Interview with Nick Martin, Cofounder and President of TechChange

The Global Observatory spoke with Nick Martin, Cofounder and President of TechChange, a Washington, DC, based organization that is pioneering applications of modern technologies in the areas of humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding. Mr. Martin also serves as an adjunct member of the faculties of American University, George Mason University, and George Washington University.

In this interview, Mr. Martin discussed how crowdsourcing technologies can support the areas of early warning and conflict prevention and explained the importance of training, as well as the various challenges arising from the use of these technologies.

Concerning the future role of crowdsourcing technologies in conflict prevention, Mr. Martin said that “The real goal is to give people the situational awareness, decision-making capability, [and] information they need to be able to make the best kind of decisions that they can in an early warning or prevention context.”

One of the main comparative advantages of crowdsourcing technologies is that they predominantly build on technologies that people already have, such as mobile phones, even in remote areas. “Teaching them how to apply those technologies in new ways to situations and potential challenges that they confront at the local level—that is really the key,” Mr. Martin said.

Yet, crowdsourcing technology is not a solution or an end in itself. They can only be effective if corresponding programs and policies are put into place. Mr. Martin said that “These kinds of systems, they need to be deployed strategically, with clear guidelines [on] the process for receiving, verifying, and responding.”

The interview was conducted by Pim Valdre, Director of External Relations, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Pim Valdre (PV): Welcome Nick Martin, of TechChange, to the Global Observatory.
This past year, we have seen how social media and new technologies have impacted in political transition processes in the Arab world and in several African countries.  What role and potential do you see for crowdsourcing technologies in the areas of early warning and conflict prevention moving forward?

Nick Martin (NM): There is no question that crowdsourcing technologies are going to become even more integral to early warning and conflict prevention in the years to come. Particularly, as new tools are developed, and people become more familiar with existing tools. The real goal is to give people the situational awareness, decision-making capability, information they need to be able to make the best kind of decisions that they can in an early warning or prevention context.

PV: It’s been said that the use of available and local technology can help localize warning and response mechanisms, and give more ownership and responsibility to people that are impacted by conflict. What does this localization mean for the crisis response?

NM: For us, it really means, using technologies that are familiar to local populations, using technologies that local populations already have access to—that is really the key. And then helping them develop capacities and capabilities that allow them to successfully and effectively leverage those technologies and manage an information system from start to finish in a sustainable manner.

PV: How important is training people at the local level to be able to use these technologies?

NM: Training is critical, and beginning where they are, with the tools they already have in their hands, is the first step. But then teaching them how to apply those technologies in new ways to situations and potential challenges that they confront at the local level—that is really the key. We see so much potential in using the technology to enable innovative and interactive pedagogy—having people take courses on mobile phones, using the power of the Internet to leverage online learning, these kinds of ways to bring people together around technology to learn these critical skills.

PV: During the Kenyan election crisis in 2008, and more recently during the elections in Burundi and elsewhere, we have seen how crowdsourced information was used to track developments on the ground.  How do you see the use of crowdsourcing to monitor elections and specifically to monitor election-related violence?

NM: First of all, we need broad support from many actors, multistakeholders, across all levels of government and civil society. These projects cannot just be treated as afterthoughts and too often we see people leveraging these technologies without enough lead time for training and without enough thought put into program design. They have many moving parts, multiple points of failure, so really trying to get that support across all levels is key.

And then, also, matching the crowdsourcing with the response capabilities. Individuals will lose trust very quickly if people do not receive information or some kind of acknowledgement of the types of submissions and incident reports that they are providing to a bigger system. That can be a real challenge. These kinds of systems, they need to be deployed strategically, with clear guidelines, the process for receiving, verifying, and responding. Those protocols need to be established and disseminated well before any information comes into the system.

PV: You mentioned verification, which is one of the challenges with using crowdsourcing. How should one address these challenges?

NM: I think having teams of people set up to verify information as it comes in is really critical. Having established protocols and strategies around what types of information belongs in which category, that is really key. Spending time thinking and reflecting on the context to decide how information is categorized, and then, again going back to training, when people along a pipeline of information have to make decisions, making sure they have the critical skills to be able to adjust to contingency.

PV: Another challenge is related to user safety, to the safety of people actually using these technologies. How do we protect people that use these technologies?

NM: I’d like to start by saying that sending an SMS is a lot like sending a postcard. Anybody can see your message, and that presents all kinds of challenges. So it is really important, again getting back to education, to train people, to let them understand what the risks are associated with the way they submit information, but then also to educate them around the new tools that are available to help protect that information.

Again, a lot of the technologies are very young, they are still being developed, but they could go a long way to providing people with a certain degree of safety around the information being submitted. I think the key is really providing that feedback loop so that people know their information, where it is going, how it is being used, and how it might impact their lives in a positive manner.

PV: Finally, the UN has, currently, plenty of existing conflict-prevention structures, and plenty of existing peacebuilding practices. How do we merge these existing practices with the new opportunities offered by crowdsourcing?

NM: In many ways, what we are seeing, these new technologies are extensions of traditional approaches and existing methodologies that the UN is currently using. There is huge potential here, not only for data collection and gathering, but also for improved coordination and capacity building within the UN system. So, we are certainly excited about that.

I think as these technologies mature, we will start to see an additional incentive being paid to “how do we get them to talk to each other?”—the notion of intra-operability. That is really critical to this, so that GIS can speak to Ushahidi, for instance, these kinds of different platforms. And I think, again, we will see more of this moving forward in the years to come as these technologies mature, as more developers really understand what are the existing systems that have legacy value and commitment from the UN, and how do these new technologies that are being developed merge with those existing systems and infrastructure.

PV: Thank you very much.