'Peace Technologies' Merge Data, Mapping and Human Rights

An article on the emerging field of “peace technologies” features the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project along with Ushahidi and other efforts.
Example of intense, localized destruction in Aleppo, Syria, between 15 December 2012 (left) and 24 February 2013. AAAS/©2013 DigitalGlobe, ©2013 Astrium

In an article that reflects a growing synergy between computing and human rights, the magazine of a leading computing association has named the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project as one of several important efforts in the field of "peace technologies."

The use of information and communication technologies in response to humanitarian crises is flourishing, according to an article by Paul Hyman in the January 2014 Communications of the ACM, the flagship journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. The leading platform in this arena is Ushahidi, which enables people to share instant reports of violent incidents -- via video, audio, photos, texts, SMS, emails, Twitter, and Web forms -- and to visualize them on a real-time, online map.

Ushahidi, whose name is the Swahili word for "testimony," was created by Kenyan bloggers and software engineers in response to election-related violence in Kenya in 2007. The platform rose to prominence immediately after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when its crisis maps, created by a team of students in Boston with help from local members of the Haitian diaspora, guided rescue workers to sites where cries for help had been reported.

The Ushahidi platform has been used for crisis response in Haiti, Pakistan, Chile, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, the U.S., and elsewhere, and for civil society actions having to do with the environment, harassment, and anti-corruption, Hyman reports. It has been lauded by many prominent figures, including Megan Smith of Google[x], who spoke at AAAS about emerging technologies and STEM education, and Hillary Clinton.

A variety of other projects also allow users to share and map location-related information, and the data don't always have to be collected on the ground. The AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, part of the association's Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, has analyzed high-resolution satellite images to document events in Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, South Ossetia, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe and many other regions.

In their latest analysis related to the conflict in Syria, for example, the AAAS team analyzed a series of satellite images taken over a ten-month period ending in May 2013, and determined that damage to buildings and infrastructure in the city of Aleppo had steadily increased during that time. Virtually all of the destruction appeared to be in rebel-controlled or contested areas, and a substantial amount was in Aleppo's Ancient City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

"Ours is just one of the many ways that peace technologies are entering into the work of human rights groups, the others being early warning systems, databases, the use of disruptive technologies for communications, disaster response, Internet privacy mechanisms, and so on," project director Susan Wolfinbarger told Communications of the ACM.

Wolfinbarger was pleased to see the AAAS project featured in the magazine, whose readership includes the 100,000-plus members of the Association for Computing Machinery. "The ACM is well-known in tech fields in general, whereas we primarily communicate with the geography and human rights communities. I hope the story will get a broader tech audience to think about human rights, humanitarian response, and peace technologies," she said.