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Tech for Atrocities: Can Cell Phones Help?

Mar 29th, 2013Contest, Design, International, Tech


by Tessa Farnsworth Curry

How do you harness one of the world’s greatest tools for changing the way we live, and use it to prevent mass atrocities from occurring? Technology has changed the world as we know it at an incredibly rapid pace, while the human rights and development sphere is still struggling to find that same speed for change.

Over the past year, new steps have been made to find innovative ways to prevent mass atrocities from happening around the world. President Obama gave a speech last April in which he pledged that the United States would do all it could in this effort, and organizations have since rallied behind this movement.

USAID and Humanity United decided to try out an old platform in order to find new solutions.  The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, is calling for participants to compete to find innovative technical solutions to some of the most intractable problems in the field of atrocity prevention.

“What contests are especially good at is understanding what ideas are already under development in a field,” said Ethan Zuckerman, one of the 10 competition judges and the Director of the Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab. “It’s a way of mapping a field and understanding what’s being worked on and what isn’t currently on people’s radar.”

Competitions and contests have proven to be one way of putting out feelers for new and innovative ideas, but the question now begs if the blend of tech and development is a good match for this.

TechChange, the DC-based institute for technology and social change, has been working to find scalable and interactive technology training for social change since the organization was founded in 2010.

“At TechChange we like to say that what’s important is less the technology itself, but that it’s been designed in a way that allows communities and local organizations access to governance data, as well as the ability to craft their own solutions to local humanitarian and development needs,” said Nick Martin, President and CEO of TechChange.

The trickiest part of this challenge is going to be for the participants to design technology that is practical for local actors to use, especially in areas with limited power sources and communication infrastructure, he reflected.

“This may be the biggest challenge that contestants will face – how to design a tool that meets the operational needs of the practitioner community,” said Martin.

While there have been a number of failed attempts, LRA Crisis Tracker, Satellite Sentinel Project, and Ushahidi are paving the way for others, showcasing local tech-based solutions.

“There are two potential results we are excited about,” said Michael Kleinman, Director of the Investments team at Humanity United. “We are really excited to see what specific innovations will emerge. The tech challenge gives us a mechanism to reach out to the phenomenal technologists in other areas of the world. The second result: we really hope this challenge helps structure a much longer-term conversation between the technologist community and the humanitarian community.”

Through the challenge platform, the organizations hope to develop more structured and more impactful partnerships. While providing consulting to scale the winning ideas is not a commitment USAID or Humanity United has made, they hope to provide a matchmaking role by introducing teams to bilateral donors and aid agencies in other western countries.

Contestants send in their written proposals to be judged by a panel of 10 judges. The winners are chosen based on the impact, innovation, scalability, and feasibility of their projects.

The challenge has already undergone the first successful competition round, awarding first, second, third, and honorable mention prizes. This round sought out the enablers, those who proposed new and innovative ways to better identify, spotlight, and deter intentional or unintentional third-party enablers of atrocities. The prizes were awarded to winners from Kenya, Romania, and the US. Their backgrounds ranged from tech groups to university affiliates to for-profit entities.

The second round of the competition will begin this fall and is seeking out the best ideas in the categories of “model”, “communicate”, and “alert.”

“In truth we already have the tools and people to prevent many atrocities, but there is still a lack of coherence in how the technology and policy communities work together to integrate technology into existing practice,” said Martin. “The goal is to make tools that help practitioners do their jobs better.”



1st Place: $5000

Winner: Le-Marie Thompon, Founder, Nettadonna LLC

From? Bowie, MD

What was the idea? Electronic Component Validation Tool for New Product Development

How does it work? The tool will fill the gap of companies unintentionally sourcing microelectronic components from suppliers that produce components using conflict materials. Will provide product designers a way to assess and validate that a component is “conflict free”.

2nd place: $3000

Winner: Fiona Mati

From? Kenya

What was the idea? Conscious Vacations

How does it work? Puts pressure on state perpetrators by promoting socially-conscious tourism. Wants to inform potential tourists by sharing data about government expenditures spent on security or defense as opposed to other social sectors.

3rd Place: $2,000

Winner: The Enough Project

From? Washington D.C.

What was the idea? Combining Front-line research with cutting-edge data maning technology to identify and stop enablers of mass atrocities

How does it work? Using current platforms for culling, integrating, and analyzing data from various public and private sources to reveal financial relationships and transactions that were previously hidden. Want to combine this analysis with field research and reports from local partners.

Honorable Mention

Winner: Michael Ricciardi

From? Pacific northwest, USA

What was the idea? A method of identifying and spotlighting enablers of mass atrocities: revealing the ecosystem of violence-Food web as atrocity

How does it work?

The “Atrocity Web” proposes adapting a highly successful model/method derived from an ecosystem analysis which seeks to identify the most critical species in a given (ecological) “food web.” This Solver would apply the food web analysis to the task of identifying (potential and actual) enablers of atrocities in a hypothetical “atrocity web.”

2 Responses

  1. Logan says:

    This is an interesting challenge. I look forward to seeing what comes of these projects. Great article!

  2. alex bright says:

    So in tech school do you go to learn and master the job you were assigned too or what happens? What kinda degree do you get? Like an associates degree or what? And after your done with tech school can you still be taking classes for other jobs which you can cross train or how does everything work… Can someone please help?