The working session, “Creating Complex Information Systems” was a standout because it reminded me of the multi-dimensional nature of information sharing in and among communities in conflict and/or challenging circumstances. These communication channels may at times appear linear, moving information from one point or person to another as if moving through links in a chain, but in fact these channels are shaped, branched and forked by social trust, modes of storytelling, the quality of the telecommunications infrastructure, freedom of information and how to access what is available. There is a whole network of factors affecting how information is made, shared, receive; information systems are complex from the beginning, and ICT projects aiming to improve communities’ relationships to information have to remember that is starts with complexity and solutions have to agile enough to adapt to an interconnected web of social relationships.Read more
This approach encourages a curiosity and inquisitiveness among those of us incorporating ICTs into peacebuilding rather than arriving on the scene with “a solution”. Just because it worked somewhere else doesn’t mean it will be applicable in another context – whether that is another country or the neighboring village. A tool works best if its application is based on a comprehensive understanding of the whole ecosystem surrounding a person, a community; it seems like a natural starting point, but often when a project is oriented around a tech tool, it’s trying to make it fit a context rather than letting the human relationships and established communication channels shape the technological needs. It can be exciting for donors and program managers to start with the tool and then look for a way to apply it; inevitably, it may resemble forcing a round peg into a square hole. The social dynamics, existing and accessible resources, trust networks and well-formed habits – just as these greatly affect the success or failure of any peacebuilding project, they also affect the ICT applications.
Rather than a particular technology, I felt encouraged by Ethan Zuckerman’s talk on how to step out of one’s familiar online territory to find all that we don’t know about one another. When I shared whatwewatch.mediacenter.org with my Tunisian colleagues, they were surprised to see how many music videos they had in common with Egypt, and how few with Algeria; there was no end to their interest in seeing the variation in what the world was watching. Websites and other tech approaches that challenge our online habits, our tendency towards homophily, make one question whether she/he wants to be informed via exploration or comfortable via familiar “friends”. Comfortable is nice at times, but breeds stasis.
It is all too easy to overlook the importance of an information needs assessment. For ICT + peacebuilding projects, this kind of assessment belongs not just as the very onset but should be repeated throughout; considering how much changes in conflict and post-conflict settings, surely these info needs will adapt along with changed behaviors. Always more listening, more time spent understanding before acting; any organization or specific project could benefit from prioritizing a comprehensive understanding before applying ICTs.