TECH

Workshops Are Connecting Community Leaders In Conflict Zones With Tech Solutions

Can technology really help bring about peace in the world?
PeaceTech Exchange participants in Basra, Iraq, in March.
PeaceTech Exchange participants in Basra, Iraq, in March.

It is an image you’d more likely envision taking place somewhere in San Francisco or Seattle -- groups of people coming together to share tech knowledge and ambitious, peaceful visions for the communities they live in. But this time it’s taking place in Basra, Iraq.

Basra is just one of the places where the Washington, D.C.-based, government-funded United States Institute of Peace is hosting workshops, called PeaceTech Exchanges, through its PeaceTech Lab. The exchanges are intended to connect community peace builders in conflict zones -- activists, civic leaders and even government officials -- with accessible tech platforms and like-minded partners who can help them transform their ideas into reality.

So far, the exchanges, which began in 2013, have taken place in Iraq, Burma, Pakistan, India, Turkey and Uganda. Future events are planned in Afghanistan.

In addition to providing a space for ideas to take shape, the organization offers "micro-awards" of financial backing for some of the projects that originate there.

One product of the events is a Crowdmap tracking incidents where journalists have been targeted with violence in the nation that can help them identify areas they could be in danger. Additions, after being verified, can be made to the platform anonymously and can be done via a text message or email or directly through the website or app. 

That map, Fast Company reports, was the product of a collaboration between Ibrahim Alsragey, the Iraqi Journalists Rights Defense Association’s director, and Mexican reporter Jorge Luis Sierra. The two met at a workshop in Erbil and worked together to use the Ushahidi-developed Crowdmap platform that Sierra had previously used to track violence against journalists in Mexico.

Another project that received a micro-award was an e-advocacy campaign led by The Anwar Humane and Independent Organization to share a video report, with the general public as well as government officials, on the conditions public school students face in Basra. The goal of the campaign is to reduce incidents of violence inflicted by teachers on students.

In PeaceTech's first Basra exchange, Iraqi journalist Tahseen Alzrikiny was introduced to a citizen-journalism app that he later used in a story about local farmers. That piece won a Free Press Unlimited award.

More participants in a PeaceTech Exchange workshop.
More participants in a PeaceTech Exchange workshop.

Brian Forde, director of digital currency at the MIT Media Lab, recently observed other ideas flowing at a PeaceTech Exchange workshop in Basra. According to a blog post published on the World Economic Forum website Tuesday, Forde watched two women building a wireless robotic arm and spoke with an aspiring entrepreneur’s business plan to create an artificial-intelligence editor to help journalists verify information with greater accuracy. He was impressed. 

“This is the Iraq we can also talk about and cover,” Forde wrote. “3D-printing, bitcoin, start-ups and open government could be the next story of this country. The Iraq I witnessed left me hopeful and inspired.” 

The idea, PeaceTech Lab President and CEO Sheldon Himelfarb explained in a HuffPost blog, is to democratize peace-building efforts by inviting “radical collaboration and silo-busting just as much as innovation and entrepreneurship” in working toward creating a less violent world.

Beyond the exchanges, PeaceTech Lab is using the skills of aspiring engineers to help address the concerns of conflict zones throughout the world and has partnered with Drexel University to offer online courses on “peace tech” to students beginning this fall.