Five coming technology changes and trends that will affect our field:
1. the expansion of information and communications technology in the global south / “the world is flat”
2. the emergence of video and audio conferencing
3. e-democracy and digital government
4. the digital eloquence of the younger generation
5. the development of “virtual worlds”
ODR and Web 2.0
When I authored my book Online Dispute Resolution for Business back in 2000 and 2001 I wrote: “One of the challenges of writing a book that deals with technology is trying not to look silly after two or three years when the technology has changed so much that the observations of the book seem quaint and antiquated.”
Now in 2006, it’s obvious how true that statement was and is. In the last six years web technology has evolved at a torrid pace, and the toolbox to be utilized by web designers and programmers is now much richer and more powerful. Some of the ideas presented in my book as cutting edge have become so commonplace as to seem obvious.
Innovation over the past five years has occurred in a wide variety of areas, from more flexible graphics to faster connections to richer communications options. It’s difficult to keep track of the full alphabet soup of innovation on the net (PHP, AJAX, SVG, CSS, etc.) but the latest wave of advancements, and the sites that make use of them, are broadly referred to as “Web 2.0” because of the revolutionary potential they offer to reinvent interaction between people over computer networks.
The initial vision of information technology as solely a way to improve the efficiency of existing processes is giving way to a more expansive understanding of technology as a means to reinvent the way we work and communicate with each other. Technology can improve the efficiency with which we do things, sure, but it also enables us to do things that were impractical if not impossible before we had it.
For my field, the field of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), these advances are particularly exciting, because they promise to deliver on much of the excitement about ODR that was generated when the field was born in the late 1990s. It is becoming increasingly clear that these newly emerging technologies may spark a new level of interest in the tools and services offered within the ODR field. In that spirit, here are some of the new features of Web 2.0 that may serve to take ODR to that next level.
One of the most stunning developments of the last two years is the rapid emergence of audio over the Internet. In two years companies like Skype have grown to tens of millions of users all over the world. While audio conferencing over the Internet was possible in 2001, the quality was very spotty, and it resembled communicating over a CB radio more than a telephone call. Now many of those shortcomings have been addressed, and audio conferencing is on par with telephone communications if not even better. VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) is becoming accepted into the mainstream, and the prices of global voice communication are falling as a result. For ODR services, this development is a watershed event, because now disputants have the option of communicating synchronously over their computers at low or no cost.
The company generating the most buzz out on the Internet right now is a start up by the name of YouTube.com. YouTube enables people to upload video onto their servers, which YouTube then delivers to anyone who wants it, kind of like a video equivalent to Flickr, the popular photo sharing site. YouTube’s big innovation is the speed with which video comes up when you click on a video on their site (almost instantaneously) and the quality of the video (not merely a postage stamp with jaggy images, but a smooth picture that can even be expanded to the full width of the monitor.) YouTube pulled off this bit of web magic by using Adobe’s Flash extension, which is now in more than 95% of the browsers around the world. (Google Video has also entered this territory using the same technology.) The success of this approach has made YouTube into one of the most popular websites on the Internet. ODR providers should take note of this development, because quality video conferencing remains the most commonly cited barrier to the use of online dispute resolution platforms. The techniques used by YouTube and Google may soon make their way into next-generation ODR platforms as well.
Cell phones in 2000 and 2001 were pretty much for voice only. Cell phones today are mini computers, with full access to the internet, cameras, operating systems, and keyboards. For many people in the world the cell phone is their entry point to the internet, and the internet is changing to better fit the constraints of cell phone use. While some focus on the shortcomings of the web on cell phones (small screens make text hard to read, and tiny keyboards make data entry tedious), cell phones bring their own powerful set of advantages to the table, including portability, ubiquity, and easy integration with audio services. Data access speeds on cell phones have improved significantly over the past several years, with some cell phone data plans rivaling speeds available over wires. Some ODR platforms have offered great features but have failed because for many people it is just too inconvenient to have to sit down at the computer a dozen times a day to see if the other party has responded. Mobile technology provides an answer to that challenge, as you can carry your ability to stay in touch right in your pocket. This will address a serious challenge for the ODR field.
We are entering into an exciting new phase of the web, and the powerful tools now becoming available will soon expand our definitions of what we can do online. ODR will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of these new technologies, because they are squarely aimed at ODR’s core functionality areas: communication, collaboration, and interactivity.
But while the benefits of these new technologies are clear, it is not immediately apparent that ODR companies will move to adopt them in a timely manner. As Sanjana Hattotuwa, the head of Peacebuilding and ICT at InfoShare in Sri Lanka (and long an advocate of using more mobile technology in ODR) put it on his wonderful blog ICT4Peace, “there is the need for ODR practitioners as well as theorists to explore developments in the technology in order to see how they can be best used to meet the needs of clients.” Too many ODR providers rely on outdated platforms and technology because they are reluctant to make the investments in time and resources needed to bring their platforms up to web 2.0 standards.
It is the obligation of those of us in the field to resist the temptation to rest on our laurels. For our clients, customers, and partners to truly realize the benefits of these technological advancements we need to commit ourselves to ongoing experimentation and development so that we can ride the curve of this advancement. If we do not, we risk having the next chapter of ODR written by those who do not understand the ethical underpinnings of quality dispute resolution practice and who may co-opt the legitimacy of ODR systems for their own purposes. By staying on top of this curve ourselves we can best ensure that ODR delivers on the promise it has offered and help to resolve the greatest number of disputes possible.