The Hill How we can use 'peace data' to stop extremism before it starts

In a world fraught with violence, it's easy to lose hope.

Violent extremist groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab regularly make global headlines, and the Syrian refugee crisis is only getting worse.

Yet the United States Institute of Peace-sponsored PeaceTech Summit 2016 brought forward some new data-driven tools to help detect and curb future conflicts before they begin.


Analyzing the wide spectrum of anonymous data available, whether it's quantitative or qualitative, can identify regions and communities that may be susceptible to instability or conflict. This can help agencies identify trends and growing vulnerabilities indicative of a possible extremist recruiting ground.

The movement to collect and analyze this "peace data" focuses on combating both the recruiting efforts of extremist groups and their infiltration of fragile states. Linking the World, for one, is helping to lead the advancement of using peace data analytics for these efforts, along with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Institute for Economics and Peace and the United States Institute of Peace.

When aid organizations can identify root issues prior to a community collapse or the outbreak of violent extremist activity, it's possible to eradicate problems before they begin rather than simply combat the consequences.

The power of peace data

Identifying community vulnerabilities prior to a collapse or an infiltration by an extremist group can either weaken recruiting success or curtail it altogether. Focusing on genuine, measured needs instead of loosely perceived issues helps effectively tailor aid efforts and increase their likelihood of success.

PeaceTech Lab has launched a new initiative, the Open Situation Room Exchange, to anonymously collect data that can assist those regularly countering violent extremism in conflict zones. During the 2016 Geneva Conference on Preventing Violent Extremism, Noel Dickover, technical director of global network strategies at PeaceTech Lab, explained, "The ultimate goal is to help people in conflict zones to be able to find, analyze, visualize, and use this conflict data in a real way to address strategy and tactics on the ground."

Staying alert to potential conflicts through peace data analysis has a number of benefits for the communities involved.

First of all, recruiting success isn't generally founded on ideological beliefs. It's most often due to extremist groups offering resources the community needs — whether that means food, employment opportunities or structure the local government is lacking.

Data analytics can help guide an understanding of the genuine needs of a community, meaning resources can be directed toward necessary solutions like developing better agricultural practices, increasing access to stable markets, creating affordable education opportunities or enhancing local community collaborations.

When individuals begin to see meaningful choices emerge despite their circumstances, hope rises and resistance to extremist recruiting grows.

The future with peace data

Linking the World has recently commenced a pilot project to help stabilize the state of Adamawa in northeastern Nigeria, where we're leveraging data to produce informed, targeted poverty eradication solutions to build resiliency in rural communities — disrupting and preventing Boko Haram from returning to the state.

This region suffers from ongoing extremist attacks against civilians and soldiers, most notably the widely publicized abduction of nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls. If peace data is analyzed effectively here, it could make a world of difference.

As more organizations begin to implement peace data strategies to preempt violent extremism, we're likely to see three main results worldwide.

1. Violent extremist groups' recruiting tactics will weaken. It's impossible to eliminate existing extremist groups if their underlying causes for formation remain. As alternative paths to stability are established and strengthened, creating options for the recruiting base's future, extremist recruiting efforts will be weakened.

2. Youths will not resort to aggression and violence. Most of the people joining violent extremist causes are not doing so because they approve of the philosophy or tactics. Removing the blinders desperation put in place will restore natural human empathy for others and weaken the influence of those indoctrinating youths into unnatural violence.

3. Violent extremist groups will lose global reach. The effects of extremist groups are not usually contained to their geographical region. With the interconnectedness of our world, the ability to spread ideology beyond geographical borders is growing exponentially. Effective peace data analytics can help fragile states weaken existing groups' reach and stop new groups from forming.

By using peace data to tailor aid efforts to specific issues and communities, humanitarian organizations and government agencies can ensure a higher return on their investments, measured both in finances and human lives.

Soon, organizations will not have to fight new extremist groups — they will be stopped before they begin.

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization that builds resilient communities in areas of instability and conflict. Mina also served as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she developed community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance. Follow her on Twitter @MinaChang.

Published on The Hill