Digital activism and the strategic use of new media in Sudan

This week, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published an ebook – Global Dimensions of Digital Activism – that is also the start of a project to examine and understand why and how activists campaigning for social change make use of digital tools. The book and project are led by Ethan Zuckerman and Lorrie LeJeune, the director and assistant director of the Centre, and I’ve had the privilege of contributing a chapter on digital activism in Sudan. Other case studies in the first release include in Russia, the Opposition Coordinating Committee in Russia and Light Up Nigeria.

Another book on digital activism? Here’s why you should read this one.

There’s no dearth of books and articles about digital activism – whether arguing the revolutionary power of digital tools or on the contrary attempting to demonstrate that digital activism is weak and inefficient. What I appreciate most about this project (and why I think you should read the book!) is that it goes beyond an artificially polar debate of cyber-utopians versus cyber-pessimists. The book engages with the complex reasons that lead activists to engage with digital tools, explores the risks they consider taking and tries to track the evolution of strategies and tactics over time. By putting the experience of digital activists around the world (not just in Taksim and Tahrir) at the forefront, the book provides a richer, deeper understanding of how digital activism plays out in social change movements. Ethan does a great job of explaining this approach in the introduction (and he also puts out a call for activists / supporters who are interested in writing additional case studies).

I initially had many reservations about writing a piece on Sudan. I’m not Sudanese, not an activist in the social movements I describe. My knowledge and access are the product of personal contact, professional interest and what technical support I could provide my friends. It was only through the kind persuasion of my friend Rodrigo Davies, and later Ethan and Lorrie that I agreed to write a piece. They suggested that telling the story of a place that is not often written about and where activists themselves have a limited ability to report was important. Their intuition was later confirmed by the people I interviewed (some anonymously), and by the reactions once it was published.

Sudanese activists: want a user guide not a research piece? Go to

So I’m glad to have told this story, and it’s a great way for an external audience to see into Sudan in a new way (it’s not all Darfur, oil and Muslim-Christian fighting, you see). But its use to Sudanese activists looking to use digital tools is limited, for two reasons. First, the chapter is in English and we currently do not plan on translating it to Arabic (although it is published under a Creative Commons license, so feel free). Second, the chapter provides an interesting retrospective look at what digital tools have and have not worked in Sudan social change actions, but it does not provide guidance or best practices tailored for Sudanese activists.

If you are looking for a more practical resource tailored to Sudan, make sure to visit

Sawtna_logo-EN_250px.fw_This online platform designed by and for Sudanese civil society activists explores strategies for using ICTs and social media for advocacy, campaigning, mobilization, dissemination of information, crowdsourcing and more. It combines information from global best practices and useful adaptations for the Sudanese context. And it is available in Arabic and English!

Posted in crowdsourcing, mapping, social media, Sudan | Leave a comment

Poem of the month: I want a lot (Rainer Maria Rilke)

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing
And are raised to the rank of prince
By the slippery ease of their light judgments
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
To dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.


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Designing for civic engagement and peace

I’ve been thinking recently about how tech-enabled peace initiatives can shift the balance of power and result in alternative infrastructures for peace. It seems to me that the proliferation of accessible technology tools makes it easier to innovate from the ground up. I don’t just mean build new platforms or apps, but also bring about social and organizational forms that enable small groups of local innovators to have a big impact on broad social problems. If that’s all sounding too abstract, let me introduce you to the innovators I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past week – and who are the start of an alternative infrastructure for peace in Cyprus and its region.

The mahallae challenge winners

UNDP recently ran an innovation challenge for civic engagement and peace. The winners are doing very different things – promoting the values of volunteerism (i-Vee), mentoring young people on employment and entrepreneurship (YuBiz), empowering women (WeMe), organizing participatory urbanism in a divided region (Hands on Famagusta), and using creative writing to bring communities together (The Sociaholic Typewriter). What holds them together as a group is that they are all challenging traditional ways of engaging people in civic issues, and in this challenge finding new paths to build peace. 

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The other common attribute of these projects is that using technology enables them to more effectively challenge the status quo – through new tools, alternative social forms or creative ways of organizing. New tools: i-Vee is using game mechanics to subtly promote the values of volunteerism. Alternative social forms: YuBiz leverages an online platform to enhance mentoring through online communications and a strong mentor-mentee matching algorithm. Creative organizing: Hands on Famagusta has brought together people in the physical space of Famagusta to map contested areas, and will continue to organize discussion online through an interactive website and a game on the imaginary Famagusta.

Grassroots design for grassroots solutions

What’s so appealing about these five teams is that they really are coming from the bottom up – understanding what people in their communities feel and need, and building from that. And if it’s all about grassroots solutions, then we figured we also need to be grassroots about the design process. This week, I ran a workshop that walked through a process of user-centered design. It was great to work with Rodrigo Davies on materials and exercises, and he shared the excellent approach taken in YoLab‘s Creative Industries Prototyping Lab in Lima that is reflected throughout this workshop.

At the start of the workshop, I introduced four things for the teams to bear in mind as they turn their idea into a product and project: put the user first, prototype and test, build and iterate, remember that your users are your story and understand outreach as community building. We then spent two days unpacking each of these concepts. Here are a few examples of what emerged.

WeMe understands its users by making them designers

One early exercise for the teams was to come up with user personas that would help them understand how users behave, within what social context and cultural environment, and with what technological availability. The teams would then keep these personas in mind throughout the design process.  But the WeMe team went beyond keeping user personas in mind during the workshop: the two team members working on prototypes were two potential mentees (future users of the WeMe platform). For two days, they designed what they would like to use – a critical input at this stage for the WeMe team.

YuBiz gets the best testers for its prototype

We did two rounds of rapid prototyping to get the teams used to getting down to concrete ideas early. Teams then paired up to test the prototypes on each other, with the aim to show how the project works in practice, simulate how a user might interact with it and get some feedback. YuBiz showed their first prototype to the two WeMe team members – two young women looking for jobs.  They got a stronger reaction than they perhaps expected, some push-back in critical areas and a view from just the kind of young people they are hoping to attract as users.

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i-Vee gets serious about iterating

Teams were encouraged to iterate fast through two rounds of prototyping – with the idea that this process of building and iterating should continue after the workshop. It’s a good way to spark creativity and avoid getting stuck early on. The i-Vee team had trouble prototyping initially. They had really dug into their theory of change, researched how games can change social behavior and understood what the offline component of their mobile game look like. But what would the game be exactly? What game mechanics would explore volunteering? We encouraged the team to just start drawing something… and once they started it was hard to stop them. Over the course of two days the game really evolved into a full concept, with complex mechanics and a great potential for expansion. I can’t wait to play!

The sociaholic typwriter really knows their users are their story

The final concept we used to guide the workshop was the most slippery. What does it really mean to say that your users are your story? Fortunately we had the sociaholic typewriter team to show us the way. This idea was born out of the personal creative relationship between the two team leads – and the story of their interaction very much guides their design as well as the future scenarios for the project. The users of the sociaholic typewriter are already the story of the project, and we learned from them that this is a great way to find new ways to do things.

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Hands on Famagusta understands outreach as community building

Towards the end of the workshop we talked about the importance of doing outreach – to partners, to critics and to users. We discussed different mediums for putting messages out and talked about the importance of storytelling. [We also had some fun pretending to pitch to Ban Ki Moon in an elevator, but that's a longer story.] The message that most resonated with the teams was to understand outreach as community building, and no team better than Hands on Famagusta to illustrate this. The team has already built a network of volunteers to help them map – block by block and in the sweltering heat – the entire city of Famagusta.

This community brings to life what Hands on Famagusta is trying to do: to disrupt a top-down decision-making process and force authorities to take into account views coming from the bottom up about how to handle a divided region. As my colleague Nilgun Arif explains, this type of grassroots disruption is common to all the mahallae concept winners. She believes (and I agree) that grassroots disruption is key to finding new paths to peace, especially in a context like Cyprus where top-down negotiations (alone) will never be enough to find a peaceful solution.

The mess of innovation

It’s been a fantastic, exhausting and *messy* few days – take a look at the video below for a taste of what it looked like. I can’t wait to see where these teams go and how they continue to contribute to a new way of building civic engagement and peace.

Posted in Cyprus, games, UNDP | 2 Comments

Alternative infrastructures for peace

[This blogpost was originally published in Insight on Conflict.]

This week, the Coalition Centre for Thai Violence Watch (CCTVW) is busy aggregating reports sent in from the streets of Bangkok to calculate a weighted index of violence risk, which will be published on their website and Facebook pages twice a day. The violence watch system is already very smart, and next week I’ll be joining a developer from Elva (a Georgian tech start-up) to work with the CCTVW team to make their processes and tools even more efficient. Every time I do work like this, bringing technology tools to local peacebuilders, I am reminded that highlighting this area of peacebuilding work was the impetus behind the Build Peace conference.

Rodrigo Davies, Jen Welch, Michaela Ledesma and I set up Build Peace to bring together practitioners, activists and technologists from around the world to share their experience and ideas on using technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. The conference had four broad lines of inquiry, each representing a function technology can play in peacebuilding: information, communications, gaming and networking. You can read more about how we came up with these four areas here and read a look-back on Build Peace 2014 here.

Alternative infrastructures for peace

The variety and depth of experience shared at the conference demonstrated that technology use is on the rise in local peacebuilding. That alone was inspiring, and generated enough interest that we will be organizing another conference next year. But perhaps more important is the over-arching narrative that these disparate experiences share: we are beginning to see alternative infrastructures for peace emerging that are (to a large extent) the product of tech-enabled initiatives.

In particular, I think there are three alternative infrastructures that point to the future of peacebuilding at the local level. First, digital media tools provide new, creative ways for local peacebuilders to foster alternative discourses and challenge prevailing conflict narratives. These new visions can often compete with existing visions by being bolder and engaging more closely with their audience. Second, networking platforms provide new opportunities for local peacebuilders to foster positive contact between conflict groups, building digital trust networks. Third, online and mobile tools give power to local peacebuilders to counteract calls for violence and make peace viral.

Making space for new visions

Digital media offers tools for collaborative media creation and dissemination: social media, blogs, wikis, citizen journalism, participatory maps, etc. Local peacebuilders are using these tools to bring new voices to the public domain. In Lebanon, Search For Common Ground ran a video competition that asked Lebanese youth to ‘Shoot [their] Identity’. Videos showcasing a diversity of experiences were posted online, with a prize awarded to the best video. In Israel, the Peace Factory runs viral campaigns on Facebook that encourage people to post messages of love and friendship across conflict barriers (Israel-Iran, Palestine-Israel, Pakistan-Israel, America-Iran, etc). In Sri Lanka, Groundviews is a website for citizen-journalists to offer alternative perspectives on governance, human rights, peace building and other issues. The site is credited with being the only source for controversial topics linked to the conflict and the only media outlet regularly challenging attitudes towards peace and conflict.

Creating digital trust networks

Online and SMS platforms can be used not just to transmit messages instantly, but also to form longer term relationships and regular exchanges (that may remain digitally-focused, or spill over into offline, in-person interactions). Local peacebuilders are using groups on social media, mobile chat rooms and dedicated networking platforms to nurture exchanges between groups that are divided by conflict lines. Soliya’s Connect Programis an online cross-cultural education program targeting young people in the West and in “predominantly Muslim societies.” Soliya facilitators accompany groups of ten students who meet online to talk about everyday life and culture, but also about controversial social and political issues. Run by the Parents Circle – Families Forum, Crack in the Wall is an online platform for conversation and engagement between families who have lost a family member as a result of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The platform organizes “Round Tables” for facilitated (and translated) conversation and also gives users the opportunity to watch videos uploaded by others showing their daily life, and to upload their own. In Cyprus, UNDP has built an online community of people and organizations working to transform the island’s frozen conflict. Mahallae records the history of peacebuilding and provides a space for collaboration on innovative projects.

Counteracting calls for violence

Too often, technology tools are used to actively solicit and organize violent actions. Violent groups are known to recruit using social media. Calls to violent action spread fastest over mobile phones and the internet. Local peacebuilders are using the same tools as violent groups to counter negative campaigns by mobilizing collective expression of positive messaging. Kenyan NGO Sisi Ni Amani runs the PeaceTXT program, which aims to contact people in at-risk areas in order to propose a moment of reflection at critical times when calls to violence are spreading. Community informers identify such critical times and report to the Sisi Ni Amani team, who then consider whether a targeted SMS could interrupt escalation. In the aftermath of the London 2011 riots, vInspired ran the ReverseRiots campaign. The campaign provided a digital space for young people to share a positive action they had taken in their community, allowing them to take pride in positive behaviour and showing others in the community that not all youth were rioters. HarassMap is an SMS reporting system for women experiencing sexual harassment in Egypt. It is helping women reclaim spaces and counteract sexist messages that spread easily on social media.

From technology, to civic engagement, to peace

Powerful technology tools are increasing in the hands of local peacebuilders, and this is resulting in a proliferation of innovative initiatives. But does this collection of technology for peace initiatives really constitute an alternative infrastructure for peace, comparable to larger, better resourced and more traditional peacebuilding institutions? Daniel Kreiss describes socio-technical infrastructures as “the technical artefacts, organizational forms, and social practices that provide background contexts for action.” As a technical infrastructure, technology for peace is a series of tools that allow local peacebuilders to communicate with more people in more ways, collect better information and sustain relationships on digital platforms. As an organizational infrastructure, it is a means by which communities build new participatory processes, foster deeper collaborations and assume collective responsibility for building peace. As a social infrastructure, it circulates ideas and creates consensus about the importance of civic, grassroots engagement in peacebuilding.

What’s really interesting about tech-enabled peacebuilding initiatives is that they shift the balance of power. Thanks to these tools and the social and organizational forms they help create, local peacebuilders are now better equipped to challenge state-sanctioned or socially normative narratives and notions of identity. Technology can shape the future of local peacebuilding. The Build Peace team has set up a small organization – Build Up – that will focus on supporting the emergence of these alternative infrastructures.

As we look into the future, there is one question that I’m still wondering about. How will these alternative infrastructures work with more traditional infrastructures for peace? Or as my colleague Rodrigo likes to ask: can an alternative method of getting something done not only get it done, but also exert influence on an existing (sometimes broken) method?

Posted in build peace | 2 Comments

Poem of the month: A Conceit (Maya Angelou)

Give me your hand

Make room for me
to lead and follow
beyond this rage of poetry.

Let others have
the privacy of
touching words
and love of loss
of love.

For me
Give me your hand.

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A digital neighborhood coming to life in Cyprus

A while ago, I wrote about how UNDP in Cyprus is trying to generate new ideas to promote civic engagement, social cohesion and peace. In a nutshell, UNDP Cyprus has been running three competitions in parallel that challenge Cypriots to come up with new ideas to use technology creatively to (i) support youth entrepreneurs from different groups to work together; (ii) develop common visions of the future, and (iii) give voice to the views of women about what it takes to build a peaceful and inclusive society.

The challenges have just entered their final stage. Until June 12, you can look at the 14 shortlisted concepts that are now competing for a cash prize from UNDP. You can also leave them comments, offer resources and endorse them. Here’s a quick run-through of the shortlisted concepts:

  • Socialholic Typewriter: A platform bringing together writers and artists from different communities to collaboratively tell stories.
  • Mused: A platform to help youth interested in digital storytelling find the right partners for project collaboration, creating community through synergies.
  • Learning Greek with Hasan Tuna: A Greek language course-program that will be produced and broadcasted via TV, satellite and mobile apps, making language learning more accessible and contributing to a culture of peace on the island.
  • STEP: An online platform to help match students with organisations and companies from Cyprus, allowing them to get real life work experience during their studies.
  • I vee: A mobile game to promote a culture of volunteerism and help young people become positive social activists.
  • YuBiz: A new, web-based ecosystem geared to help young entrepreneurs cooperate and kick start their professional career.
  • Skills Market: An app to help young people share and exchange skills and develop their employment prospects.
  • Stars Club: An online platform to help raise funds for civil society organizations by providing donors with club membership rewards.
  • E.A.T: (Environment, Aquaponics, Technology) aims to offer young entrepreneurs in Cyprus a unique, hands-on opportunity to learn how to build, operate and manage a sustainable Aquaponic farm business, producing organic food and fresh fish.
  • WE-ME WomenPower : A community platform that aims to link women mentors and mentees together to build networks and nurture skills development
  • Hands on Famagusta:  An interactive hybrid platform to engage people in developing a future vision for Famagusta.
  • Pathways to Peaceful Coexistence: An online consensus-building platform to help people from all communities in Cyprus explore the key elements of building a common vision for a unified Cyprus.
  • Neighbour to Neighbour: A virtual neighbourhood that aims to facilitate information sharing between all communities in Cyprus.
  • Tag and fix: A Smartphone application that helps people to improve their neighbourhoods collectively.
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Looking back on Build Peace 2014

[This blogpost is cross-posted from the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.]

Participants at Build Peace 2014

Participants at Build Peace 2014

Last week in Nairobi, a group of Somalis sat in a room trying to figure out how to make the most convincing infographic. They have been working for the past 15 years to build the trust and dialogue necessary to make democracy in the Somali region a viable alternative to violence. Recently, they’ve been using a combination of new tech-enabled tools to run participatory polls and visualize perceptions data in new ways. My colleague Michaela and I were there, helping them to navigate these new tools – and we were reminded yet again of why, together with Rodrigo and Jen, we decided to put on the Build Peace conference.

Build Peace 2014 explored how information and communications technologies, games, networking platforms and other tools can enhance the impact of a broad range of peacebuilding, social cohesion and peace advocacy initiatives. Most discussions on technology and peace focus on early warning and crisis response. Few pay attention to the use of technology for attitude and behavior change, collaboration, dialogue, or policy advocacy. Build Peace aimed to complement existing forums by expanding the discussion to encompass other important areas of peacebuilding practice, and to do so by drawing both on the expertise of academics and technologists and on the lived experience of practitioners working to transform conflict.

From the start, we wanted to organize the conversation in a way that would allow several parallel narratives on technology and peacebuilding to emerge. With this in mind, the conference had four broad lines of inquiry, each representing a function technology can play in peacebuilding: information, communications, gaming and networking. For many practitioners, practical considerations about how to integrate technology into programming are critical, so we also structured some discussions around the three stages of peacebuilding programming: conflict analysis, program design and impact evaluation. Finally, we recognized early on that many conference participants would have great experiences and ideas to share, far beyond what we could envision as organizers. The conference had open spaces in a variety of formats – short “ignite” talks, longer working sessions and a technology fair – to showcase this collective knowledge. You can read about what we learned as organizers in Rodrigo’s post.

The Start of a Community

We put a lot of thought into the structure of conference sessions, but it’s the quality of participant engagement that really made Build Peace a special event. We were blown away at the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience. Conversations ranged from measuring polarization, to capturing voices from the Rwanda tribunal; from hacking the border in the Dominican Republic to designing the constitution in Egypt; from teaching activist power in a video game, to building peace villages on Minecraft. We were humbled by the candid approach of practitioners, academics and technologists alike. When I opened the conference, I asked people to be tough on ideas, but gentle on people. It really felt like people headed this call, and created a space that allowed for honesty and creativity to flourish. As Sanjana Hattatowa of the ICT4Peace Foundation put it: “Over the weekend, you managed to create the space for structured dialogue, but also the kind of interactions and sharing that you’ll never even know of, leave aside capture the value of, but happened nevertheless between so many of those who attended.”

Build Peace 2014 was the start of a conversation and of a community. It was also the start of a small organization – Build Up – made up of the conference organizing team. Through Build Up, we’ll be pursuing a variety of projects to continue this conversation and support this community. The most developed to date is the Build Peace database, which aims to document uses of information, communications, networking and gaming technologies in peacebuilding programs around the world. We hope it will not only be a useful research tool, but will also continue to reflect the diversity of the Build Peace community.

Three Key Conversation Threads

There are also a few new trends or conversation threads that emerged during the conference that we’re particularly interested in exploring. Here are three of them.

Power, intervention and technology. Despite our attention to diversity in speakers and participants, some of the power dynamics of international conferences still played out at Build Peace. Too often, the North speaks and the South listens. From the start, we noticed many of our participants calling out this dynamic, rightly complaining about the “us-them” language. A debate on how to reverse this raged through the conference twitter feed. Both Sanjana Hattotuwa and Ethan Zuckerman referenced this issue in their keynotes (which you can watch here and here). Next year, we hope to have more scholarships and to create a space where we can unpack this issue explicitly. But we also want to do something to get many more voices into a dialogue about how to build peace, particularly voices that have a hard time being heard. This is why we are partnering with the Institute for the Future to explore ways we can facilitate mass online and offline conversations about the future of peacebuilding. We’ll be running a pilot game some time this year.

Creativity, art and peace. As we put together the conference program, we realised many of the projects and ideas showcased related to art and creativity. It’s a natural connection. One of the reasons that peacebuilders turn to technology is that digital spaces can allow for new narratives to emerge and new identities to be explored. This kind of creativity is central to arts for peace projects, which use various artistic tools to to deliver small, transcendent moments to people who live in conflict. As we prepare for next year, we’re hoping to reach out to more artists to curate and promote projects that bring together arts, technology and peace.

Evaluation, data and impact. One of the conversations that generated most interest started with a panel that explored how practitioners can assess the impact that technology is having on peacebuilding, and how technology can be leveraged to facilitate impact assessments. The discussion continued through a working session that explored a number of methodologies that might help us run better evaluations – from double-loop learning to process tracing. This blogpost by Jonathan Stray summarizes the working session. We hope evaluation will be a key theme at Build Peace 2015. In the mean time, we’re partnering with Susanna Campbell, Mike Findley and (hopefully) a large international organization to run a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of crowdsourcing as a tool for monitoring peace agreements and peacebuilding activities.

We’re greatly indebted to all the participants and sponsors who made Build Peace possible and gave us the opportunity to experiment with the design of the event in these ways, particularly the Center for Civic Media. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and we look forward to doing it all over again next year. We’ll be thinking of ways to further expand and deepen this conversation – and we’d love to hear your ideas on this.

Posted in build peace | 4 Comments