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How to change the world

Nicholas van Praag's picture

     Violence reporting tool

Can new communications technologies change the way we change the world? That’s the big question.  Last week I got some clues from an international crowd of peace campaigners and social activists who have used digital communications to great effect. 

They were meeting in London under the banner of the Alliance for Youth Movements, a US NGO umbrella group. The focus was on new media as a game-changer in dealing with today’s morphing, metastasizing forms of conflict.

This is a trend we are tracking in the World Development Report 2011 which looks at conflict, violence and development.  I was in London with Carol Pineau, the curator of Conflict Convo—an initiative we are launching to revolutionize the feedback loop from people living in conflict zones.

After two-days of fascinating conversations, this is my checklist of what a would-be world changer needs to remember about new media:

Beware of techies bearing gifts. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook can’t make a revolution.  They are tools.  However, they can streamline communications and give people voice (on both sides of the debate).  Ushahidi, a Swahili word meaning ‘testimony’, is a case in point.  Techies built this platform in the aftermath of the post electoral violence in Kenya, to collect user-generated reports of riots, displacement, rapes and deaths. It took them just a few days to put it together after someone suggested the idea of an online tool that allows people to report violence—or anything else.  This same technology has since been deployed to pinpoint the location of victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.

Remember, platform providers are your friendsYouTube, Twitter, Google, Facebook. They were all there—offering support, providing insights, and explaining how to use their latest technological offerings.  Being part of the solution is central to their mission. But you must select or develop technologies with specific outcomes in mind. Hence the importance of technology whizzes working with activists to provide the platforms and applications that offer the best chance of becoming part of what one participant described as this generation’s ‘footprint of progress’.   

Reach out smart. Getting traction means targeting people outside your ‘echo chamber’ of the like-minded and packaging your message in a way that does the job—from matter-of-fact basic information to flashier material that will go ‘viral’.  

Get granular. You must understand the nuances of your operating environment.  What is really happening on the ground? New media offers huge opportunities to find out in real time. This is where the WDR’s Conflict Convo comes in.  This initiative, which Carol and I presented in London, is a platform designed to get direct testimony—video, photo and text--from people living in conflict zones.

Think young.  The average age of participants at the AYM meeting was probably 30--and that is only because of people like me who pushed up the mean.  This is a generation with the determination and the understanding of information technology to pull together the strands of what Farah Pandith, who advises Hilary Clinton on Muslim affairs, described as ‘Twenty-first century state-craft.’

I came away from the London meeting feeling pretty hopeful. The buzz created by all these folks is heady stuff. But, I ask myself, is this just wishful thinking or are we on the brink of something completely different?

In my next blog, I will come back to you with some pointers from the dinosaur age of communications that, despite today’s digital innovations, are still valid for any movement trying to change the world.