New ways of using mobile phones and the rollout of innovative social media tools now find themselves at the centre of attempts to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities.

Startup Community Moves into Action to Support Atrocity and Disaster Victims

How can new technologies and innovations help to prevent large-scale atrocities such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and warzone rape? This is the challenge which the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention has set out to meet. The two organisations running the challenge, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Humanity United, recently announced the winners of sub-challenges entitled Communicate and Alert. Mobile phone technologies and social networks are at the forefront of promising solutions for saving lives in major conflict situations.

Communicating via mobile without network coverage

Some 3.6 billion mobile device owners live in developing countries and use their telephones mainly for voice calls. The Serval project, which took first prize in the ‘Communicate’ section, provides mobile phone software that enables the device to operate even in the face of catastrophic infrastructure failure, where cellular networks are no longer available. A free app, named Serval Mesh, which runs on Android devices, links phones which are in close physical proximity to each other by using the wifi capability inside the device itself. This creates what is known as a ‘mesh’ network, in which each device acts as a relay to transmit data to any other correspondent. This approach enables users to make encrypted calls, send secure messages and even share maps, videos and files.

Where mobile meets social media

Social media are not being eclipsed either. Communication over social networks played a central role during the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings but what happens when people can no longer access the Internet? Inspired by the Speak to Tweet service developed by Twitter during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, several of the competition winners have designed social networks based on mobile devices. One example from the ‘Alert’ sub-challenge is ‘People's Radio’, a hub for spoken tweets recorded by people directly from their mobiles. The aim is to enable people to keep neighbouring communities informed about what is going on. In the same vein, IVR Junction, one of the ‘Communicate’ sub-challenge winners, is an open-source, voice-based tool that allows people to record and listen to social media posts via mobile phone. Yet another winner, CrisisTracker (‘Alert’), aims to help detect new conflicts quickly by filtering through and grouping millions of social media updates in real time.