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Worldwide #peacehack hackathons use technology to promote peace

A number of simultaneous hackathons have been held across the globe to promote the use of technology to encourage peace

Hackathons dubbed #peacehack have been staged in four cities to encourage the use of technology for promoting peace.

Run by International Alert, the hackathons held simultaneously in London, Beirut, Washington DC and Barcelona during September 2015 were designed to act as an outlet for people with digital skills to use technology for good.

Dan Marsh, who joined International Alert as head of technology in 2013, explained how a small London-based hackathon in 2014 led to the team pursing bigger and better ideas the following year.

Rather than a general hackathon, the 2015 worldwide hackathons focused on specific subject areas to target a problem each city has.

“We were more focused this time on the problem statements we faced. We took a look at the issues that were happening in each of those cities,” said Marsh.

“We started to think about technologies that could solve some of the problems in the particular context we were talking about.”

In London and Washington DC, the subject area the hackers had to tackle was countering violent extremism. Hackers in Beirut and Barcelona were tasked with developing technological systems to deal with the refugee crisis.

The hackathons took place with the help of associated partners – Build Up in Barcelona, Creative Associates international in Washington and Chayn in Beirut.

Technology as a power for good

Participants in the hackathon explained that when the subject matter is something you care about, you become more creative at finding ways to solve the problem.

Marsh said many technologists attended the event because they wanted to help peace-building causes, but were not sure how, and could only offer their experience with technology as a tool.

“It’s just an outlet for people who are using technology in their day-to-day lives to use it as a power for good,” said Marsh.

The London hackathon hosted around 40 participants, with more than 200 technologists and peace practitioners involved across all of the events.

“The one thing that’s interesting with peacehacks is that we have to try to teach people about the peace-building context to start with. That got the participants thinking about some of the relevant technology they can use,” said Marsh.

The two joint winners of the London branch of peacehacks each built community platforms for individuals with little access to like-minded people or wider communities.

One team did this through the development of a Tinder-style application allowing marginalised members of society to connect to others in their community. The other team created an online platform to allow people to take part in events near them to fuel community engagement.

The teams will work together to combine their ideas and create a joint project. They also won a place on the next hackathon and tickets to the Build Peace event.

Community collaboration

“Young people who don’t have access to good support networks or might not have jobs or interests – they’re the people who can become vulnerable to violent extremism,” said Marsh.

“We’re trying to build communities so people have a safe space to discuss difficult issues and can meet like-minded individuals or individuals in their community.”

Marsh explained many of the participants used real-life experiences as the inspiration for their projects, often to prevent the same experiences from happening to other people.

“This is a way they can engage and make a real difference,” he said.

After the event, the code for all of the systems contributed is opened sourced and stored in a Github repository so people can collaborate and work on building what has already been done to continue to build peace.

Two more peacehacks will take place before the end of 2015 in Colombia and Northern Ireland. In 2016, Marsh hopes the event will scale to 30 cities worldwide.

“We’re using these hackathons to come up with ideas or even repurpose old ideas to help us with our peace-building work around the globe,” he said.

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