We’ve finally had a moment to collect our thoughts after a stimulating weekend in Cyprus at the Build Peace 2015 conference. We were blown away by the enthusiasm of conference participants and the wealth of expertise and ideas being shared! We were also left with a number of burning questions…

Where are all the programmers?

Many conference participants highlighted similar challenges to using technology in peacebuilding. Some of these include needing to decide between targeting “low-level” versus “high-level” technology (e.g., feature vs. smartphones), how to process and manage large quantities of data and avoid fragmentation and how to seamlessly reach all of the different devices out there.

Some of these challenges can be addressed by utilizing open technologies like Firefox OS and proven solutions to process big data that are already successful in the private sector. Governments and organizations around the world are discovering the benefits of using open data and are developing insights on how to use this data for good. We believe open data should be ubiquitous in peace tech, so that organizations around the world can build on it. Also, the Internet of Things is making a big splash in the tech scene, and—although it is still in its infancy—we believe that it could contribute meaningfully to peacebuilding in the near future.

Our Build Peace discussions would have benefited enormously from the input of engineers and programmers that have experience designing and implementing these kind of systems. There wasn’t a large presence of technologists or programmers at Build Peace to provide input on these and other challenges. Incentivizing them to become integral members of the peace tech community will be an important next step, followed by targeted technical discussions on potential solutions.

What are our ethical guidelines?

There was an overwhelming consensus about a need for the ethical application of technology in our peacebuilding work. Participants all seemed to agree that “do no harm” should be a central tenet of this field. However, more discussion is needed on what exactly that means and how exactly that plays out in practice. We need to delve into creating and applying ethical guidelines in practice. It is critical that these guidelines, like our projects, are scalable and do not become diluted as tech projects are adopted and adapted in various (post-)conflict situations.

This is especially true given the discussion about the creation of a peace tech industry that relies on private companies (see a debate about this here). There are important ethical implications of monetizing peacebuilding work through private companies, including the collection of personal data as users come online in post-conflict countries. One very significant risk is that post-conflict communities will pay for the technology with their data – after all, there has to be a profit incentive somewhere. How these companies then use that data may not be regulated or may be used in ways that are ethically dubious. Current laws and corporate social responsibility guidelines may need to be updated to take ethical and legal considerations into account.

What about security?

Working in post-conflict situations always involves security risks, as does the widespread use of information technology. Systems can be hacked, users can be targeted (by governments or others), and information can be used by spoilers to foment unrest and violence. As a community, security should be a primary consideration in developing peacebuilding programs that utilize technology. How can we best ensure that our tech tools are secure? What steps do we need to take to ensure that our tools are used securely, and how do we deal with the possible exploitation of our tools by peace spoilers? We should work to develop a set of good practices for working securely in this field.

What do we do about changing regulatory frameworks?

Finally, how do peacebuilders ensure that their work does not violate laws or regulatory frameworks? As technology changes and expands, so do the laws and regulatory frameworks that govern their use. These include changes to criminal laws, laws governing freedom of expression, website registration requirements, laws restricting encryption, laws restricting anonymization tools and many others.

Moreover, technology is increasingly being used by courts and prosecutors in investigations and trials–sometimes limiting the potential for peacebuilding. For example, as peacebuilders turn to technology, repressive states in turn cite that technology use as evidence of criminal activity.

How can peacebuilders ensure that their tech tools do not violate these legal and regulatory frameworks? How do we as a community help shape frameworks to promote openness and security? A peacebuilder working across jurisdictions will need to account for multiple legal systems and potential risks. Those of us designing programs with users across the globe will also need to ensure that our users understand the legal implications of their work. That doesn’t mean just signing an informed consent form, but really helping users understand the legal framework that governs technology use in their country and how they can best protect themselves.

Moving forward

As we move forward with our projects as a community, reflection on these issues will be critical. They are fundamental to a sustainable peace tech industry (whether “private,” “public,” or somewhere in between).

JustPeace Labs hopes to drive discussion and thought on these questions and challenges. We are building relationships with programmers who can help solve some technological challenges by using the latest advances in computer science. We are currently working on a white paper addressing the issue of CSR, ethics and peace tech. We are also engaged in research on regulatory frameworks and relevant laws.