Feature Story

Giving peacetech a chance

by Anne Field

peacetech

A fledgling movement aims to empower peacebuilders through technology.

Last year, in Abu Dhabi, a group of young coders participated in an event its organizers called a Haqqathon. “Haqq” is the Arabic word for truth, an appropriate term for a gathering aimed at mobilizing Muslim programmers to fight Islamic extremism. The winner: a mobile app allowing young people to receive answers to questions from authoritative Muslim scholars in millennial-friendly, 60-second video clips, a far cry from the hour-long treatises typically presented by the experts. “This is a way for their teachings to get through to the Twitter generation," says Shahed Amanullah, co-founder of Affinis Labs, a Falls Church, Va.–based startup accelerator and organizer of the event.

Amanullah is one of a growing number of people world-wide, working in a fledgling field called peacetech. The particular solutions vary widely, from creating mobile apps that help young Muslims connect with scholars, to crowdsourcing data about checkpoints in Aleppo. But the overall movement, “aims to empower peacebuilders around the world through technology,” says Derek Caelin, who works with Washington, D.C.-based PeaceTech Lab.

Using tech to prevent violence

Spun off from the U.S. government-funded United States Institute of Peace in 2014, PeaceTech Lab is one of the leaders in the field.  It’s all about prevention: working with residents of such high-conflict countries as Iraq and Pakistan to stop tensions from escalating into violence--and help build local economies, too--by harnessing the power of mostly low-cost, readily available technology, along with data analysis. To that end, the enterprise partners with engineers, academics, journalists and entrepreneurs in each area.

See also: Drones give humanitarian aid a lift

Take its PeaceTech Exchanges. These workshops, held in high-conflict areas and led by PeaceTech Lab staff, help locals determine the most pressing problems facing them and then go about finding solutions. “Our team takes part in kickstarting these efforts,” says Sheldon Himelfarb, PeaceTech’s president and CEO.

“We work at the intersection of civic engagement, peacebuilding and technology.”

Helene Puig Larrauri, co-founder Build Up

Since the locations are usually in places without many resources, the solutions generally involve off-the-shelf technologies. For example, after Ibrahim Alsragey, the director of the Iraqi Journalist Rights Defense Association, attended a workshop in his country, he embarked on a project to use a mapping platform to track attacks on and threats to journalists. Using crowdsourced data, users could see where reported problems had happened and drill down to get more information about the occurrences. According to Caelin, the map was used both to prevent attacks, as well as to raise awareness of the dangers regularly faced by journalists in Iraq. “This is a powerful visualization tool for communicating the problem,” says Caelin.

See also: Focus: Tech and the environment

Some companies sell products developed specifically for peacebuilders. First Mile Geo, a two-year-old Washington, D.C.-based startup has a platform that allows peace advocates, along with companies doing business in conflict zones and others, to collect, map and analyze data. It’s been used, for example, to survey residents of Aleppo about checkpoints—the armed groups running them, say, or the weapons they have. Then it maps the data and analyzes the unfolding conditions inside the city in real-time.

Nurturing startups and civic engagement         

Affinis Labs, on the other hand, focuses on nurturing tech startups, as well as encouraging the development of ideas that can be turned into companies. Amanullah and co-founder Quintan Wiktorowicz both did  high-level work for the White House involving Islamic extremism and other issues; they founded their incubator to focus on startups with a positive social impact on Muslim communities, including those with products and services able to help build peace and fight extremism. Part of these efforts includes running hackathons overseas, with an eye towards helping to incubate the most promising ideas.

At an event held last year in Sydney, for example, the winner was an app that helps young Muslims reach out to older, successful mentors who share their faith, via an interface based on shared interests. Described as a “Tinder for mentoring”, the technology allows young people struggling with difficult challenges to seek guidance from positive role models.

See also: Cisco employee volunteers make a difference in Lebanon

Build Up is another venture that helps organizations and citizens create tools for peacebuilding, among many other activities. “We work at the intersection of civic engagement, peacebuilding and technology,” says co-founder Helene Puig Larrauri. Case in point: Hands-on Famagusta, an online platform with the goal of creating a dialogue about how to encourage reconciliation in Famagusta, a city divided between Turkish and Greek Cyprus. Through videos and games, it aims to shift perceptions, helping people to envision a united area. Players can, for example, choose to explore options for creating a public waterfront. Military zones, a port and private development currently block access to the city’s coastline. 

Certainly, peacetech advocates understand the limitations of their efforts. “We don’t envision it will change the world,” says PeaceTech Lab’s Caelin. “But it can help peacebuilders do their work--and prevent conflicts from happening.”

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