I joined the PAX project last summer to help with research, and we have just finished a feasibility study, supported by Google, to take us into the next stage of technical development.
PAX proposes to create an online early warning system for emerging violent conflict. The system would act as a crowd-sourced digital ‘barometer’, using data mined from the internet, in addition to text and pictures from mobile phones and satellites.
PAX aims to be a neutral and trusted resource for alerts on impending conflicts, taking advantage of direct communication with conflict-affected people, a huge increase in the quantity of available real-time data and advances in data filtering and analysis.
How would this work?
The system would combine a three-tier process of analysing data – automated, crowd-sourced and expert - and would produce reports and raise alarms on impending conflict. Its prime purpose would be for use in high-level mediation efforts to prevent wars and genocides, and it would also provide a public communication service for local peacebuilding efforts.
A recurring theme in our research has been the issue of local peacebuilding and how an early warning system - that will examine large quantities of data and apply extensive analysis to that data - can tie in to the needs of local communities affected by conflict.
Input from Peace Direct helped us to realise that it wasn’t just a case of wishful thinking, but that the data which PAX intends to gather, analyse and communicate to international heavyweights could be useful to local communities affected by conflict and to local peacebuilding efforts.
A number of local early warning systems demonstrate the case for early warning information being made in all directions, to local communities, as well as top-level politicians, diplomats and NGOs. One is the CICR/Belun project in East Timor; another is the Ushahidi-Liberia early warning system, which has worked extensively to build partnerships and trust with local partners; and the Foundation for Co-Existence in Sri Lanka has initiated important work in this area.
The PAX system starts with local involvement, inviting people to upload information and to participate in evaluating it. The idea of PAX was inspired by the most accessible tool for local ownership, now in the hands of most people on the planet – the mobile phone.
Events unfolding in the Middle East have highlighted how vital it is for people on the ground to receive timely, reliable information on what is happening around them, while the world looks on and discussions on international action go on interminably.
A PAX report could be received by SMS on a mobile phone anywhere in the world with network coverage, easily supplying a person unable to access Facebook or news websites with focused specialist information on their area – a kind of ‘Reuters for the people’.
Real-time big data is an ever-growing phenomenon, and a new player in the field of conflict prevention. We need to grow our understanding of exactly how this profusion of data can help to warn of impending violence. This is a road that PAX is intending to travel, with local ownership at the forefront of our minds.