The plague of “fake news” may be news to Facebook (FB), but it’s a familiar foe to a small non-profit in Washington that’s trying to use mobile apps, big data and social media to promote peace and accountability in places like Iraq, Kenya and Mexico where those technologies have often been abused to spread lies and hate.
That experience has given the PeaceTech Lab some expertise that social networks and other business with footprints outside the U.S. might want to borrow. And with a little funding help from Amazon, it hopes those businesses find some of the group’s insights valuable enough to pay for.
The PeaceTech Lab aims to develop “technology that can be applied to tackle the triggers of violence,” president and CEO Sheldon Himelfarb said in an interview at the lab’s Washington headquarters at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
In practice, that means projects that rely on finding local coders and activists to back — and which don’t assume that they all carry the latest smartphones. As Himelfarb put it: “How do you enable local communities to use low-cost technology to promote accountability?”
In Iraq, it supported the development of an online map that displays and categorizes attacks on journalists and activists. In Mexico, the lab worked with reporter Jorge Luis Sierra to develop an app that assesses the risks journalists face and offers security advice. And in Kenya, the organization partnered with the startup Ushahidi to provide a fact-checking service via text messaging.
Reviews, however, have varied.
Ben Larned, development and communication coordinator with the Washington-based Iraq Foundation, called the lab’s work to map freedom-of-expression violations “a very successful project,” and credited PeaceTech staffers as “passionate activists and pioneers in utilizing technology to improve civil society in Iraq.”
But an expert on threats to journalists was not so impressed with the output of the lab’s attempts to keep reporters safe. “None of the information I was given on a few simulated run-throughs was particularly tailored, specific or actionable,” said Tom Lowenthal, staff technologist at the Committee to Protect Journalists.”
Meanwhile, back in D.C. the lab builds various analytical tools to track conflict. For example, it developed a map with the cartographical-data…