Social media Newsfeeds in our modern world often feel like one disheartening headline after another. Violence and injustice seem to invade every corner of our world, from developing regions and major urban centers thousands of miles away, to the house just down the road.
The goal to reduce global violence is daunting, but not unattainable. In fact, objective number 16 on the United Nations' list of Sustainable Development Goals is to create "peace, justice, and strong institutions" around the world. While there is still a long road ahead, organizations from all over the globe and across the spectrum of industry are chipping in to do their part. UBS, for example, has upped its focus on impact investing, as well as unveiled a Global Visionary program to highlight entrepreneurs making progress on the UN's SDGs.
In the tech sector, too, individuals and nonprofits are banding together to ensure that our future is a more peaceful one. PeaceTech Lab is one organization closely tapped into Goal 16.
Below, we spoke with the company about its core mission and some of its most recent initiatives.
A look inside the Lab
At PeaceTech Lab, global peace is more than just an idealistic phrase: It's the backbone of the group's day-to-day work. The D.C.-based organization hosts an eight-week accelerator program, "the first major international peacetech program powered by cloud innovation and dedicated to scaling startups around the world."
As an independent nonprofit, the Lab brings together do-gooders that run the professional gamut: engineers, entrepreneurs, activists, conflict experts, social scientists, data scientists, and more. The concept is simple: Bring together bright, optimistic minds in order to find solutions that will bring peace and prosperity to communities around the globe.
In short, the organization aims to put modern technologies — including things like big data and social media — to work for the greater good.
“It’s easy to get down on tech these days," says Sheldon Himelfarb, president and CEO of PeaceTech Lab — especially, he goes on, when so much attention is paid to digital issues like hacking, hate speech, and fake news.
"But there is another ‘alternative reality’ we’re seeing at PeaceTech Lab," Himelfarb continues: "One where teenage girls living in the largest slum in India are able to build and publish apps to protect women against sexual assault, and where technology enables journalists in places like Iraq or Venezuela to manage the risks in reporting today."
The strategy: "Peacemedia" and shaping data-driven policy
There are a few ways the organization puts its collective brainpower to work.
For one, it helps youngsters in developing parts of the world produce "peacemedia," such as the radio series entitled Sawa Shabab (Together Youth) by Free Voice South Sudan in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace. The show, which follows stories of young South Sudanese as they learn how to become peacebuilders within their communities, aims to lift up young voices and triumph stability.
PeaceTech Lab is also involved with the production of Salam Shabab (Peace Youth), an Iraq-based television show that airs on Facebook and YouTube and follows Iraqi teens as they pursue artistic, athletic, and teamwork-based endeavors. The show provides an accessible outlet to show kids what they can accomplish when they set their minds to a goal.
Data analysis, too, is a key part of PeaceTech Lab's strategy. The nonprofit uses its Open Situation Room Exchange (OSRx) project to identify and prevent situations of serious violent conflict on a global scale. This data hub serves a few purposes for researchers, policymakers, practitioners, donors, and legal and health professionals: It drives awareness, supports data collection and analysis, and produces open datasets that are foundational for "peacebuildling" policy decisions.
Collaboration across cultures and borders is another important part of PeaceTech Lab's master plan: At PeaceTech Exchanges, the organization enlists experts and the USIP to host workshops that empower and inspire "local peacebuilders" within conflict zones.
The Lab in action
A recent initiative that put PeaceTech Lab's mission into practice centered around the August 2017 elections in Kenya.
PeaceTech Lab Africa, the D.C. organization's sister office situated in Nairobi, partnered with the Mercy Corps and the Institute for Social Accountability (TISA) to operate an SMS-based early warning and response system. The platform enabled subscribers to text in rumors or eyewitness accounts of voter fraud and interference, and sent peaceful messages in response. (Historically, Kenyan elections have led to violent outbursts around the nation.)
According to PeaceTech Lab, more than 200,000 people in four counties subscribed to the service. Alongside the SMS system, the Lab also monitored online speech on social media before, during, and after the election, analyzing and contextualizing social media posts in an effort to help officials diffuse election-related hate speech online. The initiative was an uplifting example of "social good meets social media" — with encouraging results.
Organizations like PeaceTech Lab are just the tip of the iceberg; but they are, slowly and surely, chipping away toward progress.
"If we want to make progress on the SDGs, there’s no better place to start than by investing in PeaceTech entrepreneurs," says Himelfarb.