Measuring Security Progress: Politics, Challenges and Solutions

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Anahi Ayala Iacucci, Internews Senior Innovation Advisor, contributed to this report of discussions and findings from a meeting – Measuring Security Progress: Politics, Challenges and Solutions – held November 20,2014 at the Netherlands Permanent Representation to the UN. Iacucci’s section, “Technology and information ecosystems: mobile ‘truths’” is on pages 10-11 of the report and excerpted below:

Technology and information ecosystems: mobile ‘truths’

The last presenter of the day reinforced the notion that within local systems, ‘formality’ may matter less than is assumed. With regard to local information ecosystems it may matter less than ever.17 Modern information technology has rapidly expanded and decentralised the options available for receiving, disseminating and archiving security data, particularly in fragile or conflict-affected contexts. The presenter explained how this expansion necessitates “forward-looking models to comprehend local information systems” and their multifaceted impact on security dynamics.

Discussions of mobile technologies and security information typically gravitate towards innovations that amass critical data either in ‘real time’ or from remote locations, reducing the barriers to extracting information from traditionally challenging data environments. This is but half the story. What is less often discussed, though equally relevant, is how this technological leap forward has also reduced barriers for information to penetrate and circulate through these environments.

Understanding local communities’ perceptions of security is inextricably tied to how information about threats or violent events are spread through local communication systems. Such information is increasingly likely to flow through ‘trusted circles’ such as Facebook groups, Bluetooth, or WhatsApp messages. In these closed systems of information exchange, confirmation bias and peer-to-peer trust diminish the demand for verification, and can increase polarisation. In such circles, those with the strongest influence over the conversation are not always those with the most reliable information. Nonetheless, this information influences people’s security perceptions and, more importantly, the decisions they make regarding personal safety.18 A widely circulated rumour, even if unfounded, can spark a mass displacement or a violent mobilisation just as quickly as a veritable threat. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider how the information available to and within communities can contribute to early warning systems, regardless of its accuracy.

Information flowing through these local communication ecosystems may not be reliable enough to predict or identify security trends or events. However, being aware of and able to access the messages being dispersed through these local systems can provide insight into community members’ perception of a conflict, the significance they assign to (alleged) events, and the views they hold of those involved. These insights can greatly serve analyses of conflict drivers, inter-group tensions, and the potential fight or flight responses to rumours or incidents.

In this way, the presenter pointed to an overlooked dimension of the relationship between security data and mobile technology, demonstrating how information ecosystems offer a new paradigm for analysing local security. The ability to predict disasters or violence, and to provide appropriate and timely support, is contingent on reliable information.19 However, being able to predict and respond to communities’ reactions to perceived threats requires insight into the information they are receiving and sharing. Here, veracity may be wholly beside the point.

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