Google.org’s “Predict and Prevent” Initiative

I just met with the team behind Google.org’s “Predict and Prevent” Initiative based out of San Francisco. While their focus is exclusively on predicting and preventing the outbreak of diseases there are a number of important overlaps with predicting and preventing humanitarian crises in general, e.g., early detection, early response. I find their focus and general approach rather appealing—particularly in contrast to our conventional, defunct approach to conflict early warning and response.

The team places a strong emphasis on dynamic vulnerability mapping and focus specifically on enhancing the resilience of communities to withstand threats and adapt to changes. They also seek to use innovative methods for early detection. In addition, they focus on alerting stakeholders, from villagers to global authorities. This stands in stark contrast to traditional conflict early warning/response systems, which seeks only to inform official authorities. Walter Dorn, for example, defines the term as follows

Early warning is the act of alerting a competent authority about the threat of new (or renewed) conflict sufficiently in advance for preventive action to be attempted.

Unfortunately, this type of definition typically excludes local stakeholders, who are rarely perceived as competent and having any authority. As I have argued since 2004, this is completely the wrong approach to take. Our colleagues in the disaster and disease early warning/response communities have already realized this. Disaster is first and foremost “a crisis in communication within a community—that is, as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (2).

It is high time we focus less on warning ourselves about escalating violence thousands of miles away, and instead focus on communicating and  empowering local communities to get out of harm’s way based on the very capable coping mechanisms that already exist at the local level. But the rhetoric continues to label communities at risk as “the intended beneficiaries; but, in practice they [are] not the real clients of early warning activities” (1). We continue to call ourselves the rescuers, suggesting that aid does not arrive until we arrive.

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2 responses to “Google.org’s “Predict and Prevent” Initiative

  1. Agreed. I’ve been mind-boggled since January on why this humanitarian industry/complex (generally) feels that the local community isn’t able to be a source for information or able to better understand and fix its own problems.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t times where outside help is needed, but I wonder at how the default action is to often take over most of the economic and recovery mechanisms – displacing the knowledgeable local experts. How often does this happen? Does it happen more or less in a disaster/crisis in the West as opposed to the East?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Erik. This may be a bit provocative but in my opinion the field of conflict early warning is ego-centric, patronizing and more interested in prediction than prevention. I’ll write another blog entry shortly as a follow up.

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