Technology at the service of peace

Olivier Cottray and Helena Puig Larrauri

Ahead of the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share guest blog posts from partner organizations.

Build Up and the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) are two organizations bringing innovation and technology to peacebuilding. We’re excited to start a conversation on two emerging fields: peacetech and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for peace.

However, we’re also a little apprehensive: we know that many reading this post will assume that these fields are about how to design a nice website and how to print some great maps. While design and visualization play a key role, there is a lot more substance to the two fields. In fact, we offer a toolkit to put technology at the service of peace.

The rise of peacetech

Peacetech is an emerging body of practice where a technological component is of strategic importance to achieving peacebuilding objectives. Build Up, GICHD and other peacetech advocates emphasize the strategic use of technology to distinguish peacebuilding actors and activities that use technology as part of their general organizational management (making use of email, websites and a social media presence) from those that use technology with the strategic aim to build peace. This distinction between non-strategic and strategic uses of technology in the peacebuilding context also helps to address a concern that ‘peacetech’ is just a new word or fad for something that is already being done.

In the context of peacetech, technology typically refers to ‘the different types of hardware, software or systems that enable people to access, generate and share information’. This definition includes the traditional tools that you may have first thought of (databases, smartphone apps, messaging services and cameras) but also includes more unusual tools (video games, unmanned aerial vehicles and virtual reality headsets). The definition also covers all manner of Geographic Information Systems, so that GIS for peace is an area of peacetech.

GIS for peace

Why a focus on GIS? Because maps, the ultimate products of GIS, offer a common language for all parties in a peacebuilding effort. They provide a common picture of the geographic space to be shared and can help identify non-violent solutions to conflicting needs. GIS are no longer the exclusive remit of technologists; if you’ve used Google Maps or pretty much any location-based service, you have, in a sense, used a GIS.

GIS include any technology that allow us to compile, analyse and visualize geographic information and answer sets of questions such as:

‘Where is...?’

‘Where will...?’

‘Where should...?’

That is, they allow us to understand and take stock of our current environment, predict how this environment will evolve, and suggest alternative actions on or within that environment to match particular objectives. For example, from an understanding of the distribution of natural resources, wealth and ethnic groups in a country, we might identify potential flash-points and suggest infrastructure investments in particular locations that would help ease tensions.

And beyond this seemingly mechanistic informative power, GIS offers untapped convening power. The very process of gathering and integrating geographic data for such an analysis from a range of sectors and perspectives requires communication and collaboration between multiple actors. This offers an opportunity for the stakeholders of peace to come together and discuss what issues are at hand and what information is required for further negotiation.

Technology is just a tool

We certainly don’t intend to make it sound like GIS is inherently a tool for peace. Humankind has accumulated thousands of years of experience in using maps for war and conquest; we excel at exploiting geographic intelligence to gain strategic and tactical advantages in times of conflict. The same is true of other technology tools, not just military technology. There are many examples of sophisticated uses of technology for recruitment into armed groups, for surveillance, for spreading misinformation and polarization, for spreading hatred, and for oppressing dissenting voices and activists.

Technology is just a tool—what matters is how we choose to use it. If we know technology can amplify the reach of war, then there is an even greater imperative for peacebuilders to use technology to amplify the reach of their work. And there is a growing movement of peacebuilding practitioners who are doing just that.

On Facebook, individuals listen mostly to people they already agree with, which can make views more polarized, and hate speech is rampant. At the same time, the same platforms can be used to increase positive interaction between groups positioned against each other as a result of competing political agendas or ideologies, or as a function of their ethnic or religious identities. Groups like Peace Factory are using Facebook to connect people in Israel to people in Iran, Palestine or Jordan, and groups like Umati in Kenya and Proxi in Spain are using social media to monitor and counter hate speech.

In Sudan, the government has used technology to cut off communications, but a local NGO has set up a community communications system that links SMS to radio to help sustain local peace agreements. Videogames teach war, but Games for Peace uses Minecraft to bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together. Drones can bomb, or they can be tools for peacekeepers.

Peacebuilders can make technology

It is an exciting time for technology. At Build Up and GICHD, we are no ‘tech utopians’, but we do think it is important that the military is no longer the main driver of innovation. Today, innovation largely comes from consumer-oriented industries and individuals can increasingly participate and lead technological innovation.

This ‘democratization’ of technology can also contribute to the peacebuilding field. Ultimately, peacetech is about accelerating the uptake of appropriate technology by the peacebuilding community by enabling ‘smart demand’ for this technology—ensuring that peacetech is designed to address specific, well-defined needs by helping the peace and tech communities speak a common language.

Build Up and GICHD aim to raise awareness on promising avenues for technology innovation in peacebuilding at the 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Through sessions on peacetech and GIS, we will discuss examples of successful initiatives that use technology for peace. This includes programmes such as Build Up’s ‘Build Peace Fellows’ which teaches peacebuilders user-centered design, enabling them to become more effective stewards of technological innovation within their organizations. Hackathons and innovation labs offer opportunities to bring together technologists and peacebuilders to collaborate on solutions to peacebuilding problems.

All these initiatives seek to better balance demand-driven and supply-driven innovation for peace so that peacebuilders are, themselves, building technology for peace and driving peacetech design according to the needs they experience in the field.

About Build Up: Build Up is a social enterprise that amplifies citizen participation in peace through technology, arts and research. We work with civic activists and peacebuilders to find and apply innovative practices that help them achieve their missions. We bring together our diverse skills—mediation, negotiation, facilitation, filmmaking, design, coding, data analysis, metal-work, graphic recording and more—to re-think how to build peace.

About GICHD: The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) is an expert organization working to reduce the impact of mines, cluster munitions and other explosive hazards, in close partnership with mine action organizations and other human security actors. GICHD supports the ultimate goals of mine action: saving lives, returning land to productive use and promoting development.