Time for Northern Ireland to #BuildPeace

Time for Northern Ireland to #BuildPeace:
Technology for peacebuilding in divided societies
by Krisztina NAGY for Shared Future News
17 September 2015

Last Thursday saw the launch of the Transformative Connections report on Technology for Peacebuilding. It was a sparkling event with a couple dozen attending, hosted by Orna and Enda Young at the Thinking Cup.

The event was divided into two main parts. In the first part, Orna and Enda gave an insight into the details of their report. In the second part, the audience engaged in talks with exhibitors: BNL Productions, Fablab Belfast, Nerve Centre and Digital Circle.

As the workshop started, the hosts asked the audience to switch on their NFC to download the report on their phones. This is how they demonstrated how easy and quick is to download something and attempted to demystify technology.

After that, they showed figures of the smartphone generation in Northern Ireland: as we learnt, 58% use social media, spending 2 hours 14 minutes per day on average.

Orna and Enda explained that technology in and of itself will not to solve conflicts in divided societies, but it definitely allows people to participate in peacebuilding in different ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

After this they introduced the parts of the report.

Firstly, they described the role of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) in four peacebuilding areas:

  1. Early Warning and Early Response (EWER)
  2. Collaboration
  3. Policy Change
  4. Attitude Change

From their report, they introduced the notion of #PeaceTech, which “places individuals, groups and communities at the heart of how technology is applied in the context of peacebuilding”.

Issues to consider in terms of #PeaceTech are the context, identification of appropriate technology, the limits of technology (as they argued, #PeaceTech is not a “magic bullet”), pursuing a people centred approach that encourages online/offline interaction, sustainability, risk and ethical implications, and measuring impact.

After this, Orna and Enda introduced specific international case studies, such as ELVA, Mahallae and Hands-on Famagusta.

As we learnt, ELVA operates in the Northern Ireland context. It was set up after the 2007 riots. It manages a hate crime monitor and has a real time version. It is a useful tool as it illustrates long-term trends on graphs with nice visual, for instance trends in racist motivated crimes and incidents, or the detection rates per crime.

In contrast, Mahallae has operations in Cyprus. It is good in being both on- and offline. It matches experts with the communities. Another feature is the Digi Wisdom for Mediators and Trainers which could be characterised by an online storytelling process as mediators and trainers can “share their stories from their trainings, interactions with others and journeys of overcoming obstacles encountered, both internal and external”.

Finally, Hands-on Famagusta is an online platform, also operating in Cyprus. Its interactive website is an “urban design tool” that will encourage residents to engage with decision makers on the future of their city. The project will collect information from residents and visitors — from both online surveys and personal archives. All this will be displayed in innovative and creative ways, employing 3-D imagery. Clustered around themes, such as the waterfront and cultural resources, local people “will identify their common interests and priorities for the future”.

After this section, the hosts talked about the Northern Irish context. They explained the particular circumstances that organisations seeking to develop ICTs in Northern Ireland have been facing, and they mentioned existing groups already engaging in #PeaceTech, such as The Building Change Trust, Farset Labs, WIMPS, INCORE, Nerve Centre, and Innovative Peace Lab.

They explained that specific research of the role of ICTs in relation to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland has focused on primarily social media. However, initiatives tend to run parallel, leading to a conclusion that they should be amalgamated in order to be efficient.

The hosts also revealed several challenges for ICTs.

First of all, there is a “bias of connectivity”, which means that it is presumed that everyone has access to ICTs but one has to assure that people are actually online since lot of them are not willing to use for example smartphones.

They mentioned the importance of designing for empowerment in relation with “clicktivism”, which describes the phenomena that in social media people are eager to re-share, re-tweet or like posts, but when it comes to action, they don’t necessarily do things in reality!

There is also a concern over the issue of ethics, security and privacy with regard to peacebuilding and technology. The hosts highlighted the importance of how we use ICTs.

Transformative Connections has several recommendations based on findings of the report:

  • Northern Ireland should build on best practice in employing ICTs in peacebuilding as developed internationally
  • ICTs will provide organisations with alternative and cost effective approaches to peacebuilding for organisations working with limited resources
  • the practical use of ICTs in peacebuilding should be specifically targeted by major funding bodies
  • a Mahallae style platform should be adopted in Northern Ireland.

On the last point, Orna and Enda explained that such platforms are already licensed in other countries. They recommend that Northern Ireland should host a #BuildPeace conference inside the next five years. As described in the TransConn report, “‘Build Peace’ is a community that brings together practitioners, activists and technology experts from around the world to share experience and ideas on using technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. The annual conference has previously taken place in MIT and Cyprus and could draw national and international attention to the use of PeaceTech in Northern Ireland.”

Their next suggestion is that a peacebuilding “hackathon” should take place within the next two years: “Previous events in the region have evolved around data analysis and visualisation with the aim of improving public services in the Belfast area. Such an event may also prove beneficial in increasing collaboration between the wider software and hardware community around peacebuilding practitioners.”

The last recommendation was that a peacebuilding focused “techies in residence” should be adopted, to bridge the gap between the community and voluntary sector (CVS) and the tech sector in Northern Ireland.

In a discussion with the audience, the topic of correlation between the technological facilities provided by schools and the performance of their students was raised. The hosts explained that according to an OECD report, those schools that have very high level of technology actually do worse. They concluded that there must be a balance: it’s good to use the opportunities that technology provide but it’s a means to an end.

After the workshop the audience could meet exhibitors such as the Nerve Centre and FabLab NI which were present with 3D printer; the BNL Productions with a drone; and Matt Johnston from Digital Circle representing the digital content industry.


Photos source: Transformative Connections

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