Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), the financial downturn and innovation

Tucked away recently in the Real Estate section of the New York Times was an article that resonated a great deal with the evolution of Online Dispute Resolution since 2004. The E-Mail Handshake is a fascinating take on how the current economic downturn is influencing modes of communication in real estate deals.

In the current market, with fewer apartments being sold and buyers waiting to scrape the bottom of the market, many brokers say that the immediacy of e-communication often helps them keep deals alive… Can a negotiation be conducted entirely via e-mail? How much and what kind of information can be shared online? Are there times when agents and clients should put their BlackBerrys away and pick up the telephone? Are exclamation points and smiley faces unprofessional?

These are questions that the ODR community has grappled with for years. While the article does not once mention ODR or demonstrates any interest in the resolution of disputes that may arise on account of miscommunication, this is an area rich in study and experience for the ODR community. There have been exhaustive studies on, for example, the intepretation of emoticons particularly between cultures. Again, as this paper notes,

It takes more than computer skill to be able to negotiate one’s interests successfully online. The notion that English serves as a neutral lingua franca is a dangerous myth. Although both disputants may seem fluent in English, natives and non-natives English users do not perform on a level playing-field. Many claim that English is the world language. But to describe English in such terms ignores the fact that a majority of the world’s citizens do not speak English, whether as a mother tongue or as a second or foreign language

And while the greatest minds involved in ODR suggest that avatars may help with negotiations, applications of ODR in the real world suggest that low-bandwidth, textual communications amongst stakeholders (e.g. email, SMS / texting) especially amongst relationships anchored to a one off business interest (e.g. a buyer and broker of a house) are far more common than the usage of full blown ODR systems.

The NYT article does note that, “One of the keys to a successful online negotiation is to make sure agents and clients have met to establish a relationship.” This may work well in real estate client – broker relationships, but in my own adaptations of ODR for more complex work in peace negotiations, this is not always possible or in fact desirable.

The article prompted me to think briefly about some topics I hope the up-coming annual ODR Forum, to be held in Haifa this year, will address.

  • I’ve gone into some detail about technologies I believe will define the evolution of ODR systems. Most ODR systems out there are and look really antiquated. They cannot for example leverage business opportunities that present themselves in the form of resolving disputes that arise in, and must be mediated in, the mobile domain (e.g. communications on Blackberry’s and iPhones). There is only one ODR system I know of today  – the Canadian engineered Smartsettle – that is being engineered to run on a iPhone. How can the industry be nudged to realise that there are business opportunities for innovative ODR solutions and mechanisms especially within the current global economic downturn?
  • Can ODR systems that leverage virtual face to face technologies, like synchronous or asynchronous video (from recorded video testimonials stored in and accessed from the cloud, to Skype and telepresence) be promoted as alternatives to expensive, inter-state or international travel?
  • Ushahidi offers some fascinating and near real time visualisations of ground conditions for various situations – from elections to refugees – along with seamless integration with mobile devices. Can this technology be leveraged for the resolution of some land and resource based conflicts? I believe it can, and I am actively working on a system based on Ushahidi to demonstrate just this.
  • FrontlineSMS offers today a remarkable technology called FrontlineForms, “FrontlineForms allows you to create copies of very simple paper forms on your computer, which can then be sent to a Java-enabled mobile phone through a text message. This phone can then be handed to staff or partners who can then take it to the field and enter the information they are required to collect directly onto the phone (by following a trimmed-down version of the on-screen form you have created for them). Once the data input is complete, the information collected can be sent back to FrontlineSMS as a compressed text message, giving you up-to-date and real-time information. Other solutions are available that provide data collection functionality, but many rely on data connectivity via the mobile phone network, or specialist devices or PDAs. FrontlineSMS does not, and only requires that you have a basic Java-enabled phone and a mobile signal. If forms are completed in an area where there is no signal they will be held in the phone until a signal is detected, after which they will be safely sent.” (Emphasis mine).
  • What implications will this technology have for ODR applications in developing countries (and even in North America)? Can one for example imagine the growth of one business model for ODR that adapts lightweight forms for data collection and dispute resolution amongst clients using only mobile devices, which as the NYT article suggests are in any case their primary means of communication?

Any other ideas? I am really sad to miss Orna, Ethan, Colin, Daniel, Ayo, Frank, Mohamed and others in Haifa, but I know they and others present at the meeting will discuss these issues in greater detail. I believe there is a heightened importance for effective and pervasive ODR in the current economic downturn, where it’s not just about cutting costs, its about getting the best value from existing assets. And that frankly means looking at mobiles and as the NYT articles highlights, new negotiation and communication models that are emerging as a result of changing times.

More innovation, not less, is called for.

1.4 billion people access the Internet today – ODR providers need to wake up to mobiles

A new report finds a quarter of the world’s population accessing the Internet in 2008.  IDC’s Digital Marketplace Model and Forecast estimates that 1.4 billion users of the Internet is set to jump to 1.9 billion over the next four years, bringing internet access to roughly 30 per cent of the world’s population.

“The internet will have added its second billion users over a span of about eight years, a testament to its universal appeal and its availability,” said John Gantz, chief research officer at IDC. “These trends will accelerate as the number of mobile users continues to soar and the internet becomes truly ubiquitous.”

Net-enabled mobile devices will help drive the global online trend, surpassing the desktop PC as the primary means of accessing the internet by 2012, according to the report.

Net-enabled mobile devices will help drive the global online trend, surpassing the desktop PC as the primary means of accessing the internet by 2012, according to the report.

Emphasis mine.

Two years ago, in response to a report that said that this figure was 694 million, I said that those in the developing world and especially in countries such as China access the Internet through Cybercafes and mobile phones. It’s great that market research agencies have finally caught up with what I’ve been observing and writing on for years. 

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is a field that needs to wake up and leverage this growth in non-PC internet and web access. Currently, there is only one application I know of that runs on a mobile device (the iPhone and even it is still in beta) and only one example from the Philippines that has SMS as an integral part of its operations. As I noted in Victoria this year at the 2008 ODR Forum, the iPhone alone has all by itself revolutionised the mobile web use and access in the US, a country not known for its use of mobile phones for anything other than voice calls. 

With the increasing global usage of the Internet and web, increasingly through mobile devices / phones, the business model for mobile ODR technology provisioning is strong. In 2004 I was openly challenged by an ODR service provider based in the UK for even believing that mobiles would make any appreciable impact on ODR. 

Today, the fact that there isn’t any enterprise level ODR solution that leverages mobiles / mobile devices is not just a great pity. 

It’s daft.

The future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) – Technologies to keep an eye on

I was asked to run the Crystal Ball session at the 2008 Online Dispute Resolution Forum and with Vint Cerf right in front of me, it was an interesting opportunity to go through some of the technologies I felt would change the manner in which ODR systems would be developed and used as well as, more generally, how awareness of ODR would be raised across the world. I called the presentation “Know the Technology” taking from a statement made by a panelist in one of the sessions earlier in the day.

The background to this presentation is encapsulated in a comment I made last year, in response to one by Graham Ross after the 2007 Online Dispute Resolution Forum in Liverpool, England. The points I raised in that comment are still valid.

Slide 2 – Google Maps / Google Earth
I suggested the use of free, web based map mash-ups for ODR, particularly for land / territorial disputes and those that are based on natural resources, demography and ethnic composition. It’s not a new idea, but one that many in the audience I don’t think knew just how is being used even today to transform disputes. As Paul Currion notes, “Geospatial technology will transform the way that people look at the world. Tools like Google Earth and Google Maps offer access to mapping technology for free.” Google Earth (the 3D version) hitherto available only as a standalone app is now on browsers. I’ve used maps to plot election violence and the existence of High Security Zones that contravene International Law in Sri Lanka. One of the most powerful examples of maps being used to save lives is Amnesty International’s Eyes on Darfur project.

Slide 4 – New media, Web 2.0, Twitter et al
The point of this slide was to give a snapshot of the myriad of technologies on the web, internet and also on mobiles – from AJAX to SMS, from blogs to instant messages, from VOIP to video, from emoticons to MMS that are changing the way in which we communicate via and on the web. The suggestion here was that the technologies, as much as ingrained cultures of the users, changed the manner in which interactions took place. Emoticons were, for example, not just seen as eye candy, but a tool that could aid in inter-cultural negotiations by communicating the intended meaning of the written word more accurately. These were all disruptive technologies that with each iteration took communications to an ever increasing user base with more or less equal access to the medium. Blogging platforms for example level the playing field for new voices, allowing those hitherto marginalised to (potentially, relatively easily and for free or very little cost) have as much impact on the web as State propaganda. What would this mean for ODR? Would it help or would it create more conflict? Are ODR tools and technology neutral? What features have been integrated into the current crop of ODR platforms? If not, why not?

Slide 5 – The TSA blog
I said that given that I am a terrorist until proven innocent every time I visit the US, the TSA blog (Transportation Security Administration) was an eye opener on how public input ostensibly makes its way into TSA policies. The content is written in a manner that’s friendly and open, the site itself has generated hundreds of comments as feedback, there is a sensible, open moderation rule set, the content itself is very useful and information, the site is regularly updated and comments responded to and overall a very interesting experiment in how one of the most reviled agencies from the perspective of a foreigner attempting to enter the US can engage in a public relations exercise that is really a conflict resolution / mitigation strategy. This to me is preventive diplomacy in the form of a blog.

Slide 6 – Mobile phone growth
4 years ago, in Melbourne, at the first ODR Forum I attended, I was the ONLY one who spoke about mobile phones and peacebuilding. In Victoria, virtually every single panel and Vint Cerf himself was talking about mobiles being the next platform for web and internet services to reach millions who would never be able to afford and never buy a PC.

Slide 7 – Smartphones
I asked the question, why wasn’t there a single ODR application that ran as a thin client on smartphones? I pictured the new iPhone 3G and the new Blackberry Bold, but I could have also easily said the Nokia N series and a plethora of new phones that really are mini-computers. Rather than treat the smaller form factor and screen size as a negative, when were the developers going to realise that these devices were assets for ODR?

Slide 8 – The iPhone revolutionises mobile web browsing
The stats are clear and incredible. Americans and other users of the iPhone in the DEVELOPED world are using it to browse the web in a manner that no other mobile device has engendered. Though many in the DEVELOPING world use their mobiles phones to send SMS and browse the web, it is only now that users in countries like the US are waking up to the possibilities of the mobile web. When will ODR solutions providers wake up to this new reality? (One solutions provider in fact told me that an iPhone app was in the works – I’m looking forward to that).

Slide 9 – New communities
Strangely, no one talked about Second Life in Victoria. I’ve dealt with Second Life and ODR exhaustively on this blog and suggested that with all the disputes occurring virtually amongst the millions of avatars in Second Life alone, esp. now that you could also access the platform thru your mobile (leave aside other MMORPGs) that virtual dispute resolution could be the next growth industry! After all, SL already has an International Justice Centre and an E-Justice centre!

See my presentation on Second Life below for more salient points:

Slide 10 – Facebook
Using the example of a pending Canadian case against Facebook’s sui generis understanding of and approach to issues related to privacy, I suggested that FB alone would redefine issues related to trust models, confidentiality frameworks and “common sense”.

Slide 11 – Broadband growth
I suggested that the global growth in wired and wireless broadband connectivity laid the foundation for more interactive, media rich ODR frameworks and mechanisms to take the place of / complement the existing crop of tools. Broadband allows for example video conference for free using tools like Skype that can be integrated into ODR tools.

Slide 12 – Telepresence
Cisco’s telepresence technology, though prohibitively expensive, nevertheless shows us the future of video conference. Cisco’s telepresence is the Bentley of video conferencing, but for many, the Volkswagen of the medium – Skype Video – proves adequate, with the new Skye beta version for Windows demonstrating this shift with a stronger emphasis on video.

Slide 13 – End of walled gardens and patents?
Some ODR providers today use patents to protect their ODR products like the incumbent US President George Bush uses the English language – in ways that are wholly nonsensical. I posed three new technologies – Google’s OpenSocial, and as ways that would challenge the walled gardens of the current crop of ODR solutions. Here’s the scenario – what if your user identity was remotely and securely managed and you could log into and try different ODR products with a single username / password, allowing each system to access your case details as you see fit and seeing which one gives the best solution? No data / user lock in, no giving out personal information to dozens of sites each with varying privacy regulations and security architectures. Simple, effective, neat.

Think not? Think that the best ODR products will always need and warrant patents? Think again. Just take a look at to who has put their names behind alone.

Free the user and everyone stands to benefit.

So what do YOU think the future of ODR will be, from a technological / technical perspective? – Popular justice or tyranny of the majority?

The latest entrant to Online Dispute Resolution is a start-up from Israel – At the time of writing, there’s no functioning website. There’s a video though of how will work. Not entirely sure this concept will work. But who knows? Maybe it will really keep result in some out of court settlements for some disputes.

Watch their video here.

What do you think? Passing fad or serious ODR?

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.

International Justice Center in Second Life: A wasted effort?

So there’s a new International Justice Centre in Second Life. Another great idea geared to service the few who can use Second Life. 100% useless for most of us who cannot.And let’s not forget what Time Magazine had to say of Second Life.

I am yet to be entirely convinced that Second Life repositories of knowledge and information are somehow more desirable and worth supporting than say web based portals. As the video from the event shows, the high profile launch was sparesely attended and even featured one streaker. I guess this is activism and awareness raising for some.

I don’t want to be too negative. For those who can use SL, it’s immersive and interesting to be surrounded by content on the workings of the International Criminal Court, the world’s first international human rights tribunal, designed to investigate and try those accused of committing some of the worst violations of human rights, including genocide, mass rape and war crimes.

Of course, the point is that the country in which the International Justice Centre is located in is also a country that does not recognise the ICC. The United States of America was one of only 7 nations (joining China, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Qatar and Israel) to vote against the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998.Wonder if the IJC wil stimulate any discussions in this regard.

To their credit, Global Kids has engaged in discussions on how best to use the new IJC in SL. Among the suggestions and ideas that came out of the forums:

  • Education about the International Criminal Court should be the first priority. Many people don’t know what the ICC is, or have misconceptions about it.
  • Integrate educational content into the environment. Immersive experiences can galvanize people to action.
  • Aesthetics matter.
  • Virtual demonstrations can have real world impact.
  • There’s already lots of activity on social issues, but dispersed across the grid.
  • Bringing real world events into SL is attractive to people because it enables them to attend events that they normally could not, and the backchannel conversations enhance the experience.
  • It’s difficult to demonstrate and measure real world impact of virtual builds and experiences.
  • Hold mock trials with different teams of university students
  • People want to have fun. Integrate entertaining activities to draw people, like music festivals, art shows, etc.

These are vital, urgent and significant goals and I sincerely hope that they succeed in all this. However, living in a country where human rights abuses are rife and with my own significant experience in using technology to support peacebuilding, I have my doubts about using SL (and this is the vital point) to achieve some of these goals which may well be done better, cheaper, for a wider audience, in a more accessible and sustained manner, in more languages and with more interactivity and responsiveness.

I guess it’s revealing that most of the social and political activists who propound the use of SL as a viable platform to galvanise action, even in the real world, come from the US. And perhaps I am wrong to judge them by my own reality and access to technology. My concern however is that some of these initiative tend to get more than a little carried away by their own hype and forget completely just how atypical it is to have a PC and Internet connection able to run SL.

That said, what I found the most inteteresting in the video of the IJC launch above was not the event itself, but the art of defiance showcased in it. The sculpture with cameras for example reminded me of every single time I’ve visited Britain where even the Queens corgis seem to have CCTV cameras up their royal posterior. It is after all the country with the most amount of CCTV’s though it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. It’s great that people with a desire for social and political transformation are using all the tools possible in virtual domains like SL to raise awareness on real and vital issues such as Darfur, Myanmar and China and even the gross human rights violations by the US itself.

In Avatars and Politics: Using Second Life for political activism? I point to articles that are essential reading for anyone who is interested in the larger implications of initaitives such as the IJC.

I have no doubt that web and Internet activism influence real world change. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that the web and Internet are the only domains and last refuge of those who are at risk and persecuted.  But experiments with SL in countries like Sri Lanka have been a failure, simply because we do not have the necessary connectivity to use it to even a fraction of its potential.

And that’s a real pity.

Also read:

Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding?
Strong Angel Island videos – From the Strong Angel III sim for Second Life
A Second Life for Journalism?
Second Life – Business, ODR, Language and Peace
Online Violence : Take 2

Critique of “Virtual Diplomacy” workshop at GKP touches a raw nerve

My earlier post on the workshop on Virtual Diplomacy at GKP seems to have touched a raw nerve with, strangely yet tellingly, the folks from Diplo Foundation who moderated and organised the session far more than some of those in the panel itself.

Clearly, the prissy and defensive responses that are found in response to my post, which are markedly different from those I received (via email) from Joshua Fouts and Rita King from Dancing Ink Productions who were actually represented on the panel, reveal a desire to obfuscate facts surrounding the constitution and organisation of what I will maintain was not just the worst workshop I attended at GKP, but one of the worst I have attended in my life on ICTs and their application to augment real world processes such as public diplomacy.

A few salient points are worth noting. Diplo Foundation states that,

“The background on SL for the audience was available at the beginning of the session (the description for the GKP-publication was provided two months before the event). In order to properly address the audience, the session was moderated to provide basic information on Second Life and the list of main, mainly development-related, aspects of SL.”

Several questions arise in this regard. It would be fascinating to discover how the organisers were able to fathom the constitution and interests of the audience before the workshop in order to tailor the content of workshop for them. I certainly didn’t get any revised material before or after the workshop and neither did my Sri Lankan colleague who accompanied me to the worhsop. There was none at the entrance, none on the chairs, none circulated in print or electronic by the GKP secretariat or by the Diplo Foundation. Participants came to the sessions based on and with their GKP brochure, which irrespective of when it was printed, outlined what was to be the terrain covered by the workshop. That it was changed was only too painfully evident as time progressed. It was only upon visiting the Diplo Foundation’s site after I returned to Sri Lanka that I discovered how much the panel’s scope had dramatically changed from that which GKP’s brochure had us believe. “Properly addressing” the audience therefore would have been to first inform them of the changed agenda and scope of the discussions.

As I noted in my first post however, it wasn’t even the fact that the scope changed that was the issue, but that the panel’s submissions were most disappointing for those with significant experience in SL for public diplomacy and who expectations of this workshop was to learn more than what they already knew. The Diplo Foundation deliberately confuses basic with naive in this regard and my original post covers a range of issues that the panel did not even hint at.

Diplo Foundation’s monotonous refrain in its comment, that “This was not the theme of the session; see the above mentioned descriptions of the session” in reference to the points I bring up, ergo, has perhaps more to do with the dastardly organisation of the workshop, for which the GKP secretariat perhaps must take the greater share of blame.

Clearly however, better communication from and between GKP and the organisers of the workshop (given their penchant for spamming participant Inboxes) would have helped orient audience expectations better and alerted those of us like myself, with significant real world experience in the use of augmented and virtual reality, to stay away.

Diplo Foundation goes on to note, correctly, that the question I posed in my post on whether the Maldivian Embassy in SL would continue to exist if activists launched protests in it against the essential dictatorship of the Gayoom regime, was not asked in the workshop itself.

Mea culpa.

What I did point to in the session was the fact that governments and other institutions may initially take kindly to and look at with great interest the possibility of establishing a presence in virtual worlds without realising the potential for them to be embarrassed by avatars staging demonstrations against them. Elections in France and acts of virtual vandalism in Australia demonstrate what’s already been done in Second Life in this regard. Going further, my point at the workshop was that initial enthusiasm may in some cases give way to increasing levels of resistance to virtual worlds in light of the above.I fleshed out this submission further in an email I sent to the moderator of the workshop, Jovan Kubalija from Diplo Foundation, after my return to SL. I averred, inter alia, that

I enjoyed the panel on SL, but may I humbly submit that I thought some of what was proposed by the panel to be naive and a result of a limited experience with complex political emergencies (CPEs) and protracted ethno-political and intra-state conflict (which defines many regions in the world today).I have worked over 8 years in peace process design and ICT and my optimism is tempered to a large degree by the fact that I live and work in a country where, when I step out of my home, I don’t really know whether I will make it back home alive. There are worse situations and the challenge also is to get, for example, the SL Maldivian Embassy to welcome and regularly conduct open forums that challenge what is in South Asia the longest running dictatorship and a regime with an atrocious record of freedom of expression and assembly.

Jovan’s response was,

I agree that the personal experience is very important for grasping broader political concepts. it is especially important for understanding tacit, emotional and “non-recordable” aspects of conflicts. Unfortunately, like yourself, I and most of Diplo team have experienced “reality” of the conflict in the Balkans.

Eva Chan Tanner (who I assume is also from the Diplo Foundation, given the curmudgeonly tone) also makes some comments on my post.

The prospect of using the virtual environment to build communities, to promote actual constructive dialogue and, hopefully to lessen the social and physical barriers that so often overshadow any real efforts diplomatically and in our daily lives was what was actually said.

I agree – that’s precisely the problem. The potential for progressive communications and dialogue is there and is one I unequivocally recognise and support. The real potential for its anti-thesis – of the creation and / or exacerbation of real world differences through virtual environments, of which examples are many including outright murder – and the panel’s inability and unwillingness to address it, was where the central problem lay.

Eva goes on to note that “There was no place in this session to politicise or promote a cause”. Though from the tone and content of her submission and the one earlier I find it hard to imagine Diplo Foundation furthering significantly any political cause, the raison d’etre of public diplomacy is precisely that. To ignore (party) politics or shaft it aside as unnecessary and unimportant is what I referred to in my original post as the dangerously naive outlook of some in the panel.

Eva then avers that,

“More importantly, the session showed how different governments are using it as part of their way of reaching out to the world. Isn’t this better than nothing at all?”

This is, most politely put, a pedestrian argument. Doing something is not necessarily better than doing nothing. Certainly, the swank Swedish Embassy with streaming Swedish pop would be a cool place to hang out to find out more about a country many of us born to conflict wish we were citizens of. But the mere presence of Government’s on Second Life does not mean they are “reaching out” and does not mean they want any real participation that critiques official policies or questions their propaganda. A presence in SL may just simply mean that they see it as another way to promote their (parochial) interests through a different medium and in no way can it be assumed that a two-way, meaningful dialogue is engendered and sustained by the virtual creations and presence of real world governments and States in Second Life.

Another point is made in the defense of the panel’s submissions on Second Life’s low carbon footprint, which in my post I said was not a given. In an earlier post on Second Life and the environment I noted that,

If it means that in some way it’s use cuts down on carbon emissions through the reduction of air-travel, then I guess it’s all the more reason to promote it as a platform for serious work and collaboration.

The point however is that the jury’s out on the real benefits of using SL to save the environment, as Nicholas Carr’s post here fleshes out in some detail. The panel was unaware of this debate and simplistically said that using SL was more sustainable than real world interactions.

Sadly yet in a manner that colours our appreciation of her entire submission, Eva ends her comment on a rather juvenile note by saying that

“I highly recommend that you revisit your notes from the session. Perhaps for the next GKP event, it would be wise to submit a proposal to do a session on ‘the use of Blogs, the beauty of it and the beast within it’.”

Condescension is the last refuge of those unable to countenance anyone who challenges their established wisdom. Obstinately protecting the halo around their noses, the ivory towers that Eva and the rest of her ilk reside and revel in are too far removed from reality to acknowledge the significant work of those who, based on what was presented at this workshop, are a few years ahead of the Diplo Foundation in their use, understanding of and approach to virtual worlds and new media to facilitate and augment public diplomacy, understood by this author as dialogues, physical and virtual, in support of the reconciliation of difference, the transformation of violence and the celebration of diversity.