Building peace through ICT – Ideas for practical ICT4Peace projects

eTukTuk
Image courtesy of e tuk tuk project

A while ago, I got this request from a colleague in England:

Is there anything that the world of Comms and IT could do for peacebuilding and helping grassroots? I am not thinking about databanks or IT libraries, but something really radical and innovative, almost blue sky thinking, that in order to start just needs the right people in the same room. It could be something very simple but needs the right connections and resources behind it…..


This got me thinking about some practical, down to earth ICT4Peace projects that could make a difference given the violent and generally regressive context in a country such as Sri Lanka. Some of these ideas are those that I’m already working on, others have been floated around for want of someone to fund them, others are ones that I’ve come up with in response to needs I see on the ground, still others, those that have been rejected by donors and the CSR arms of large telecoms providers, but are nevertheless powerful social change mechanisms.

In no particular order, here are some ideas for ICT4Peace that can really make a difference in conflict / post-conflict zones:

Community podcasting and internet radio
When people talk about media and conflict, there is the overwhelming tendency to conflate media with news and media with the reportage (in ways good and bad) of violence. On the other hand, what is often required in conflict is media, writ large (theatre, arts, digital, performance), that captures the voices and hope of people in support of peace. Often, these voices are acknowledged as being the “majority of people in support of peace” (or words to that effect) but no one really captures the richness of the voices, or knows how to.

ICT can help. Through New Media technologies such as digital audio / video / mobile video / MMS, it is possible to link community driven production of media that addresses local issues. Community radio stations often find that they are prey to legislation that often restricts their freedom to broadcast issues seen as too sensitive by the incumbent government. Internet radio and websites by pass these restrictions.

Beneficial in this light would also be partnerships developed with large mobile phone operators. In many areas of the world, the so-called 3G (3rd Generation) mobile phone technologies are rolled out that allow for multimedia on the go, but with very little content. Engaging the communities in content creation can be a really useful way to kick start these new technologies.

Imagine the provision of phones able to capture photos and video. A user records and annotates content, sends it to a central website, where the veracity of the information is checked and uploaded. Such a mechanism would serve to highlight local issues, engender discussion between those who have access to the web through PC and mobile phones (people can SMS their responses) and create awareness within the community on ways to address the issue.

Internet radio for grassroots also involves those who cannot read or write. Literacy is not a requirement for digital media production that seeks to capture the views of those who may not be able to read & write, but through their life experience may have valuable insights into the transformation of the conflict and into issues such as reconciliation, transformative justice and co-existence.

Content so produced can be put up on a website, but also recorded onto CD (for audio recordings) or downloaded to devices such as iPod (for audio and video) and then played back at community level / village meetings, to foster discussion.

Projects like etuktuk are also instructive in this regard. The long term sustainability of such projects is suspect however, which is why I advocate the use of technologies already in the hands of many people – such as mobile phones – instead of the creation of wholly new systems for production, storage and dissemination of content for the grassroots.

I think we also need a paradigm shift in the packaging of content for peacebuilding for the grassroots. We need to think of ways through which core concepts of peacebuilding can be delivered to grassroots (and created within the grassroots) using mobile devices such as PDAs and mobile phones (with the challenges of smaller screens, limited storage, input methods, vernacular language interfaces etc).

Skypecasts
The new version of Skype (albeit still in beta) supports a feature called Skypecasting, that allows a large audience to participate, using Skype as well as PSTN phones, in discussions that can be on any topic. The topics are hosted on Skype with the time and topic, so that people can join in from anywhere in the world. Skype’s free, Skype to Skype calls are free (VoIP) and for Skype to work, all that is required is a decent ISDN connection. With the ever increasing footprints of broadband internet access (such as EV-DO in the US and WiMax in many other parts of the world) even countries like Sri Lanka are contemplating coast-to-coast wireless internet footprints in the next couple of years. Even today, wireless technologies such as CDMA PCMCIA cards allow for internet connectivity almost anywhere in Sri Lanka.

We can piggyback upon these access technologies to create Skypecasts on peace from the grassroots itself – say a village meeting by a paddy field with a global audience including members from the diaspora chipping in. Such a series of recorded Skypecasts can be a useful way to capture community driven ideas for peace with international and regional voices in support of such ideas.

Skypecasts can also bring together a range of actors to discuss a specific issue – say the mitigation of violence in a specific location.

Skyepcasts also facilitates unique projects like children to children contact – to have mediated discussions between the life of a child in a conflict affected area, an urban centre in the same country and say a child in the diaspora community, to highlight differences and explore ways that people to people contact can help make lives better for those most seriously affected by the conflict.

Micro-grants for blogging
Blogging is to date an urban phenomenon in places like Sri Lanka. I don’t know of a single widely read vernacular blog (partly because the technology for entering text in the vernacular is still embryonic in Sri Lanka). If blogging engenders democratic dialogue, it needs to go to places outside of the cities. Micro-grants to a) urban promote blogs that get their content from the grassroots b) blogs that are based in the grassroots itself and promote voices of the community can be a useful way of capturing voices in support of peace. The emphasis here should be on blogs that promote a multiplicity of voices. Blogs that only have a single voice can often be seen to promote a biased or partisan view – care must be taken to ensure that blogs ensure diversity and gender participation.

Cheap digital cameras
There have already been several fascinating projects that have given cameras to kids, PLWHA (People Living with HIV / AIDS) and grassroots activists to capture their thoughts on the work they do in a format less invasive than a broadcast team visiting them on occasion. The idea is to capture the world they see as important around them along with thoughts on the challenges of peacebuilding. For instance, it would be fascinating to give digital cameras to members of a pilgrimage in Sri Lanka that has continued unabated through the years of violent conflict that sees people from the North walk by foot to a temple in the South. Their experiences are those that no media has captured – or can for that matter, given the logistical difficult of capturing a pilgrimage for so long through the most violent regions in Sri Lanka. Yet, these are valuable insights into the lives of communities living in conflict and have the faith to go on with their lives.

Digital media devices can help in this regards. With prices crashing for basic, entry level devices that can be ruggedized and given to the grassroots, these can become interesting ways to capture the lives of those actually at the frontlines of conflict.

Content can be, with the permission of the producers, uploaded to websites for public discussions, or stored on private discussion boards for use with the communities that local activists work with.

Projects can produce CD-ROMs based on the lives of an activist in conflict zones, an activist in an urban centre, a web based activist and a activist in the diaspora. Foundational material for such productions can come from the activists themselves – so that you capture what is most important for them through their eyes.

Children spring to mind as an important group you can use these technologies with. The pre-teen years are especially important – they are intelligent, street smart and have perspective on conflict. Care must be taken to use content sensitively – so expert in-country knowledge would be needed so as to ensure the safety of children who produce the content.

This said, projects can deal with human interest stories like the environment, resources, livelihoods that can obliquely touch upon the ravages of conflict and yet not endanger the lives of those who produce such content.

Oral histories
Conflict erases voices. Peace needs to preserve voices. Digital media offers unique ways through which voices that are important and most vulnerable, can be captured and promoted, so as to protect valuable ideas for social change even if their authors are killed.

Simple recording devices can be given to communities that then, according to guidelines collaboratively designed with the community, approach people in the community (keeping in mind gender, age, ethnic, economic, class, caste, religious diversity) and capture their voices that support peace.

The same can be done with specific target groups. In Sri Lanka, this may be the generation before 1983 (the year of the ethnic pogrom), the first NGO leaders, government servants during the British era, the post ’83 generation, women, youth and children. Oral histories can include video as well, on the lines of Conversations with History.

Children & Youth media houses
Children and youth from conflict zones can be encouraged to set up small media production houses. New technologies make such media houses cost far less than even a few years ago, with almost studio quality audio and video editing and recording available without huge investment in equipment. Youth media bring very different perspective to peace and conflict reporting as well as general programming. Children and youth have much more access to political leaders (both State and non-State) than do adults and can get away with asking some seemingly simple but precise questions that go to the heart of peacebuilding (“Mr. President, we think you’ve not lived up to your promise of making a better future for us. What do you have to say?”) that would not be countenanced by adult journalists.

Programmes would be targeted to youth, but the content should be applicable for a broader audience.

Training a youth journalists, armed with a digital camera and a mobile phone, who go to communities and capture information on processes that impact on their lives can be a powerful social change agent.

Also see Youth Radio for Peacebuilding handbook by Search for Common Ground available on the web.

Innovative websites
Let’s not discount websites altogether. Websites can be creative, lively and active instead of static and boring:

  1. Ask people to send in ideas for peace on pre-paid forms (through post) printed inside toothpaste, shampoo, soap, washing powder, milk power cartons and packages – which target females in households who may not necessarily otherwise engage in peace related dialogues. Scan or capture feedback and post it on website.
  2. A website that counts down to a million “voices” in support of peace – people call in to a toll-free hotline from any mobile or landline to answer a) what does peace mean to you b) how will you work towards strengthen that which you outlined in (a) – in three minutes or less.
  3. Projects such as This I believe
  4. Web 2.0 mash-ups that tell the narratives of those involved in peacebuilding through the use of Flickr photos, audio / podcasts, GIS (Google Maps), blogs, mobile video, MMS or SMS (like myspace.com, but geared for peacebuilding)
  5. Projects such as www.witness.org that use digital media to record human rights violations
  6. Mobile phone based “swarming” – the ability to get people together quickly to a spot for demonstrations and discussions / capture ideas for peace through mobiles (competitions for best 5 word idea for peace etc)

Any takers?

5 comments on “Building peace through ICT – Ideas for practical ICT4Peace projects

  1. Guy Ben-Ari
    October 24, 2006 at 3:36 pm #

    All excellent suggestions…we have been pushing this issue at CSIS for some time now, particulalry the “innovative websites” part of it. For more information on this, see our latest report: “Wikis, Webs and Networks” at http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/061018_pcr_creatingconnections.pdf
    Cheers,
    Guy.

  2. Lucy Ashken
    April 2, 2007 at 10:28 pm #

    Great ideas Sanjana, hopefully we’ll be able to make something of them soon…

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