Grant Tudor

The PeaceTXT Proposition: Stopping violence with an SMS

Anti-violence campaigns feel familiar. They usually take the form of public awareness initiatives, pleading to the public with billboards like this and distressing readers with magazine ads like this.

It’s difficult though to imagine an armed young man in the heat of a confrontation pausing to remember that billboard he saw out of the corner of his eye while driving down the highway. Violence isn’t quite like shopping, where a magazine ad might pique your interest and neurologically store away for safe keeping until you reach the store.

Interrupting violence calls for behavior change communication techniques for which most channels aren’t designed. It’s a hard advertising sell. It requires reaching a precise audience at an exact time with a finely targeted message. Until recently – say, until the mobile phone – that type of exactness and influence was elusive.

Enter PeaceTXT: a global mash-up of social innovators, software designers and information technologists (to name a few) collaborating on mobile technology’s potential to prevent violence. The collaboration, spearheaded by PopTech, is aiming to create the first broadly available tested methodologies and technical platforms for using mobile phones to disrupt violence and engender more peaceful communities.

The initiative doesn’t have much precedent, largely because the intersection of mobile technology and peace building is a new one. Nor does the approach: bringing field partners into the fold, supporting their work, and assiduously studying and testing their methodologies and impacts.

Sisi ni Amani Kenya (previously profiled by NextBillion here), a key field partner informing PeaceTXT’s development, deploys mobile communications targeted at different audiences all key to the progression of violence: gossiping street vendors, community influencers, anxious young men and so on. When, say, a dangerous rumor begins to spread with the potential for sparking violence, SNA-K deploys customized SMS informed by primary behavioral research to interrupt its evolution.

With over 30,000 Kenyans now signed up for the SNA-K service, what is an organization like SNA-K doing well? What does a behavior change model that produces influential SMS look like? What technical platforms work best? How do we soundly measure the correlation between mobile communications and violence prevention?

To help answer those questions and build out the PeaceTXT platform, PopTech has facilitated an unconventional collaboration that spans wide across disciplines and deep into specialized expertise. Cure Violence, a Chicago-based non-profit that’s pioneering the use of disease control strategies to reduce violence; Medic Mobile, an enterprise using mobile phones to close communication gaps in healthcare; Ushahidi, a crowdsourced crisis information mapping service; the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) of the Qatar Foundation, an applied computing research initiative; and the Praekelt Foundation, an African mobile technology consultancy, all have a seat at the table.

According to Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at QCRI and a PeaceTXT contributor, mobile in this space is something altogether different than any other tool we’ve had. “The real-time dissemination of information, for example, via SMS… presents new opportunities for violence prevention that have not yet been fully explored,” he explained to me. “Hence the interest in PeaceTXT.”

And so explore it how? The type of cross-disciplinary approach on display with PeaceTXT confronts that perennial problem in the social sector: there are a lot of folks with a lot of expertise that can be brought to bear on a single idea; but artificial industry boundaries thwart intermingling. Despite the advent of ‘collaborative innovation’, its not all that common to find a methodology for addressing a pressing social problem devised by a group like the one described above.

While the idea itself is compelling, the initiative should spark interest not just from those curious about violence prevention 2.0, but from practitioners everywhere who might benefit from skills, experiences and perspectives beyond their own.

Impact Assessment, Technology, Telecommunications