Earlier this week I shared my reaction to what I see as Theresa May’s mistaken belief that technology companies can be held at least partially accountable for terrorist acts. One reader asked me whether I agreed that technology companies should be held accountable for improving the world or doing good. Inevitably he referenced Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan.
I have no wish to sound starry eyed here but – why not? Why shouldn’t technology with its ability to connect people and to share information in real time be a force for good? If technology is ultimately a tool humanity develops and controls then why shouldn’t it be used in the pursuit of the benefit of mankind above and beyond selfies, profits and faster data access?
Many of you will have read the article on peacetech in the FT recently. Peacetech is an emerging focus on using technology to help build peace. And as cynical as I am, it is really rather wonderful. There are a number of organisations working in this space, not least of which is PeaceTech Lab, an independent non-profit organisation that claims to work for individuals and communities affected by conflict, using technology, media and data to accelerate local peacebuilding efforts.
PeaceTech Lab, like other players in the space, focuses on the strategic use of technology to create opportunities to promote and build peace. One example of this is Junub Games, a start-up peacetech developer supported by the PeaceTech Accelerator (which describes itself as the first major international peacetech programme, powered by cloud innovation and dedicated to scaling start-ups around the world and supported by C5 Capital Limited, Amazon Web Services, and PeaceTech Lab).
Junub Games is tackling the issue of hate speak and violence through gamification. Lual Mayen, a game developer from Juba in South Sudan develops games that are designed to promote peace in a country suffering from desperate ethic violence. Mayen’s hope is his game Salaam will appeal to the country’s young population (two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30) by using games to combat the lack of education and hatred that is tearing the country apart. Salaam, which means peace, challenges players to act as one of the warring parties but rewards them for peaceful actions such as destroying weapons rather than for acts of violence.
In a similar vein Games for Peace brings together tens of thousands of children from across the Middle East to interact with one another, regardless of religion, sect or nationality in the common realm of online games. The initiative gives young adults the chance to communicate and collaborate with people they may never have the chance of meeting in real life, in the hope that such exposure breaks down some of the prejudices that can hinder peace in the region. Those players that demonstrate the greatest willingness to trust and co-operate are brought together at the end of the programme for a real-life gaming event – again rewarding positive online behaviour rather than the negative.
It is now a fact of modern life that Wi-Fi connection feels almost as essential as the air we breathe but in reality few of us have need of instant information in the way that millions of refugees do. They need access to information in their native language that allow them to make life changing decisions – whether the weather is going to hold for that boat crossing, or how or where to cross a border or simply how to go about setting up a new life in a land where they don’t speak the language. Tarjimly is a chat bot for Facebook Messenger, designed by three young students at MIT, which connects refugees with volunteer translators from across the world.
The difference that makes to people in some of the most impossibly difficult situations of their lives is immeasurable. It gives refugees information and control – two things that are hard to come by in times of conflict.
App developers, technologists and software engineers are beginning to make a difference to the world in new ways. Is it too much to hope that these small steps are just the first steps in ensuring that the Internet and technology really do make a difference to people’s lives in the most meaningful way possible?