Hacking for peace: Can an app stop a bullet?

36 hours is a long time to stay awake – just ask Dan Marsh from International Alert. He, and some dedicated hackers did just that last weekend for the #peacehack, part of the peacebuilding charity’s month-long Talking Peace Festival. The 36-hour hackathon, which culminated on the International Day of Peace, saw six teams of developers working through the night to create an impressive array of apps, websites and even a real-life light up ‘peace crane’.

One developer said on Sunday: “this is the best hackathon I’ve ever been too. Normally people just arrive and get on with their own designs, but there’s been a real team atmosphere here. Everyone is working together and sharing ideas.”

Early on the first morning, members of Alert staff pitched their ideas on everything from a Sims-like game that enables users to try their hand at local-level peacebuilding, an app that calculates your ‘peace footprint’ to help people visualise the impacts their actions can have on conflict and peace in the rest of the world, and an app that encourages social accountability, allowing people in conflict-affected countries to report on the behaviour of various institutions anonymously.

For those who work in the peacebuilding sector, technology increasingly presents itself as a powerful tool to bring about social and political change. Not only can it overcome many of the barriers faced in fragile and conflict-affected states, it can often do so relatively inexpensively.

It remains the case that many of the places where Alert works have poor internet connectivity outside of large urban centres, and few people own smartphones or computers. But that situation is changing very rapidly, and now is the time to take advantage of that change.

Alert already uses Facebook to foster positive contact between groups on either side of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and has worked on capacity-building projects with local and community radios in both West Africa and Nepal. Everything from smartphone apps to simple SMS can be used in activities like real time conflict mapping, enhancing state–citizen relations and improving political participation. Additionally, technology can work for peacebuilders too, enabling us to better implement, monitor and evaluate our projects, and present that information in a more interactive and user-friendly way. It can also, as demonstrated by some of the developers at the #peacehack, be used to educate people back home on just how much their consumption, travel habits and even choice of smartphone can have an impact on conflicts on the other side of the planet.

Of course, technological solutions like these are not without their risks. Asking people to share personal and location data, particularly in fragile contexts, can be problematic and potentially dangerous. Conflict-sensitive approaches in these situations are essential. It is also important to remember that any technological tool is only effective if people want to engage with it, so a detailed understanding of the context in which it will be used is also vital.

Which is why an event like the hackathon is so valuable. Bringing together this essential practitioner knowledge and the technological know-how that many peacebuilding organisations would acknowledge they are lacking. Collaborating has the potential to create tools that can genuinely contribute to consolidating peace, and if the results after 36 hours are anything to go by, it could be a very exciting collaboration indeed.

– See more at: http://www.international-alert.org/blog/hacking-peace-can-app-stop-bullet#sthash.DLQ82d05.dpuf

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