Data as a tool for peace


Too often, technological advance is used for destructive, military purposes. However, backed by DDI, Devanjan Bhattacharya, a TRAIN@Ed Postdoctoral Fellow, is using data and technology to promote greater understanding of conflict and peace.

Operating in the emerging field of ‘Peace Tech’, Bhattacharya supports the work of PeaceRep, an initiative led by the University of Edinburgh Law School.

He explained: “My fellowship is tied to the idea of utilising informatics and computing for peace and conflict data analytics. PeaceRep as a research group is a collaboration between the School of Law, the School of Informatics and involves other UK universities and government groups, as well as European and global institutions. Its large consortium of stakeholders includes people operating in conflict zones.”

With a background in geo informatics and digital mapping, Bhattacharya had proposed the idea of generating useful and informative visualisations using textual data. By collecting, classifying and cleaning data it would be possible to map out, spatially and temporally, how a conflict changes over the years. “My input involves creating high resolution, easy to read maps that provide new insights and lead to improved decision making,” he said.

Bhattacharya joined the project as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning and ended up spending one year working remotely from India. However, adapting to the new world order, Peace Rep decided to look at how the pandemic was reshaping peace and conflict. Bhattacharya said: “Eventually, we launched a web-based portal, Ceasefires In A Time Of Covid 19 which does as its title suggests – outlines how ceasefires, warring factions, government and non-government agencies were influenced by the pandemic. It’s a publicly available site where maps and data can be downloaded.”

Naturally, when it comes to conflict, some information is extremely sensitive. Accordingly, Bhattacharya and his colleagues take appropriate steps. He said: “Data is retained in approved, well-regulated bodies. We always consider ethics, privacy and security. While PeaceRep has a whole toolkit of openly available publications, graphs, charts, and maps, the data we make available is aggregated and anonymised.”

Following his work on the portal, Bhattacharya has since been involved in other projects. He explained: “With help from the Impact Accelerator at the University, I took part in another COVID-based exercise. This focused on data that showed how people in India moved around during the pandemic. In nine months we were able to create a web-based application that considered high risk and low risk zones, and showed people routes they could take to avoid infection hotspots.”

Most recently, building on work he has already carried out, Bhattacharya has begun to focus on climate change. He explained: “Conflict is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Armed forces move through forests, transport huge numbers of vehicles, exploit oil fields, and burn and destroy the environment. By using satellite data, we can study emissions, deforestation and urban degradation.

“This is now my research area, and I believe it is a topic that’s been neglected. The environmental impact of conflict has a major effect on humanity. Ultimately, it’s the most vulnerable who suffer the greatest harm. Hopefully, the location analytics and intelligence we provide can give decision makers the information they need to help reverse that.”


This interview was originally published by DDI.

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