10 ideas for Humanitarian IT Systems Design

This report was written for a soon to be established unit inside Microsoft, that though currently under wraps, may well have the resources to propel the design of humanitarian IT systems (based on a range of technologies not just from Microsoft itself) into the forefront of ICT for Peacebuilding.

The ideas and opinions herein reflect those of the author and not of Microsoft or any other entity, individual or organisation.

10 ideas for Humanitarian IT Systems Design

The challenges in the first quarter of this century will require us to envision not just new technologies, but the ways through which their sustainable use can be ingrained into the very heart of the communities they seek to empower. If the 20th Century was able to realise the unlimited potential for a privileged minority, the 21st Century seeks to unleash the same potential for the majority who still inhabit the hinterlands of our information age.

The socio-political upheavals of the first 5 years of the Century are strongly indicative of the immense challenges that lie in the years ahead. Man made complex political emergencies jostle for attention alongside the wrath of nature. Juxtaposed thus, the world attention is divided between the conditions of man made war and the trauma of those affected by natural disasters. Both call us to look inwards to fashion solutions that address the core human condition through attentiveness to the needs of conflict or natural disaster affected communities. Both seek to draw our attention to how much more needs to be done for early warning systems to function in practice, for political leaders to take notice of increasingly comprehensive webs of social information that grant them access to the opinions on the ground, for communities to use a new age of deliberative democracy made possible by new technologies to hold those in high office accountable for their (in)actions and for those who envision new systems that under gird relief measures that genuinely contribute processes of healing.

Understood this way, the confluence between business profits, humanitarianism, technology and in some cases, peacebuilding, is a nebula of interests that are ignored at great peril by large-scale businesses. This constellation of diverse issues and their interaction with the business cycles that govern the creation and distribution of collaborative software in particular, will shape not just the approaches of first responders and aid workers, but through the forge of austere environments, create stronger, more resilient, pervasive and powerful technologies and software solutions that empower information workers in all industries across the globe.

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.

The software industry (and in particular, actors such as Microsoft who seek omni-presence in our digital lifestyles in the 21st Century) need to attune themselves to the delicate human condition and the complex application of their technologies in realms hitherto ignored by mainstream systems design – such as humanitarian work and peacebuilding. Though at first esoteric, software and service in support of these tasks will be the weathervane of successful business models in the new millennium, if only because market simulations of disruptive environments and austere conditions cannot hope to match the complexity of real world situations of relief and peacebuilding initiatives that use technology even today .

However, profit-making cannot be at the expense of further alienating those traumatised by war or natural disasters. With partnerships between organisations that use technology, activists outside of ICT domains, business interests, the finest imagination needs to inform the design of frameworks that shape advanced collaboration technologies to address the aftermath of disasters – man-made, natural or both.

Sanjana Hattotuwa
13 January 2006

1. knowledge networking
Information, knowledge and wisdom exist in a symbiosis.

Knowledge networking goes well beyond database architectures for information storage and retrieval. Contextualising knowledge requires software tools that are able to construct complex relationships within and between large information nodes. The constellation of actors and factors in a disaster for instance need systems that anticipate and support their decision making. Imagining the design of decision support systems that are culturally sensitive, use local knowledge, bring in local, regional and international experts in a seamless asynchronous network and link with expert systems with advanced AI to support crucial decisions and model probable future scenarios resulting from the action or inaction of actors, for example, will form the core of software services for humanitarian aid and peacebuilding.

The essential fluidity of knowledge in the new century will contribute to increasingly amorphous nation-state borders for knowledge workers and experts who are able to plug-in to global information exchanges that piggy-back on the internet and the mobile web. The so called Web 2.0 technologies aside, the traditional internet itself will move from a repository of information to webs of knowledge interweaved according to the subjective preferences of individuals in real time and in response to events on the ground.

The importance of knowledge networking for humanitarian and peacebuilding work is in its ability to transform information to fit local requirements. For example, while a report in English may just be information, intelligent web translation agents that can syncretise the key points of the report into the vernacular can transform it into valuable knowledge by simply making it accessible to those who don’t speak English. The value of such intelligent agents increases exponentially in times of disaster. In a connected world, knowledge vital to the mitigation of a crisis may reside many continents away from the actual site of the disaster or conflict. Inter-connected intelligent web agents can sift through the reams of information coming from in-country operations to pin point experts in the relevant fields to help match demands to available resources.

Diasporas are rich in knowledge resources that can tremendously aid a post-conflict / disaster scenario in home countries by creating knowledge flows that help empower local communities. ICT architectures that can capture global diffusions of knowledge – through text, voice, video, photos and handwriting – and supplant the indigenous wisdom of village and tribal elders can aid in transformative social architectures that are resilient to conflict and responsive to relief efforts.

It is of paramount importance for business services and products to focus on trans-national repositories of knowledge, knowledge out-sourcing and the ways through which knowledge can be captured, archived, retrieved and contextualised in order to create knowledge foundations that will under gird global webs of commerce and industry as well as aid, development and peace.

2. mashups for relief
Operating Systems (OS’s) along with software products and services that don’t link on-demand to knowledge resources and create a seamless online and offline user experience will soon simply fail to impress.

Mashups, or mixing diverse technologies to fit a particular need, will take off after humanitarian communities fully utilise the power of distributed technology frameworks to aid information gathering and knowledge sharing. Relief operations are already at the cutting-edge of mashups – the examples following the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 show that mobile, web based and PC based technologies can be brought together under a common architecture to address a specific task.

Mashups, put another way, shows us the future of the internet. Many-to-many knowledge networks need to be built on IP traffic that can traverse seamlessly through various devices, but also be able to bring together diverse web applications on a large spectrum of devices. For instance, MSN Maps linked to mobile GPS devices in phones, with SMS data entry and GPS positioning, can lead to Groove Virtual Office workspaces with J2ME interfaces that plot, in real time, approximate locations of on the ground demands and resource caches for rapid humanitarian relief and aid using tools such as Toucan Navigate. With the presence awareness made possible by next generation IM clients, along with server side awareness of mobility and context, mashes of GIS, web, mobile and PC based devices can create knowledge spheres that not just bring human and technical resources to bear upon the most pressing needs in a disaster or conflict, but also vital communications for inter-agency transparency in support mechanisms in order to avoid systemic breakdowns leading to confusion amongst first responders.

A recent mashup between eBay and Google Maps shows the possibilities of using increased high quality public domain information (GIS data) to graphically plot auctions near one’s own locale based on personal preferences. The next generation of mashups will be location aware, dynamically presenting knowledge through suggestions for the completion of a task based on geographical location, context and other relevant factors. It is not impossible, for instance to think of a humanitarian scenario that alerts first responders to an unmanned by stock listed warehouse with vital resources when they are within metres of it, or alert by SMS / IM / voice when resources available are matched with proximity to demands set out by communities on the ground.

The impact of mash-ups that underwrite the next generation of internet and web technologies will be profound for the humanitarian and peacebuilding communities because it calls upon engineers traditionally cocooned in proprietary architectures and bereft of a larger imagination to think of key solutions and services that lie beyond the domain of their expertise, experience and corporate vision. Driven by entrepreneurial endeavours that seek to bring together the best of many worlds to address the needs of a specific demand on the ground, mash-ups will transform themselves from interesting experiments to a modular approach to services and software that allow “hot-plugging” of systems – databases, IM clients, collaboration clients like Groove Virtual Office, open standards based web technologies, FOSS software, VoIP, GIS, mobile technologies, GPS, mesh networks and Wi-Max – to create complex swarms of technologies that achieve a “best-fit” on a demand driven response to disasters.

Recognising their inherent power, the key element in the next generation of mash-ups will be their standardisation and interoperability – issues that bedevil existing systems. The way forward is to adopt an approach that uses open standards for data exchange – the common standard between Yahoo! and MSN Messenger leading to future presence on both platforms, standards based XML data exchange between Groove Virtual Office workspaces, Office applications and web based technologies, server side coordination of information via SMS, voice, fax and IP packet data to pervasive modular databases that provide on demand location analysis, resource and demand flows, personnel locations, trauma levels, foreign aid flows and climate / geological data.

The vision is to create complex integrated and adaptive systems that morph according to the situational demands.

Technology that just works is a clarion call of many users. Technology that helps people communicate is a primary goal of Microsoft.

Humanitarian work demands a confluence of both.

3. mobility matters
Mobile devices will transform our lives. Mobile devices and RFID chips in logistics chains will help us identify location and availability of resources in support of rapid responses needed for aid delivery and post-conflict peacebuilding.

The Humanitarian Systems Group (HSG) is itself geo-spatially dispersed, communicating primarily via the very means it intends to develop further – email, IM, VoIP, collaborative workspaces, mobile devices. Already, Voxiva has demonstrated how mobile devices can help in the logistics of life-saving HIV / AIDS drugs delivery . Groove Virtual Office already contributes to a global disaggregation of knowledge working towards the completion of collaborative tasks that do not necessarily require physical interaction – from business deals to peace negotiations.

Rather than wait for the ubiquity of high end Windows Mobile, Blackberry or Palm Treo devices, humanitarian IT eco-systems will treat even basic handheld devices as important nodes in information gathering and dissemination.

Cell broadcasting, for instance, is used in Sri Lanka as part of disaster warning along with GSM devices that alert coastal regions tsunamis. The author has written earlier on proof-of-concept designs that use existing socio-political and technological frameworks in aid of conflict early warning and online dispute resolution (ODR) that use mobile devices. Clearly then, the language of mobile technology has already entered the humanitarian world.

What is envisioned is far greater than what at present exists. To imagine a tsunami 25 years hence in the North-East coastal belt of Sri Lanka, if the status quo at present hypothetically persists:

1. Tsunami prone communities alerted by cell broadcasts, radio messages and GSM based alerting devices.
2. USGS data through RSS feed into governmental and non-governmental sector decision support systems.
3. First responders parachute in after tsunami hits and see on-screen (on cochlear implants) GPS coordinates, situational alerts and information overlays that are GPS specific on demands and proximity of useful resources – human, financial, material.
4. Video feeds from first responders feed back live into operational HQ. Recorded and accessed on demand, these help with situational awareness and decisions for aid.
5. Audio feeds from first responders and two-way VoIP links that by-pass the PSTN and mobile phone networks facilitate real time communication with in-field operations and HQ analysis.
6. Expert systems with cultural and conflict modelling tools are brought in to ascertain impact on conflict and peace dynamics in the region and ripple effects on aid delivery.
7. Scenario mapping tools linked to expert systems, peace mapping, conflict analysis and news tools help ascertain the probability of renewed based on decisions to support local communities and help in the creation of messages that mitigate the perception of aid bias.
8. Voice print analysis to ascertain stress levels of first responders alert HQ to any potential burn-out victims.
9. Real time translation helps first responders in first aid and basic trauma counselling.
10. Embedded RFID chips in wearable suits help in logistics operations, along with always-on GPS positioning helping inter-agency aid coordination.
11. Government, non-government and non-state actors form individual and collective swarms in collaborative workspaces in support of humanitarian aid. Each stakeholder manages information flows to the collaborative workspaces based on humanitarian imperatives. Individual stakeholder operations are also helped by mash-ups that use air-drops of special radios and mobile devices to facilitate information flows from affected communities and aid agencies.
12. Airport and customs databases feed into human resource networks that match those who come into the country with needs on the ground.
13. Operations personnel in the field use voice, video, handwriting and SMS to update HQ on their work and ground situation. With voice pattern recognition software installed, VoIP is linked to alerting systems that prioritise the most urgent needs (based on configurable thresholds per region or community) in aid efforts.
14. RFID tags aid in just-in-time delivery of medical supplies to regions that lack refrigeration or proper storage facilities.
15. Pre-designed SMS templates and voice driven data gathering systems advise communities on how best to communicate their needs to aid agencies and also help them ascertain the approximate times of aid delivery.

Back-end support for these complex adaptive systems will come from a variety of fronts – from the evolution of technologies such as Microsoft Live and Groove Virtual Office to new technologies and services that mould information overload to situational knowledge.

In particular, this transformation of an information glut that is the result of multiple overlapping systems responding to a single event requires on-demand custom tailored knowledge sharing ICT eco-systems.

25 years hence, our “phones” will be devices that are able to plot our position, record our lives, enable selective access to friends, colleagues and strangers based on personal preferences and hardware / software combination (like for instance a profile key on PDA’s to switch between “Available” and “Do not disturb” modes for various people and by default at all concert halls, theatres and public libraries !) and help in the rapid identification and mobilisation of key human resources in support of humanitarian aid, irrespective of where that knowledge resides in geo-spatial terms.

Mobility “matters” in another sense. Porous borders and the ease of travel have resulted in the increasing mobility of population – both within countries and between countries. Knowledge workers epitomise this new mobility – travelling extensively between in-country locations and sharing their knowledge through workshops and conferences in various other countries. With the ubiquity of internet access, aid workers in particular will require ways through which they can debrief when physically travelling to a disaster site and also from locales outside of the site itself.

This essential mobility will require MSG to look at ways such as radio (one-to-many) and many-to-many media such as blogs and swarming in collaborative workspaces as ways through which aid workers and peacebuilding can access critical knowledge that is contextual and accessible through a wide spectrum of devices – ranging from mobile phones to PDA’s and laptop computers.

Designing for mobile devices as well as end users who are nomadic and live their lives on the edge more than HQ’s should be a central design imperative of the HSG. The ways through which mobility is incorporated into work-cycles and situational awareness will inevitably feed into the development of other mainstream MS tools such as servers and other back-end technologies along with client side computing tools such as cross-platform and device independent browsers and web technologies as well as presence capable mobile devices etc.

4. last mile as first mile
Last mile delivery systems such as Wi-Max and mobile phones, will for humanitarian aid frameworks, become the first mile information gathering mechanisms. Put another way, the distinction between last mile and first mile delivery and access systems will blur with new advancements in technologies.

Along with software services, the HSG will need to look at ways that enable technologies that on a very rapid basis enable broadband internet blankets to cover large swathes of territory affected by a catastrophic disaster or with inadequate and overwhelmed existing ICT infrastructure. From Wi-Max to mesh networking, from hot air balloons that can provide blanket wireless access to pony-express frameworks that take information to and from remote communities, the system architectures through which the predominantly IP packet based knowledge transfers will work on need to be built from scratch in many post-disaster situations.

It may be that with recent advancements in 3rd Generation mobile services (3G) and services like Avdo, our understanding of large-area wireless connectivity expands beyond the debates of Wi-Max and mesh networking. Furthermore, last mile access points such as Wi-Fi repeaters placed on telephone / electricity poles can in turn be used as nodes for information gathering when ad hoc networks can be setup to piggyback on existing ICT enabling infrastructure in a region. Countries like Sri Lanka are also leading the way in the use of Wireless Loop technologies and CDMA based telephone systems that are taking connectivity where copper-wires will never reach.

As such, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding ICT frameworks in the future will need to identify and automatically choose between various available network topologies and enable seamless tranversal between access frameworks based on context, bandwidth demands and security requirements.

The call here is for intelligent network agents that are able to use whatever existing resources, from dial-up to wireless acess, to enable on-demand and rapid information access to remote location. This could be a hardware / software combination – for instance, a hardware dongle that scans for all available and usable network topologies and a software agent that connects intelligently to enable data transfers.

It is vital to be aware of existing ICT architectures in disaster relief in order to manage bandwidth quotas on each node or access channel based on urgency. Put another, existing last mile / first mile technologies in a region can help ease the burden and congestion on ICT infrastructure that is set up in response to the disaster by re-routing all non-essential traffic through existing networks.

5. places vs. products
Humanitarian work and peacebuilding is about places – both physical and virtual. Debates on humanitarian products are moot – in that arguments made in favour of a particular product or framework remain marketing hype until they are tested against the complex rigours of operating in an actual emergency environment where disruptive variables by far outnumber the variables in support of smooth work flows. Likewise, discussions about pros and cons of a product that supports peacebuilding are meaningless without testing it with the myriad of complexities in an active peace process, which impossible to model accurately in the isolation of a computing model or lab.

If the social dynamics of disasters are to be examined, there must be an emphasis on what can be facilitated using various products as opposed to the relative merits / demerits of the product itself. Or looked at another way, while people will come together on a website to share information regarding a disaster, end users will not care about the concert of products that go into making such a website active and useful. The atrocious Microsoft Internet Explorer compatible only websites created by FEMA in the early days of relief for Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the inadvisability of using technology frameworks that were designed for a specific product as opposed to the need of a place for the sharing of ideas and knowledge.

The transformation of discussing products in the context of what they engineer in places is already occurring today with the New Media revolution. Taking an old media newspaper as a product and turning it into a web based initiative creates place for readers to contribute and contest news stories as well as enabling new modes of journalism such as citizen’s journalism. We witness today to a silent revolution that is constructing the virtual equivalents rallies and public meetings. While many social networking websites exist and are not all equally successful in engendering useful knowledge in support of aid activities, the experience of http://www.digg.com, Slashdot, Flickr, Del.icio.us and Technorati prove that social networking does have a vibrant future.

Microsoft and HSG in particular need to look into the evolution of MSN Spaces into real and virtual world hybrids that can support peacebuilding and aid. This can be done by sophisticated semantic algorithms that can take blogs, for instance, and place them in context of political bias, geo-spatial location, age, gender, education etc – so as to create complex webs of meta-data that can construct on-demand, an assortment of ideas and expertise that can help in responding to a particular disaster scenario.

The proliferation of siloed social networks results in the perennial problem of information scatter. While Yahoo! is aggressively pursuing Web 2.0 dominance and the rising influence of Google challenge the dominance of Microsoft in the traditional information silo of personal operating systems and desktops. HSG, through the exploration of social networking, can engineer modules that plug into the OS itself that make the personal desktop a place in a virtual world of inter-connected interests. This can already been seen in the ability for users to share song playlists through products such as iTunes. This can be taken further by exposing information on personal computing and mobile devices that are displayed in ways that attract public commentary and debate.

P2P architectures form the central backbone in the transformation of products to places. Groove Virtual Office 3.x demonstrates the power of a product to engineer conversations that can power complex social interactions such as negotiations for peace. One reason for its success was in its invisibility – an easy learning curve and integration to key business tools such as Office resulted in users using Groove as a facilitator of global conversations in support of peace and aid delivery. Groove became a place of interactions as opposed to a product for collaboration.

In this sense, services and products in the future will be driven by the need for collaboration. As the author has noted earlier, products that enable any place on earth to become a virtual meeting point – from Sub-Saharan Africa to the slums of Dharavi, the web of longitude and latitude will in the future refer to places of possible social interactions as well.

Driving this revolution in the ubiquity of places to conduct business and meetings will be a raft of new server and client side technologies. The language of meetings will change from “I’ll see you on MSN Messenger” to “I’ll see you at our space”. The modalities of access will change from IM clients to a flurry of new hardware and software solutions that enable access to virtual places irrespective of geo-spatial location and mode of connectivity. Collaboration will be less about the product used and more about the task completion and the richness of the discussions. The richer the discussion in a place, the more intuitive it is to access the reams of information that a place has access to, the more intelligently a place pre-figures participant demands, the more users will flock to it.

Integral to this shift from product to place will be standards of interoperability that are covered in the next section.

6. open standards and interoperability

Much has already been written about the need for interoperability in disaster response and humanitarian aid systems. Much more needs to be done to translate commitments into praxis. Central to the debate on interoperability is the contest between open standards versus proprietary but widely used standards. This in turn is unfortunately conflated into the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) debate versus proprietary code debates (read Microsoft).

In sum, even though the leading light of the FOSS movement, Linux on the desktop, has made tremendous progress in recent years and has proven itself to be a more than capable challenger to Microsoft Server products, it has yet to penetrate the average desktop in significant numbers. With no real standard between the various flavours of Linux desktops, there is a significant lack of standards in the FOSS community itself, even though it promotes standards adherence as its mantra of effective software design.

This then leads to a morass of different implementations of Linux on the desktop – from Ubuntu to SuSE – which for non-expert users can be more than a tad confusing. Even Ubuntu, the most user friendly of the lot, is a victim to its Linux roots given the complexity of installing / uninstalling programmes, the lack of advanced hardware support and the technical knowledge that is absolutely essential to get it optimised on many hardware systems.

There are however serious challenges posed to Microsoft by FOSS. These challenges cannot be met defensively by positing the ostensibly relative superiority of MS products over those from the FOSS community. In reality, FOSS users are more innovative than programmers labouring under software and service future scenarios handed down to them by a few key visionaries at the helm of large enterprises such as MS. This is demonstrably evident in the mash-ups and places created by those in the FOSS community that had a very large impact on the tsunami relief efforts in Asia, leading in some cases for countries to call for a radical overhaul of disaster management frameworks supportive of FOSS in light of what they saw as the relatively slow and laborious process of configuring MS products for aid and relief operational mechanisms.

These are valid criticisms, in so far as they target the Achilles heel of MS – its size and inability to morph its products to complex adaptive systems that are most needed in aid work. On the other hand, especially given the re-organisation of MS from within to make it more competitive and responsive along with the problems of linking rapid response exclusively to FOSS products, the next 25 years must see the development of platform independent standards of data exchange that use the same foundations to erect architectures that each camp sees fit. Ultimately, a modular structure, akin to the Smart Car concept with its easily configurable panels to fit user taste, will lead the way in systems design in both camps.

It is vital to emphasise, whilst promoting the development of initiatives such as Sahana , that even in its 2nd version, the functionality Sahana seeks to achieve was already present in the Groove Virtual Office collaborative workspaces set up hours after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. While Furthermore, while Sahana is an extremely powerful system even in its present form, it suffers from one huge caveat – it cannot function in disconnected environments as Groove Virtual Office can.

Seeking to learn from past experience and striving to avoid an abrasive relationship within both MS and the FOSS community, the meaning of interoperability and open standards need to take into account far more than the products of today and instead endeavour to envision ways that will enable the services, products and places of tomorrow exchange knowledge. Varian and Shapiro, writing in 2003, make the point that “some part of the industry use the phrase ‘open computing’ to describe an approach, applying to both hardware and software, that emphasises modularity, interoperability, interconnectivity and system flexibility” (pg. 24) They go on to say that “systems built around Linux are thus much easier to maintain as completely open computing systems than are those built around platforms with proprietary, closely-held interfaces.” . Ballmer’s announcement last year of virtual Linux support in the Virtual Server 2005 SP1 – http://www.techworld.com/networking/news/index.cfm?NewsID=3529 along with MS’s .vhd (Virtual Hard Disk) technology – http://www.techworld.com/storage/features/index.cfm?featureid=1380 – may well be the foundation, within Microsoft, of exploring avenues for a more holistic approach to systems design / solutions.

It behoves HSG to actively encourage the exploration, development and promotion of key standards that exist or need to be created in order for aid, peace and writ large, business, to work effectively using the best-fit solution for the tasks at hand and giving end-users the flexibility and freedom to use software that they see fit with MS products and places . With its close affiliations to a global leader of software and services, HSG is uniquely positioned to spearhead this vital collaboration in the next 25 years.

7. online dispute resolution

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is a growth industry that seeks to use virtual interactions between disputants in support of the transformation of the root causes of a dispute. Disputes can range from business and commercial interests to ethnic conflict. The interest in ODR has exponentially increased in recent years. ODR frameworks use or can use almost every single technology developed by the HSG – from face-to-face low bandwidth video transmission capabilities to mobile devices with VoIP. New developments in presence awareness, data mining, knowledge sharing in collaborative workspaces, AI can all feed into sophisticated ODR systems that can transform the way in which business and communities resolve disputes. ODR is not limited to peace time operations. The structures for ODR set up for a peace process in Sri Lanka were transformed in a matter of hours to address the needs of tsunami affected communities in late 2004. The trust relationships built in these collaborative workspaces is the result of technology coupled with social engineering made possible by the global information networks upon which trust determinants can be exchanged and verified. ODR networks have to be flexible enough to adapt to changing situations rapidly, but secure enough to prevent those from outside gaining access to sensitive information within workspaces. While Groove Virtual Office 3.x goes a long way in achieving this, much more needs to be done to create ODR platforms that are able to work on and offline.

In creating new ODR systems, the emphasis should firmly be on frameworks that hide the complexities of the technology and present users who with a human face for ODR. Such systems will engage communities rather than overwhelm them with sophisticated systems that bear little or no relation to the problems of their daily lives.

Systems that are self-effacing and empower communities resolve conflicts on their own stem from a design perspective that is nourished by a recognising and acknowledging the needs of communities on the ground, as opposed to the imposition of high-end systems in a top-down approach. In doing so, the new iterations of hybrid ODR systems envisaged in the next 25 years are attendant to the rich texture of grassroots needs in post-conflict contexts and develop frameworks that, inter alia, address the following:

• Defining ODR requirements and systems based on needs and priorities that have been expressed by the communities and users themselves, and not just articulated by political stakeholders or traditional power-centres;
• Given state-of-the-art tools to ignite community aspirations and transfer appropriate skills for fostering sustainable development, while at the same time keeping in mind the fragility of socio-political relations in the context of on-going peace processes;
• Expanding a community’s social capital through enhanced access to ODR, while eschewing the facile notion that the prevalence of PC’s itself is indicative of community empowerment;
• Embedding community-based ODR services within existing economic, governance and social structures, while at the same time creating opportunities for communities to use ODR systems to transcend regressive socio-political architectures and create new social contracts;
• Infusing enhanced capabilities for information access within & between communities, for purposes of grassroots conflict transformation;

ODR also encourages reconciliation between disputants – thereby creating ways through which technology can be used in the mediation of differences between local communities and differences of opinion between local communities and those in the diaspora. Such interactions can take place in physical and virtual domains and can be facilitated through voice, video and text. Apart from the usual discussions forums, which are passé and don’t really address the complexity of communications that are needed to transform violence, there is no real research or development into the design and implementation of spaces that are built specifically for discussions of tenacious and complex issues. Coupled with customised data feeds, cultural awareness modules, language translation, contextualisation, cross referencing, data mining, expert AI systems and innovative user interfaces, the next generation ODR platforms will also transform the ways through which we engage with colleagues for relief work and peacebuilding.

As with so many of the other points, key developments in ODR will lend themselves to the development of collaborative frameworks that can in turn fuel growth into areas such as Microsoft Office, Live services and the development of MS IM platforms with video and audio as well as Microsoft Research projects.

8. peacetools
The first 25 years of this Century will give life to a set of universally accepted applications in support of peacebuilding and humanitarian aid. InfoShare has spent the last 3 years formulating the early foundations of Peacetools through the ground-breaking use of Groove Virtual Office, FOSS and mobile telephony in hybrid ICT frameworks that help stakeholders in a peace process move forward in virtual domains even when the real world processes stagnate. We are also the only organisation in the world that transformed collaborative workspaces designed for peacebuilding into workspaces for humanitarian aid and support, in response to the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

Peacetools is envisaged is a platform, a set of innovative software applications and a virtual shared space for integrating and connecting stakeholders in each region, country or sector in the world, into peacebuilding processes that are flexible and continuously updated – and instantly accessible by all parties.

By providing mechanisms and applications for public and private/confidential/secured shared working spaces, the tool enhances the capacity of people and organizations to work collectively on conflict (regional, national, local or sectoral). Its open architecture allows stakeholders to develop and implement best practice and appropriate Conflict Prevention, Mitigation and Resolution (CPMR) initiatives – including traditional, culturally specific methods – drawn from resources internationally and their own experiences. By providing adjustable frameworks, analytical and management tools for conflict transformation and peacebuilding that can be customized for each conflict situation, the tool could be an essential resource and enabler for each person involved in peacebuilding in the world.

Why are Peacetools important for business? At a time when business can no longer run away from the perils of conflict and need to help develop strategic responses to an increasingly unstable world, the development of Peacetools will offer technologies that can be incorporated in other mainstream desktop, web and collaborative applications and services – such as Microsoft Live, Communications Servers and future avatars of Groove Virtual Office. Peacetools will locate itself in the most austere environments imaginable – testing the rigour of existing Microsoft Research on a number of fronts – from UI design and Human Computer Interaction to technologies such as Microsoft Portrait, from new generations of IP protocols that are resilient to corruption, leakage and hacking and maintain data integrity to the creation of ubiquitous computing devices that can help peacebuilders on the ground access the very latest analysis on demand.

Written this way, Peacetools is not seen as a result of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) but as a mainstream large-scale core investment that promotes the use of cutting-edge technology in the direst human conditions in order to create better software solutions for all customers. There is also the business benefit of an active participation in the development of technologies and tools for addressing violent conflict and helping disaster relief in the positive public perception that can be gained along with the stamp of approval for product line-ups, services and technologies that have proved their worth in the field from leading peacebuilders and humanitarian aid workers.

Engagement with the corpus of experience that lies outside the corporate world on the application of MS Research and existing MS products and service is bound to yield benefits to both communities.

Beyond any profitability in saving lives lie larger purposes of helping transform violence into sustainable peace – the positive effects of which can’t be seen with a mercenary lens. Harmonious coexistence in a society with social justice and the divesture of wealth for the good of the commons, where wealth creation in actively encouraged, provided the fruits of profits result in investment in the very communities that help industries prosper. As Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum states in an article titled The Tipping Point in the December 2005 – February 2006 issue of Newsweek:

“Corporate global citizenship is not just a new catchword – no, it entails fundamental changes in the way top management acts. To engage in processes and networks that seek creative solutions for global problems is not only an act of enlightened corporate leadership, it is an essential license to operate in a global economy… It is in the interest of business to make sure that global systems allow as much as possible of the world’s population to benefit further from the effects of globalisation. This is not a call to charity. It is a call to solve the manifold problems that threaten not only globalisation, but global business itself.” (Pg. 13)

Finally, from a technological perspective, Peacetools offers much to be excited about for mainstream business – from pervasive computing tools and applications, to applications that use AI for crucial decision support, from intelligent and contextual real time translation software to knowledge bots that treat information on the internet and web as building blocks of expert systems that can model the impact of various actions and how they will play within the socio-political context and religious and cultural sensitivities – these go beyond the esoteric into the realm of applied research the results of which have the potential to shape future design and business strategies.

Existing Microsoft Research can be dovetailed into the development of Peacetools, along with new cutting edge research to support processes that Groove Virtual Office is being used in even today. The HSG is perhaps the only commercial entity in the world capable of spearheading research into the development of Peacetools along with other NGO and government partners.

9. imagining innovation
Within the next 25 years, Asia will overtake America in innovation. There are signs of this taking place even today. In particular, if American business is not able to tap into global innovation centres which may be far removed from US borders, it will soon become a service delivery hub as opposed to a hotbed of innovation that is able to vision, inter alia, the future of ICT support for humanitarian relief and peacebuilding.

If out-sourcing removes as emotive an issue as it is today, the HSG and Microsoft writ large needs ways through which cutting edge thinking from around the world can nourish its own business processes.

For HSG in particular, the technology it first needs to develop or adopt needs to recognise the potential of tapping into the world finest visionaries and brains in order to formulate approaches to current problems of humanitarian work. Eschewing the tendency for repetition and redundant articulations of needs, HSG should in particular work with those who have used technology in the face of large scale disasters and have experience in the medium to long term relief efforts in such circumstances.

Imagining innovation requires HSG to use MS resources, but go well beyond corporate architectures to encourage the participation of NGOs and independent experts in the development of its programmes. This can be achieved through a number of ways – through academic type interactions with thought leaders on a regular basis, through the constitution of the core HSG team in a manner that fully reflects the diversity of thought and experience in the field, to engender new thinking into HSG services and software development by developing organic lessons-learnt frameworks to support best practices, by inter-agency cooperation with stakeholders from government (all branches), military (all branches), NGO (humanitarian and peacebuilding), research and academia as well as business and commercial stakeholders.

Such a diverse and structured engagement will result in the exploration of problems and possible future scenarios for their addresal in a manner that encourages innovative multi-sectoral and holistic approaches without the siloed solutions that one often gets with a bunch of like-minded uni-sectoral experts.

Innovation is key to business – lose it, and you lose a key engine of profitability. HSG can become a leading innovation catalyst within Microsoft to re-energise ossified business cycles into more proactive and energetic frameworks that truly engage with solutions to business and end user problems.

10. Change agents
With all the emphasis on technology, it is vital to recognise and strengthen the contribution of human change agents.

Coupled with the individuals that need to be brought into the work of HSG as outlined in the previous point, it is vital to actively encourage the participation of global thought leaders who have a proven social activist background and are conversant with the power of technology to champion the most prescient issues in their respective constituencies.

In other words, the emphasis on the development of technology should not take away from enabling those who have already been working with technology in life-threatening situations from actively sharing their thoughts with the core design team at HSG. At the end of the day, these are the key beta testers of HSG – not isolated testing groups one can call upon to MS testing centres at Redmond, but those who will quite literally put their life on the line in order to test some of the applications designed by HSG in the field.

Ultimately, however advanced the technology may be, the final application will reside in the hands of those who are engaged with humanitarian aid and conflict resolution. What may work well in the relatively controlled environments of simulations may fail miserably given the complex variables in relief aid and peacebuilding.

As such, it is strongly recommended that HSG has frequent interactions with actual on-the-ground conditions of the places for which it develops its software and services for. This may well be through facilitating sponsored visits of peacebuilders working with HSG technology to MS corporate offices for staff meetings and interactions with Microsoft Research in order to give direction to pure research and channel some of the creativity within MS into useful social transformative approaches in the field.

bringing clarity to the humanitarian world

HSG has great potential to champion developments in software and services in the areas of humanitarian relief and peacebuilding using groundbreaking ICT tools. In order for HSG to remain committed to the core values upon which it is founded upon, it needs to fight against a centripetal tendency to align itself with purely MS business and profit interests and instead work collaboratively with the creativity inside MS to envision solutions that will lay the foundation for futures that will change the way all of us work.

From medicine to human rights, from intelligent agents to presence awareness, from intelligent information contextualisation to secure multimedia knowledge sharing networks, HSG’s future is littered with key challenges that call us to look clearly at the problems that colour the world today in order to vision solutions that will help us overcome them.

It is truly a profitable venture.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,