The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Rohini Srihari, chief data scientist at PeaceTech Lab, a peacebuilding nonprofit based in Washington, DC. Srihari discussed the importance of data in peacebuilding and how nonprofit startups are adopting strategies from the private sector.
Joshua New: Over the past few years, the concept of “data for good” has become increasingly popular, though PeaceTech Lab is somewhat unique in that it focuses specifically on peace rather than just social good as a whole. What role does data play in peacebuilding?
Rohini Srihari: Our view is that data plays a huge role in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, and that the importance of data is only going to get more important. I think the best way to explain why is to give you the different ways data can be used in peacebuilding. One of the ways we use data is in early warning systems. Early warning can range from something very near-term—for example we’ve seen solutions that provide warnings about imminent bombing raids in Syria—to something longer out. You can take satellite data and sensor data to predict crop failure in certain regions in the world sometimes up to three months in advance. This kind of information can be very useful when trying to anticipate refugee migration patterns in advance rather than just reacting to a crisis when it happens.
We also use data in intervention, for example by using social media analysis to both detect hate speech online as well as trying to counter it. This can also be a great early indicator of rising tensions.
Another area data can be really helpful is in assessing the impact of intervention programs. There are so many agencies and resources involved in various peacebuilding efforts, and these people are being asked to provide some accountability and report the impact of their programs, which requires some way of measuring this impact. This can be done through specific data collection efforts to evaluate a program, but we’re also looking at other ways of accomplishing this. For example, we’re trying to monitor the overall health of a community based on a variety of indicators so we can potentially use the month-to-month differences in these indicators as a proxy for measuring the impact of various intervention programs.
New: PeaceTech Lab just recently launched a startup accelerator with C5 and Amazon Web Services. Can you explain how an initiative focused on startups and entrepreneurship fit in with the mission of PeaceTech Lab?
Srihari: We have a combination for for-profit and nonprofit companies in the accelerator. As you can imagine, some of the nonprofits are directly working on peacebuilding applications. For example, we have a company that wants to improve literacy rates in disadvantaged communities and conflict zones. The for-profits are interesting. These are companies with business models trying to generate profits, but we also require them to demonstrate how what they’re developing, such as an app, can also be applied to peacebuilding. We have one company working on personalizing music and content in emerging markets, meaning the content has to be affordable and accessible in languages like Afrikaans. But those same factors also make what they’re doing valuable to people living in refugee camps, for example.
New: Before joining PeaceTech Lab, you yourself were a serial entrepreneur. Does a peacebuilding startup use data in the same way that a traditional business-focused startup would?
Srihari: Yes and no. Since I’ve been with PeaceTech Lab, I’ve noticed that the applications for peacebuilding sometimes only use one or two types of data sources. However that data is sometimes really hard to obtain, such as data about lighting conditions in refugee camps to power an app that helps people find a safe route home. This data can be really specific and hard to access, but it can also have life-or-death implications so some developers go out and collect it themselves. And with business applications, they’re typically dealing with more and different types of data, rather than these really specific or localized datasets. But they also have to deal with customer data, internal data, building interoperable systems with third parties, and so on.
I am seeing however that these two approaches are beginning to converge. For example, if you’re trying to collect local data from an underserved community, we’re trying to see how things like gamification can be useful nonmonetary incentives to encourage people to contribute their data. Peacebuilding applications are getting more and more sophisticated and adopting strategies that work for more traditional businesses.
New: Many of the startups I saw at the PeaceTech Accelerator launch were based in developing countries. What are the biggest barriers these groups face when it comes to using data?
Srihari: At the accelerator, we’re providing a lot of mentoring to these companies. One of the areas we’re particularly focused on is methodology—how you go from the problem you’re trying to solve, to the data, to the analytics, and so on. We also teach them a lot about solution architecting and cloud services. We’ve had people from Amazon Web Services come in and teach teams how to best leverage cloud services, which can make a huge difference for a team based in a developing country.
A lot of these companies are more sophisticated than you’d expect — they’ve definitely done their homework. They have a pretty good idea of what they want to do, so we’re just trying to help them do it better, faster, and cheaper.
New: Could you describe the Open Situation Room Exchange? How is it used?
Srihari: We’re going through a little bit of rebranding here, so the Open Situation Room Exchange is now being incorporated into a larger platform called groundTruth that we’re going to be launching fairly soon, so stay tuned for that. It’s going to be a global data hub that provides both raw data and analytics. So rather than developing a single application for peacebuilders and trying to anticipate every unique challenge a peacebuilding organization might need, we are focusing on providing the data and tools to allow these groups to produce whatever they need on their own, such as visualizations or reports. I think this approach will make it a lot easier to scale peace technologies and help them have a much broader impact.