cannot replace real world F2F. But here’s the rub – given how far telepresence itself has come from the underwhelming video conferencing of yore, just how long do you think it will take for the next generation of systems to say holographically project 3D images of people around a table?

We already have mobile phones with mini projectors.

How long before we can project avatars of our friends wherever we are?

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.