From Data to Knowledge: Understanding peace and conflict from afar (seminar series)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham


This series begins with a set of questions which UN peacekeepers, aid workers, governments, researchers and conflict analysts are increasingly troubled by: how do we know what we know about fragile and conflict-affected regions and how far do our understandings reflect - and take account of - the views and perspectives of communities living in these regions? Bringing together leading scholars and partners in the worlds of policy and practice - including Save the Children, the UK Government (DFID and FCO), OECD and Somalia NGO Consortium (Somalia NGOC), Nairobi - the series will provide a critical and innovative set of fora for analysing how conflict knowledge is generated and disseminated - and with what implications for research and policy in the UK and abroad.

This exploration comes in the context of a growing focus by Western governments and organizations on working on, and in, fragile and conflict-affected regions. The UK Government - now legally committed to spending at least 0.7% of GNI on international development - has steadily re-focused its aid portfolio around fragile states since the later 2000s and these countries now absorb over one-third of the DFID budget. Similar trends are apparent among other Western aid donors and organizations as well as among NGOs and researchers whose funding is often tied to these bodies and their agendas. Along with the UN, the militaries of developing states are also increasingly involved in peacekeeping and statebuilding exercises in fragile regions and polities.

Alongside these developments, however, have emerged a number of issues which actively limit Western actors' ability to gain direct access to - and understandings of - communities living in fragile contexts. The growing number of UN and aid workers now being targeted by criminal and terrorist groups in conflict zones has led most Western organizations to introduce risk management procedures which ultimately reduce direct interaction between the 'international' and the 'local'. This includes the creation of heavily-fortified aid 'compounds' to house aid workers and their families, the collection of data from afar (via drones or other technologies, for example) and the remote management of projects. Thus DFID's Somalia Office (a Project Partner for the series) is based in neighbouring Kenya.

This culture of risk aversion has also steadily come to curtail the ability of Western researchers and NGOs to live and work in regions viewed as too remote or dangerous by insurance providers, ethics committees or managers. Thus these communities also increasingly rely on ever-distant chains of 'local' interlocutors and mediators to gather data or implement projects - in a Western political context where ensuring clear and measurable developmental results for all aid disbursed is paramount.

This series of research seminars will pose and engage with several key questions and concerns which emerge from these various paradoxes. Most prominently - what tools and methodologies can be used to collect conflict data remotely and to what extent can they replace or substitute more direct forms of information-gathering? To what extent can - or should - different social and cultural understandings be reflected in the collection and interpretation of 'local knowledge'? What role do local actors play in mediating or resisting the generation of knowledge on - and in - their communities? How is conflict 'data' transposed into conflict 'knowledge' and how far does Western policy and research on conflict regions take account of local perspectives?

The series engages with a prominent set of debates in contemporary policy-making circles and global scholarship across a range of disciplines, notably Politics, International Relations, Development Studies, Economics and Anthropology. The participation of early-career researchers and scholars from the developing world is a key focus of the series and enhances its strength and credibility.

Planned Impact

In this series of Research Seminars, non-academic actors and organizations are not simply regarded as audiences but as stakeholders - and the core team, seminar outline and participant list have been designed with this in mind.

UK policy-makers

The UK government - through DFID and the FCO particularly - is heavily involved in many conflict and post-conflict zones as an aid donor, diplomatic mediator or representative, as a military actor and as a trainer of fragile states' militaries, police forces and civil servants. Since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, however, there has been growing public and political pressure on Whitehall to more clearly and precisely delineate how these funds are being spent, demonstrate their effectiveness and justify their continued size in the 'age of austerity'. This emphasis has been reinforced under the Coalition Government who have placed focus on 'results-based' aid and 'showing the British public where every penny of their money goes and the difference it makes'.

In this environment, FCO and DFID officials will benefit very significantly from the series given its focus on exploring how data on fragile contexts can be collected and on interrogating the reliability and validity of this data and its interpretations. These discussions are valuable to policy-makers in terms of planning effective interventions but also to ministers and their staff who must explain and justify how funds disbursed have impacted positively on the ground. This interest is testified to by the letters of support and the pledge by the FCO and DFID to act as project partners for the series and to send representatives to the seminars.

Western policy-makers and UN officials

Other Western government officials and UN actors involved in fragile states will also benefit significantly from this series for similar reasons to their UK counterparts (the OECD have also pledged to send representatives to at least two seminars and to act as project partners). Key diplomatic, developmental and UN representatives from the wider policy community will therefore be involved in the Nairobi seminar as speakers and participants.

Southern governments and institutions

The focus and ethos of the series renders it of significant interest to the governments of fragile and conflict-affected states whose societies are often the object of knowledge production and whose structures often act to promote or undermine external access and data-gathering. Exchange between these governments and the other networks built during the series will therefore be promoted by holding the final seminar at Somalia NGO Consortium (Somalia NGOC)'s offices in Nairobi. Somalia NGOC have strong links to the Kenyan and wider policy community in Nairobi and this event will allow for an open exchange with these actors on the themes and provisional findings of the series.

NGOs, advocacy and campaign organizations

NGOs and third sector organizations (in the UK and the South) will also be interested in the series' themes to assist with the effectiveness of their own interventions and programmes (from the international to the local level) and to foster closer networks of collaboration and understanding between external information gatherers and 'local' information providers. Save the Children and Somalia NGOC are therefore built-into the series as CIs (Fiori and Jalovec) and seminar hosts and will reach out through their networks in the policy research and advocacy communities, both in the UK and Kenya, as seminars are held, networks built and outputs produced.

Public engagement

The series will engage UK media outlets and the UK public throughout the series by working with the University of Birmingham press office to identify opportunities for placing articles, opinion pieces or other outputs. The team will also consider running an ESRC Festival of Social Sciences event as a means to engage more directly with the public.


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Title Stitched Voices: Knowing conflict through textiles (online archive) 
Description Online archive of an exhibition held as part of this Seminar Series. The exhibition - held at Birmingham Voluntary Service Council between November and December 2017 - displayed textiles from across the world, all of which depicted local experiences of insecurity, conflict or injustice. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Around 1000 people - including members of the public, activists, charity workers, scholars and artists - were exposed to the exhibition during its 4-week life. Alistair Burt MP (DFID Minister) was also informed about the exhibition and provided with relevant materials on its significance on a February 2018 visit to the University of Birmingham (22/02/2018). 
Description This Award ended twelve months ago (January 2018), with the final seminar held in February 2018 (at Save the Children, London). Key Findings to date are summarised in a recent article in Impact magazine ( and are as follows:
a. Remote data-gathering can provide a broader picture of in/security challenges and enable the collection of data in settings which present significant safety risks to researchers and practitioners. Remote data-gathering does not, however, help us to understand the reasons for in/security, how it is seen at the local level or the gender and identity dynamics of conflict situations. It is critical that it not be seen as a panacea for researchers, practitioners and policy-makers wishing to collect data on regions considered too dangerous to visit. It provides a partial and depersonalized picture of a conflict zone, and this must be kept in mind by those using it to derive policy recommendations,
b. Remote data-gathering, though a recent phenomenon, often feeds into long-standing practices of semi-authoritarian statebuilding or political oppression/social marginalisation in a way that practitioners sometimes overlook ("new technologies are not the same as new methodologies"). Researchers, practitioners and policy-makers should be circumspect about how new technologies and methodologies interact with, are embedded within, or are captured by, prevailing systems of illiberal governance or inequality (see, for example, this open access article produced by the Series' Principal Investigator
c. There is significantly more data being collected than there is analysis being done on this data. There is perhaps a greater drive towards collecting data on conflict than on categorising, contextualizing and unpacking it - for academics and policy-makers. Scholars and practitioners should therefore reflect first on why they are collecting data and for what purpose, rather than the benefits offered by apparently new data-gathering technologies.
d. The political economy of conflict zones can have a profound effect on the kind of research being produced on those regions and the capacity of local researchers to develop independent research agendas separated from the concerns of humanitarian agencies and donors. Aid donors should provide greater support for educational institutions in conflict zones to ensure that locally-based researchers can provide critical perspectives which challenge, as well as support, particular agendas.
e. Conflict data has a hierarchy, with quantitative data valued more highly by practitioners and policy-makers than more granular, qualitative data. Some forms of data - including artwork and memorials - are even seen as irrelevant for policy-makers wishing to gain a clear understanding of conflict dynamics. This contrasts, however, with how those living in conflict situations often articulate their main concerns and experiences. During the Series, a photography and textile exhibition was held to highlight forms of "conflict data" which are often entirely overlooked by policy-makers, practitioners and - often - scholars themselves (
Seven workshops and seminars were held during the Series, along with a textile exhibition (Stitched Voices: Knowing Conflict through Textiles), a photography exhibition and a film showing by Birmingham charity Remembering Srebrenica. Taken together, these events helped to build and consolidate an international network of scholars, practitioners and policy-makers working on research on/in conflict zones which will outlast the Series' lifetime. Participants included representatives from a range of charities and NGOs based in Kenya, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the UK and the US, with one workshop co-hosted with Somalia NGO Consortium (a project partner) and Rift Valley Institute (a new project partner) in Nairobi in September 2017 and another by Save the Children in London in February 2018. Representatives from the UK Government (FCO, DFID and Stabilisation Unit), several UN agencies, the OECD, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry and African Union also participated. The Series has also brought together scholars from a range of disciplines (Peace Studies, Development Studies, Anthropology, Area Studies, Political Science, International Relations and History) and countries (including Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somaliland, Somalia and Sri Lanka), with a particular emphasis placed on contributions from PhD candidates and early-career researchers. A range of published outputs have been produced by contributors to the Series so far (including two peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding and a piece in Impact magazine, together with an online archive of podcasts and presentations from the Series ( and of the Stitched Voices exhibition held in November/December 2017 (
Exploitation Route The key findings of the project raise critical questions for both scholars and policy-makers on how they collect and analyse conflict data. Particular areas of focus which we have highlighted throughout the Series in this regard are the relationships between remote data collection and state authority, the absence of gender considerations in most debates on remote data collection and knowledge production on/in conflict and the implications of much conflict research being driven, and often funded, by Western governments and organizations. In the next, post-Series, phase of the project we hope to secure funding for capacity-building of researchers and research institutions in conflict zones as a counterpoint to concerns raised by Southern researchers especially during the Series. The Series' findings will also be useful to MSc/PhD candidates and early-career researchers working on conflict zones in terms of providing them with guidance and advice on tackling the ethical and methodological challenges associated with this kind of research. A handbook aimed at this constituency of researchers (Companion to Peace and Conflict Field Research) will be published in 2018/2019 co-edited by one of the project Co-Investigators (Roger Mac Ginty) and including contributions from the Series Principal Investigator and a number of contributors throughout the Series.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description The 'From Data to Knowledge' Seminar Series was undertaken at a critical period in the development and humanitarian sectors. Advances in technology have enabled the collection of vast amounts of information and data in, and from, conflict zones - increasingly through remote technologies. Where previously development agencies and practitioners viewed this state of affairs as a major opportunity to gain a better understanding of where to target interventions - and as a 'liberation technology' which marginalised communities could use to shine a light on poor governance and unequal resource allocation - policy-makers have become increasingly aware of the challenges posed by the era of 'big data'. This includes not only curating significant amounts of data in a manner which renders it useful to planning and policy but also taking account of the ways in which technology and remote collection of data can promote alienation and particular forms of knowledge - and, indeed, how such technologies can be - and often are - managed or appropriated by authoritarian states and other entities for nefarious or inhumane purposes. The Seminar Series occurred at this critical moment of reflection within the international peace and conflict community and has played an important role in bringing Northern and Southern policy-makers, practitioners and activists around the table to candidly discuss the implications of these challenges for practice and policy. This has included a workshop involving UN staff, European and US diplomats and Somali government and NGO personnel held in Nairobi in September 2017 where participants shared concerns around the relationship between donor-commissioned research from 'local' institutions and the reshaping of knowledge production in conflict zones such as Somalia, where issues such as piracy, conflict and violence are of particular interest to Western donor agencies, and therefore attract research/consultancy funding, whereas other critical areas - the politics of gender, culture etc - are of limited interest to the former, and thus attract virtually no research investment, skewing the research landscape on the ground and the shape of knowledge production for years to come. The Series has also fed into debates within Save the Children on measuring and defining 'effective' humanitarian intervention, and several of the Series' workshops have fed into its developing approach to humanitarian effectiveness through the engagement of one of the Series' Co-Investigators, Juliano Fiori (Head of Studies, Save the Children UK). Save's The Echo Chamber: Results, Management and the Humanitarian Effectiveness Agenda (Fiori et al, 2018) drew in part from discussions held across the Series and was presented and discussed by practitioners and researchers, including from Save the Children and ODI, in the final Series Seminar in February 2018. The policy-practitioner-researcher network assembled around the Series and its core themes also continues to be an important platform for taking forward key elements of the agenda. A specific, longer-term impact relationship established through the Series is that between the PI (Fisher) and University of Birmingham and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)'s Africa Directorate, a Project Partner for the Series. Fisher and a number of other participants in the Series (Paul Jackson and Suda Perera) were invited to lead the Directorate's Africa Study Day in March 2017 and have, since November 2018, convened a bespoke, blended-learning professional development module for Directorate staff drawing on some of the insights and debates of the Series - including a session on technology, data, knowledge production and politics in fragile and conflict-affected states. Beyond the world of policy, the Series has also influenced public perceptions of what conflict 'looks like' - and what forms of knowledge exist on conflict - through curating and displaying a public exhibition of textiles produced in situations of conflict and injustice throughout the globe (including Chile, Zimbabwe, Northern Ireland, Zambia and Colombia). 'Stitched Voices: Knowing conflict through textiles' was held at the Birmingham Voluntary Service Council over four weeks during November-December 2017, organised by Fisher and Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (Series Co-Investigator) in collaboration with Roberta Bacic (Curator) and Breege Doherty (Assistant Curator) of Conflict Textiles. The exhibition, which also included a range of side events led by human rights activists and artists, was viewed by around 90-100 people.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description AHRC PaCCS Conflict Theme - Interdisciplinary Innovation Award
Amount £98,004 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/N007956/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2016 
End 10/2017
Description Honorary Research Fellow Travel Funding
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2013 
End 05/2013
Description The use and abuse of WhatsApp in an African election: Nigeria 2019
Amount $49,800 (USD)
Organisation Facebook 
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 11/2018 
End 11/2019
Description Collaboration with Conflict Textiles 
Organisation Ulster University
Department Conflict Textiles
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The Seminar Series team helped to develop the ideas and regional focus behind the exhibition and provided space for the holding of the exhibition. We also helped to setup the exhibition and ran three workshops alongside it, promoting the Conflict Textiles collection and giving it a space in one of the UK's largest cities.
Collaborator Contribution Roberta Bacic of Conflict Textiles curated and helped to set-up the Stitched Voices: Knowing conflict through textiles in Birmingham in November 2017 and provided guided tours at the exhibition launch, as well as participating in the first of three workshops held around the exhibition. This was all provided free of charge.
Impact Online archive of the exhibition can be found at, while online archive of the workshops held around it can be found at
Start Year 2017
Description Partnership with Rift Valley Institute 
Organisation Rift Valley Institute
Country Global 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We worked with Rift Valley Institute to organise a seminar exploring knowledge production and opportunities for capacity-building of research institutions in Somalia, bringing together key stakeholders they wished to engage with on this topic. We also produced a workshop report to disseminate the findings across this group.
Collaborator Contribution Rift Valley Institute (RVI) co-organised and co-chaired Seminar 5 of the Series - "Bunkers, bubbles and body armour: Knowing Somalia from a distance" - in Nairobi on 5 September 2017. This included in-kind support by their administrative staff, as well as a day's work from two RVI staff in chairing parts of the seminar. RVI also paid for the return flights of two workshop participants from Hargeisa to Nairobi.
Impact Workshop report is available at
Start Year 2017
Description Participation by HMG officials (DFID, FCO and Stabilisation Unit) at first three seminars (Birmingham, 24/01/16; Manchester, 11/05/16; Bradford, 27/01/17) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact UK Government officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1 - Birmingham), Department for International Development (1 - Birmingham) and Stabilisation Unit (1 - Birmingham; 1 - Manchester; 1 - Bradford) attended and participated in the first three ESRC seminars held as part of this series, engaging on the papers and issues presented and reporting (at the time and subsequently by email) interest in the Series' issues of concern and findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
Description Presentation to Minister of State for International Development 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I briefly presented research findings on the challenges of collecting and analysing conflict data to the Minister of State for International Development (Alistair Burt MP) as part of an expert panel assembled at the University of Birmingham. Mr Burt was visiting the University as part of DFID's #AidWorks initiative.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Workshop on Somalia and researching conflict-affected regions 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Around 30 practitioners, policy-makers and scholars participated in a one-day open discussion of the opportunities and challenges of data collection on, and in, Somalia. Participants included officials from the governments of the UK, Ethiopia and Uganda, as well as scholars, I/NGO personnel and development practitioners from Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland, Puntland, the US, Canada, the UAE and the UK.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017