The UN is committed to improving peace operations by making them more ‘data-driven,’ but the move toward systematic data analysis comes with practical, ethical, and political challenges.
UN peace operations face a variety of problems, but one of the most pressing, historically, has been a lack of adequate field information. Peacekeepers often fail to achieve core objectives – like protecting civilians and themselves – because they must make decisions without reliable information about their operating environment. At the strategic level, the UN also struggles to aggregate data about peace operations. This makes it difficult for member states, the Secretariat, and other stakeholders to assess their performance systematically.
The UN is committed to solving these problems by improving its capacity to gather, analyze, and make decisions based on high-quality data. Humanitarian and development actors have made great strides in this area – the Global Pulse initiative is one example – but the UN’s peacekeeping arm has been slower to harness the potential of new technology and ‘big data.’ Used in combination with more ‘low-tech’ approaches, data gleaned from social media posts, online food prices, and routine transactions like SIM card top-ups for mobile phones can help peacekeepers track crises in real-time.
Peacekeepers often fail to achieve core objectives – like protecting civilians and themselves – because they must make decisions without reliable information about their operating environment
The benefits of data-driven peacekeeping do not stop there. They also include improved situational awareness, better tools for evaluating performance, and new metrics for holding personnel accountable. For example, the UN is currently rolling out the Situational Awareness Geospatial Enterprise (SAGE), a web-based database system that allows peacekeepers to record incidents like armed attacks, troop movements, abductions, and protests. SAGE helps peacekeepers visualize threats and identify patterns; applying machine learning techniques to SAGE data could improve the UN’s approach to early warning, allowing missions to predict armed attacks and violence against civilians more accurately.
Recommended: Dr Marion Laurence’s Policy Brief
To the extent that it improves performance and transparency, systematic data analysis can also bolster public trust in UN peace operations. Proactively sharing information can give outsiders some insight into decision-making processes that are, to put it mildly, often quite opaque. It might, for instance, reassure host communities that decisions about a mission’s footprint – including the location of bases – are based on reliable data and threat analysis.
Yet data-driven peacekeeping also comes with challenges. These include data bias and insufficient ‘data literacy,’ ethical concerns about privacy and confidentiality, and political sensitivities around data collection and reporting. Field personnel often lack the skills needed to interpret data, judge its reliability, and identify key omissions or sources of data bias. Data literacy will remain a challenge, at least over the short term, because current force generation and recruitment practices do not guarantee that peace operations are staffed by personnel with the necessary skills, nor does existing training provide sufficient guidance.
Recommended: Canada must learn its own lessons from Afghanistan
Systematic data analysis can also put local informants at risk. Gathering sensitive information – like data about perpetrators of violence – always comes with concerns about privacy and confidentiality, and the UN has already been the target of offensive cyber-attacks. Clear rules are needed to determine who will have access to peacekeeping data, how it will be stored, and what security measures will be used to ensure the integrity of that data. If data is not handled carefully, informants may suffer personal retaliation from groups that want to discourage cooperation with the UN. To prevent incidents like this, blue helmets must be equipped to reach sound judgements that strike a balance between transparency and confidentiality.
Perceived infringements on state sovereignty are another recurring challenge. While there is a growing consensus that UN peace operations need reliable information to fulfil their mandates, the term ‘intelligence’ remains taboo in many UN circles because of its association with covert surveillance. This has made it easier for some host states to limit the UN’s data-gathering capacity. The government of South Sudan, for instance, has resisted the deployment of UAVs by arguing that peacekeepers could use them to “spy” on local security forces. In its 2018 report, the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C34) echoes concerns of this kind, calling them “legitimate” and insisting that peacekeepers should always gather information in a “non-clandestine” fashion. UN missions handle these misgivings by relying exclusively on “open source” data. Attempts to do otherwise would be politically and ethically unacceptable for many member states.
Clear rules are needed to determine who will have access to peacekeeping data, how it will be stored, and what security measures will be used to ensure the integrity of that data.
Data-driven peacekeeping also has limitations. It is not immune to politicisation, and it is no substitute for lack of political will. Predicting violence against civilians more accurately will be of little use if peacekeepers do not act on credible information. In 2016, for example, UN peacekeepers failed to respond when South Sudanese soldiers launched a series of attacks on civilians. The attacks, which lasted four days, occurred just a mile away from the UN’s headquarters in Juba, but blue helmets did not intervene. Systematic data analysis is one piece of the puzzle. Still, it does not guarantee better outcomes because it will not eliminate the competing political and normative imperatives that characterize peacekeeping as a whole.
My research on data-driven peacekeeping surveys these opportunities, challenges, and limitations in more depth, probing their implications for policymakers. It also presents recommendations aimed at making the most of systematic data analysis while avoiding many of the pitfalls that come with it. A better understanding of these issues will help member states, policy-makers, troop and police-contributing countries, and other key stakeholders strengthen peace operations at a time when UN peacekeeping is under considerable pressure.