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Welcome To PeaceTech, The Movement To Use Technology To End Violent Conflict And Extremism

If we give PeaceTech a chance, can it work?

Welcome To PeaceTech, The Movement To Use Technology To End Violent Conflict And Extremism
[Illustrations: Leonid Zarubin via Shutterstock]

In 2013, a 26-year-old Syrian called Dishad Othman built a system to warn his countrymen when a Scud missile launched by the regime was headed their way. The system, called Aymta, received reports from local activists of missile launches, calculated the trajectory and likely arrival time, and sent mobile alerts to registered civilians inside the strike zone. Most Scud casualties were caused by collapsing buildings, and the alerts gave people a little more than 10 minutes warning, enough time get out on the street or to a bomb shelter.

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Aymta is part of the fledgling field of Peacetech, which applies technology, media tools, and data science to the cause of reducing violent conflict around the globe. Between 1950 and 2004, 38% of ceasefires and 32% of peace agreements collapsed within five years. Conflict prevention aims to resolve or contain disputes before they become violent. Peacebuilding facilitates the establishment of durable peace and tries to prevent the recurrence of violence by addressing the root causes of conflict.

Both conflict prevention and peacebuilding have been fields of academic study and practical application since the 1970s but technology has rarely played a part in either. Sheldon Himelfarb, President and CEO of PeaceTech Lab, thinks it should. “When the bullets are flying these are not the tools which are going to end that kind of warfare,” he says, “but they are critical to preventing those wars from starting.”

Peacetech projects often tackle the typical drivers of conflict: inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions, gender violence, and land disputes. “Most conflict today is about these local drivers,” says Himelfarb. It’s a matter of minority rights, corruption, authoritarian regimes. It’s (addressing) these drivers which allow you to have a lasting peace and not lapse back into violence again.” If those drivers are addressed earlier in a brewing conflict, there is also a better chance of avoiding all out war, and the associated casualties.

PeaceTech Lab, which was founded in 2014 as an offshoot of government-funded United States Institute of Peace, runs workshops to empower peacebuilders with low-cost, easy to use technology, in some of the world’s most violent places. So far it has hosted these peacetech exchanges in Iraq, in Burma to counter hate speech, and in Mumbai to tackle gender violence. “Unlike other innovation labs, we are about taking off-the-shelf existing tools that have already proven themselves in in conflict countries which have intermittent electricity, which have really unreliable Internet connections, and figuring out ways of using them more effectively in that community,” says Himelfarb.

Ibrahim Alsragey, the director the Iraqi Journalist Rights Defense Association, attended the Iraqi Peachetech exchange and collaborated with a Mexican journalist to use the Ushahidi mapping platform to map attacks on journalists in Iraq. “This was the first time this kind of information was gathered by Iraqis themselves,” says Himelfarb.

PeachTech Lab doesn’t just work in official conflict zones. The organization recently helped three 13-year-old girls from the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, one of the poorest places on the planet, to get their mobile app to counter gender violence into the Google Play store. Working with a mentor they downloaded MIT’s free app maker and created an app which sounds an alarm when the user is feeling threatened and hits a button. The app then sends a message to friends and family with their location. It’s now available on the Google Play Store.

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“Gender violence is a problem all over the world,” says Himelfarb. “That app has lots of value everywhere. The problem in the past has been the lack of capital, the lack of mentoring, of training for these entrepreneurs.”

Capital is a particular problem. Both Aymta and Uvirtus–another project from Othman that allowed Syrians to securely post videos of the conflict on YouTube–ran out of steam, partly because many Syrians did not have reliable access to communications or power, but also because of lack of funding.

Historically, the field of conflict prevention and peacebuilding has been entirely government-funded. “Everybody figured there is no money to be made in conflict countries,” says Himelfarb. “There’s no money to be made in post-conflict”. But Himelfarb argues that the private sector is starting to take an interest in post-conflict countries in particular. “They are looking at them more as emerging markets and investing in them. Marriott announced not long ago that its next two flagship hotels are going to be in Haiti and in Rwanda. That’s where the opportunity to grow this peacetech industry lies.”

Shahed Amanullah certainly believes that the private sector can play a part. He, along with co-founder Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former Senior Director at the White House, started Affinis Labs, a Northern Virginia startup incubator for businesses with positive social impact on global Muslim communities. Affinis Labs is also raising a $5 million investment fund devoted to tackling violent extremism. A serial entrepreneur, and former senior advisor for technology at the U.S. State Department, he has seen first-hand the attempts of government to tackle extremism.

“We have been talking about this issue for 10 years, but we have literally done nothing of significance, “ Amanullah says. “I always use as a litmus test: What would an extremist think if they saw what we are doing? Would they laugh their heads off because we are clueless?”

Affinis Labs is solely focused on for-profit businesses that have a positive social impact on Muslim communities around the world. Amanullah himself founded one of the oldest Muslim websites in the world, a halal restaurant guide. Startups in the incubator include Launchgood, already the world’s largest faith-based crowdfunding platform, and a Muslim matchmaking site.

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“There’s 500 million Muslim youth around the world between the ages of 18 and 25,” says Amanullah. “They are increasingly upwardly mobile. They are totally wired. They are very agitated about their identity. It’s a very underserved market.”

Affinis Labs also helps runs hackathon-style events around the world where young Muslims propose ideas to counter extremism, At each event, the winning idea is funded and incubated by Amanullah’s team. The winner at a recent Sydney event is what Amanullah describes as a Tinder for mentoring, “creating mentorship opportunities between young Muslims who are needing guidance in one of many areas and older folks who have resolved their identity crisis or gone on to be successful in one area of another.”

A previous event in Abu Dhabi, dubbed a Haqqathon (“haqq” is the Arabic word for truth), leveraged Islamic scholarship. One of the funded ideas from that event allows young people to pose questions to Islamic scholars and get answers in videos lasting less than a minute, which can be shared and rated. “Right now the really good scholars drone on on Youtube for an hour but the ones on the other side speak in tweets,” says Amanullah.

Affinis Labs is currently running at full capacity and expects to double the number of companies it hosts once it moves into a new space. “There’s talent, there’s money, there’s creativity. The trick is to bring them all together in a very convincing way,“ says Amanullah. “For too long people have seen this community as a source of problems. What we are trying to do is prove that it is a source of solutions.”

About the author

Lapsed software developer, tech journalist, wannabe data scientist. Ciara has a B.Sc.

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