An AH-64 Apache attack helicopter provides security from above while CH-47 Chinooks drop off supplies (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff, Operation Resolute Support/AP)

In a recent episode of the caustic sitcom “Silicon Valley,” the hard-luck start-up protagonists attend a big technology convention. They stumble across an app called PeaceFare, a game that lets players “build peace” on their phones by giving virtual money to virtual homeless people or virtual corn to virtual starving villagers. Launched by a rich entrepreneur to “help humanity thrive,” the lone skeptic Richard snidely asks whether such an app should instead be trying to help actual people.

This gag skewers two truisms — that tech innovations for peace and conflict resolution don’t need to have true social impact to succeed, and most people will only help change the world if it comes without real sacrifice. Thus, it speaks to ongoing controversies. Technology-based approaches to conflict resolution and humanitarian development are admired by policymakers for their promise of bottom-up, quick-fix solutions. Traditional peacebuilding policy — involving careful analysis over years or decades — is being upended as these “disruptive” solutions gain traction. Peace and development researchers who want to influence policy debates can’t just release findings but have to establish mechanisms for implementation.

Indicators can help shape policy debate

One way to do this is more traditional and doesn’t necessarily involve new technologies: building and promoting statistical indicators. For example, the United Nations’ ambitious “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” made up of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), sets out targets and benchmarks, but doesn’t say how to measure them. Formulating the indicators that will measure progress was delegated to a specially appointed Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IAEG), consisting mainly of representatives from National Statistical Offices (NSOs).

Generating this data is hard for governments, since it often involves politically controversial questions. SDG 16 calls for achieving peaceful, just, and inclusive societies — measuring this involves answering complicated and controversial questions about governance. SDG indicator 16.1.2 seeks to measure conflict-related deaths in countries by sex, age and cause of death — but the United Nations has no formal criteria for defining war, nor resources for collecting such data.

These measurements are tricky because there are profound political disagreements over, for instance, how to classify which kinds of organized violence constitute wars and which do not. There are two reasons for this. If you can’t classify it, you can’t measure and track it. NSOs are, in any event, more used to estimating administrative statistics such as demographics or economic data than information on conflicts.

In principle, outside institutions such as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) and the Correlates of War project have the right kind of data, but when PRIO and the UNDP hosted a large expert meeting that brought together IAEG members and experts to discuss how to measure conflict, the IAEG resisted the very idea that conflict could be measured. In one way, this doesn’t make much sense, because most of our statistical measures of GDP and other economic facts are imperfect estimates of underlying phenomena, too. Yet  there are also fundamental differences in how conflict researchers, NSOs and nongovernmental organizations collect data, and tricky questions. Should we trust the Bashar al-Assad regime’s data on the number of people killed in Syria’s conflict? Or that conflict-affected areas such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan can reliably report conflict data?

After pleading their case for several days, scholars finally convinced the IAEG that it was indeed possible to measure war and conflict. The meeting established a shared understanding between academics and NSOs about best practices in measuring armed conflict, and the IAEG probably will accept the UCDP framework moving forward. Although it is still unclear what role the data will play, most conflict scholars consider the fact that it got on the agenda at all to be a major success.

Another example of indicator building is the coalition of 20 NGO and academic organizations to create the SDG 16 Data Initiative. This initiative, which just launched its first global report during the July U.N. High-Level Political Forum, tracks SDG 16’s 12 targets to measure not just conflict but a host of governance and liberties issues in a transparent, rigorous and systematic manner, in turn building better peace policy.

Technology can help build peace

Another way is through engaging more directly with technology. Silicon Valley-type questions such as “What’s the ‘Uber for peace?'” or “How can we ‘disrupt conflict’ with an app?” make most peace scholars and practitioners cringe. However, technology start-ups and socially minded firms are leaping into peacebuilding, with the backing of governments and deep-pocketed philanthropic foundations.

There is a lot to be excited about. Compared with traditional ways of shaping peacebuilding policy, tech approaches are more bottom-up, designed to engage with citizens directly as opposed to working through cumbersome bureaucracies or recalcitrant politicians. Solutions such as electronic tracing apps for conflict minerals or crowdsourcing victims’ experiences to build a knowledge base for truth and reconciliation committees can better help those who need it most.

Yet tech start-ups often launch peacebuilding initiatives without deeply engaging with existing peacebuilding knowledge — or worse, don’t think that such knowledge is needed. This can mean that they are useless to local communities, or even worse can be repurposed by governments to target the very people that their technology was supposed to help, as when Mexico’s government allegedly used anti-terrorism surveillance tools to instead target human rights investigators.

Better collaboration between academics and innovators is possible — our recent article outlines five thematic areas where joint efforts between academics and innovators can generate significant value: forecasting political economies of conflict; business and virtual peacebuilding; climate and environmentalism; migration and identity; and urbanization.

IGOs and multilateral donors have all expressed interest in platforms that look to “scale up” cooperation beyond the local level. The merging of data, innovation, peace scholarship and conflict resolution policy could add solidity to “social innovation,” help understand its upstream and downstream consequences, and incorporate insights from scholars, entrepreneurs and policymakers in the Global South. This would change the boundaries of peace research,  reframe research priorities by merging scholarly, commercial and social value, and show that innovation actors and scholars can act together as peacebuilders.

Peace science’s goal is to understand how we can better contribute to peacebuilding. This implies that we as scholars must recognize how these new forms of communication and knowledge dissemination are influencing the policy world, and be prepared to react — and act — accordingly.

Kristian Hoelscher, Håvard Nygård and Jason Miklian are Senior Researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Elements of this post are adapted from the recent article “A New Research Approach for Peace Innovation.”

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here