Another blog post I wrote for Reuters AlertNet, this 24 May 2010 piece describes a project with some fascinating potential. I've been loosely involved with them as a kind of advisor ever since.
I had a fascinating meeting at Google in London this morning. Attended by some very senior journalists, former top-level government officials, and representatives of NGOs, universities, and think tanks, the three- or four-hour session looked at a proposal for a new way to approach conflict prevention.
Called "PAX", the idea is to gather SMS, images and video from the general public in areas of conflict (in the style of FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi), and combine that with satellite imagery to form a massive open database that could be accessed to help pressure key governments and others into preventative action.
The proposal poses serious questions, of course, and many in the room (including me) expressed concerns on some points and constructive scepticism on others. Though Chatham House rules prevent me from identifying individual contributions, let me outline some of the general issues raised from my own perspective.
One anxiety relates to something I've said before about user-generated content in conflict situations. "Citizen journalism" is like "citizen dentistry": some things really are better left to professionals. Conflict reporting comes with huge risks, as some information can make a situation worse.
It's not just amateur errors we need to worry about, but deliberate misinformation. The danger of micro-incitement -- that a few individuals could fabricate an incident in the context of, say, a tense ethnic situation, get it into an aggregator/amplifier system like this, and thus inspire revenge attacks -- is very real.
Several participants emphasised the importance of the verification step in the proposed PAX process for exactly this reason, and it is something they are going to have to take very seriously as they move forward.
Second, the problem with conflict prevention, whether it is longer-term early warning or immediate-term alarm-bell ringing, is often not about availability of information but the willingness and ability of third-party states and other actors to influence the participants. There have been a number of examples in recent years where governments knew what was going on but refused to get involved in any significant way to halt mass violence. "If only the world knew" fell apart as a strategy for resolving Darfur, for example.
How to turn knowledge into action and get governments and others to implement effective policies takes experienced analysis of the data and recommendations that are sufficient yet realistic given the context of perceived national interests and other factors. It's no good shouting, "do something!" You need to tell decision-makers what exactly they need to do and make convincing arguments for it.
It seems this may go beyond the scope of PAX's envisioned remit. But if PAX can produce good streams of reliable information, other organisations, like the International Crisis Group where I work, would potentially be able to make good use of it in policy development decisions and advocacy meetings.
Third, PAX will have to address perception issues right from the start. If it is a Western organisation or seen as such, it will be easier for those committing violence to dismiss PAX's data. And there are only a few countries able to put up satellites...
Fourth, the proposal presents something of a paradox. Photos and video will be some of the most powerful and influential material they can gather and distribute, yet by the time there are emotive images coming out of a region, it may simply too late for prevention. How can you interest governments or the mainstream media using the milder material that comes in an "early warning" stage?
And thus, the fifth point: how would PAX interact with the media? With a good collection of material freely available, surely some journalists would be more than willing to use it. But photos and video need to come with context so journalists can develop stories. And might the same photo be used sometimes by both parties to a conflict, each promoting a different narrative? How much will PAX be able to editorialise to promote its material with the intended context?
Perhaps this brings us back to that all-important validation step: someone needs to decide not only what's a real image but what to tell viewers about it. And this, of course, comes after the even more subjective decision of which conflicts to cover and which not to. No one can get away with saying these are objective choices, offering viewers "just the facts". In conflict zones, editorial decisions are political decisions.
That's a good number of issues facing PAX before it gets off the ground, and there are others I've probably missed here too. Still, despite such concerns and reality checks, the core of the PAX idea has significant merit, and I'm happy to see it will be explored in more detail in future. As someone who's a bit of a Google-nut, too, I'm glad to see that company involved.
Peter Barron, Google's Director of Communications for Northern and Central Europe, summed it up well, I think, and kept me on balance optimistic when he told me:
"At Google we believe that greater access to information and the means to publish information is simply good for democracy. This was a fascinating and valuable meeting of some very distinguished players in the field of conflict resolution exploring how greater access to information might help prevent conflict from turning to violence in future."
There is still a huge amount of work for the PAX team to work on, obviously, but as an exploratory step, this morning seemed a good start.