Without the most advanced technology, the UN isn’t reaching its full potential in danger zones.
As the need for emergency response and peacekeeping continues unabated in hotspots around the world, is the United Nations using the technologies it needs to be effective in a modernizing world? A look at the expanding mobile phone coverage and capabilities worldwide shows that the UN is behind in exploiting the information technology revolution.
Mobile phones have changed the way societies communicate in profound ways. The growth in cellphone usage across the globe has been staggering (see Figure 1). Even in the developing world, where most aid and peacekeeping operations are deployed, the use of cellphones is becoming ubiquitous, more than doubling over the past five years.
Additionally, the qualitative evolution of hardware and software for these devices has accelerated. These hand-held tools are moving closer to all-purpose mobile miniature computers that can share information at high speed from the most remote locales. But the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations has not harnessed this phenomenon of wider communications among and with the population to its advantage.
Figure 1. The huge growth in mobile phone subscriptions in both the developed and developing world.
Source of Data: “Key Global Telecom Indicators for the World Telecommunication Service Sector”: International Telecommunication Union
There are a few promising examples in some UN agencies, following the example of advanced NGOs, where simple functions like messaging (SMS) and image transmission are used to co-ordinate the distribution of aid in the field and to communicate basic information about outbreaks of violence or emergencies. Several reports by the independent UN Foundation have explored examples of mobile technologies: mHealth for Development and New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts. Last summer, the U.S. Institute of Peace issued a special report on Mobile Phones for Peacebuilding in Afghanistan. These studies show important statistics, case studies, and critical insights on the value of using mobile devices for development and humanitarian response.
But the potential is only beginning to be explored. Today’s phones are becoming smarter and more capable than just voice and basic text messaging. A “smartphone,” as it is commonly referred to, has computer-like functionality. Common examples, like the iPhone and the BlackBerry, contain a camera, video recorder, and global positioning system (GPS). They also allow email, internet access and a rapidly growing host of software applications (“apps”).
Smartphones in the hands of peacekeepers can allow them to visualize the “trajectory” of a conflict in real time by sharing information between those deployed in the field – UN, national, NGO, and the local population. Reports of violence can be reported directly onto a web-based platform via email or SMS, with reference to time, place, event type, and description. The system can then filter and validate the information by using a number of emerging tools and programs to ensure accuracy.
Once the data are verified, the events can be plotted using mapping interfaces like Google Maps or Google Earth. Changes and updates can be reflected in real time. If there are threatening developments, alerts can be sent to the peacekeepers in the area. Peacekeepers can visualize events on their hand-held devices though conflict mapping applications to allow them to make better-informed decisions based on evolving data.
A number of UN peacekeeping missions have cartrographic teams with GIS software in place, but they are not equipped to deal with real-time information sharing through such databases, even among peacekeepers. So it is not just an issue of connecting mobile devices to existing platforms and using phones to collect and disseminate data to and from the field. The UN needs to make sure missions have the appropriate softward, analysis, and response capabilities.
Peacekeepers and analysts can benefit from information provided by the local population through already-proven software for “crowdsourcing.” Open-source software platforms such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS allow large numbers of ordinary citizens to provide SMS and voice information from their cellphones about human rights abuses, outbreaks of violence, and damage to infrastructure. Crowdsourcing has been used in such places as Kenya, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip to provide crisis mapping.
Despite these advances, the technology is only as powerful as the bureaucracy and logistics that it supports. An early example in was the ill-fated Rwanda mission in 1994, which found itself “deaf and blind” in the field, in the words of Force Commander Roméo Dallaire (see “Preventing the Bloodbath”). He also lacked such basic resources as ammunition and military power. While this might feel a generation old, similar operational problems persist in the second decade of the 21st century.
An recent example is the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has at various times been accused of running from fights and failing to protect civilians. Some of the soldiers deployed have even been caught engaged in human rights abuses and criminal behaviour. However, the mission in the Congo – one of the largest, most aggressively mandated UN peacekeeping mission in the world – has made remarkable steps to prevent the deterioration of the situation in eastern DRC, though it has not been able to stop entirely all of the atrocities, such as systematic rape.
Could mobile technology make a difference to the Congo mission? Perhaps they could better integrate the information feed from Voix de Kivus (Voice of the Kivus), a system that recieves and collates SMS messages from local users. These messages cover a range of topics, ranging from incidents of violence, disease outbreaks, and population movements. The data are then cleaned, identifying factors are removed for privacy, and the data are made available to UN and local government leaders in the Kivu region of the DRC so they can better respond to the tragic situations.
After this information has been received, the peacekeeping mission can send out military patrols or human rights investigators, or contact local or national leaders or try to exert a positive effect through quick impact projects. In dire circumstances, where violations are so extreme and unreformable, the mission can engage in combat, e.g., with long-standing and unrepentant rebel forces – all with the help of information from locals.
As exciting as mobile technology is, it is not a replacement for the core components of a peacekeeping operation. GSM phones are not a stand-in for advanced aircraft for armed reconnaissance in a theater of operations, though smartphones can help disseminate images to the peacekeepers on the ground that need them.
But having a real-time system for civilians to report violence can create a more efficient means of accounting for violence, and for soldiers and police to rapidly deploy to the most-needed areas. In the past, peacekeepers relied on villagers in the eastern Congo to bang on pots to sound the alarm. Now much more sophisticated means are available.
The ability to input and access data in real time in the field from many sources – UN, governmental, NGO, and local – has the potential to dramatically change the way that UN peacekeepers conduct monitoring, surveillance, and supervision. Given the accelerated pace of technological development, the ease of connectivity, the widening network coverage, and new possibilities of mobile electricity generation, the evolving smartphone can provide a portable and powerful tool in UN fieldwork.
As smartphones begin to make their mark in the field, the realm of possibility is endless for “intelligence-led peacekeeping.” But to reach the full potential requires the political will from UN member states to give peacekeepers the foundational tools they need to carry out their work for peace. Otherwise a technologically advanced UN field presence will remain only in the realm of aspiration.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.