Technology connects people, objects and data more than ever before. We can see live traffic data on a smartphone map and we can hail a taxi to our exact location using an app – and we don’t even consider it remarkable.
There are heart-stopping, gratitude-soaked moments we do notice these connections however – in times of crisis.
In the phone line-jammed hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, Google’s People Finder was a lifeline for worried relatives and friends. After China’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan, one of the key services of disaster relief units was mobile phone charging stations. After a natural disaster, Google’s Crisis Response Unit facilitates other response agencies to share alerts on Google’s platforms.
They all prove that technology is a reactionary tool in times of disaster and crisis; we use it to inform, help and understand.
Now a new study released by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) goes much further.
They claim that the latest communication technology could be used to prevent conflict, violence and man-made crisis. Threats of unrest or conflict can actually dissipate when handled with the right technology locally and in real-time.
Consider the tools at hand. There’s the explosion of data available from mobile phones, social media, crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, blogging and big data. Add to that increasing global interconnectivity and the growing penetration rate of mobile phones (particularly in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa), and what you have is quite startling potential.
Harness these technologies in the right way, and you have a method to forestall crises, and address the root causes of violence.
UNDP has the case studies to prove this is already happening.
In Kenya, deadly post-election violence in 2007 led to grave concern around this year’s elections in March. But a toll-free SMS service gave citizens a simple way of reporting perceived threats to a message hub. The local reports were then analysed centrally so police and other responders could make informed decisions on where they were needed. Combined with the Uchaguzi crowdmapping site, the result was a relatively peaceful election day.
As technology advances and mobile penetration continues, similar success stories will multiply.
These systems bridge the gulf between warning and response, and better yet – it’s empowering for individuals to feel they can protect their community.
Three app creators from Nigeria already know this – and have a Mobile World Summit Award to prove it. iPolice is a community policing platform that lets citizens connect with security agencies to report crimes and provide valuable information via their mobile phones. It’s essentially Neighbourhood Watch gone mobile, but it allows police to follow and analyse security and crime trends. They can identify crime black spots to avoid, and warn users of growing crime trends.
Of course technology isn’t always used for good, which the UNDP concedes. It can be harnessed to incite conflict too, as we saw with the London riots.
Now that we know citizens can use technology to work with NGOs, police and responders to protect their community, it makes the case for digital literacy even more urgent.
Just like Twitter evolved into an ecosystem of real time news when needed, we’re excited about a new application for technology: an ecosystem of conflict prevention.