Can technology end conflict?
- 8 June 2011
- From the section Technology
Jared Cohen wants what every Miss World contestant used to want - world peace.
But as the head of a new Google spin-off, dubbed Google Ideas, he might be in more of a position to achieve it.
Mr Cohen describes the venture as think/do-tank aiming to find web-based solutions for some of the world's most difficult problems.
"There are a lot of challenges out there, from the radicalisation of youths to fragile states. We are trying to reframe some of those challenges and find solutions," he said.
One quite simple idea is to use the internet, as the "ultimate distraction technology" to persuade youths away from radical preachers.
Before he got the Google job, Mr Cohen already had the ear of some influential foreign policy makers as advisor to both Condoleeza Rice during the Bush administration and latterly, Hillary Clinton.
He firmly believes in the power of citizen journalism.
When a video of 16-year-old Neda Sultan being shot during a peaceful protest in Tehran in 2009 went viral, the White House was forced to sit up and pay attention.
"It reached the desk of President Obama. It showed some pretty horrific things and it affected him," he said.
After that there was a noticeable change in the rhetoric coming out of the White House.
"For one person on a street armed with a camera on a phone to have changed the policy of the US government is pretty amazing," he added.
He has a pocketful of other anecdotes about how technology is changing the way conflict is handled.
One such story details how the Afghan authorities turned to mobile payments to reimburse their demoralised police force.
Traditional payments, according to Mr Cohen, were haphazard, liable never to arrive and, even if they did, the lack of banks in rural areas meant that policemen had to desert their posts in order to take bags of money home to their families.
As a result vulnerable targets, such as mobile base stations, were left wide open to attack.
Not renowned for their forward-thinking views on connectivity, the Afghanistan authorities sat down with the the mobile phone companies and came up with a solution - using an M-Pesa style mobile payment system so that members of the police force could transfer their money with the touch of a button.
UK documentary maker Brian Lapping has even grander ambitions, aiming to find a way of harnessing all the blogs, Twitter and Facebook posts from areas of political instability to globally crowd-source the next areas of conflict - and help prevent them escalating.
Dubbed PAX, the automated computer system would include keyword searches of websites and social networks, as well as news from global organisations and information sent from mobile phones and home computers.
It would filter out credible and non-credible information and create a graphics-based early warning "barometer" for emerging conflicts.
"The idea was awakened in me by pictures of Burmese monks being beaten up. No journalists were allowed in the country at the time so they were obviously taken by a citizen," he said.
He realised the huge potential of such imagery beyond creating headlines for news outlets.
His idea has attracted the attention of Google, which has put in initial funding of £50,000.
And PAX is getting help to develop its algorithm by the granddaddy of crowd-sourcing conflict tools - Ushahidi.
Ushahidi rose to prominence during the troubles that flared up after the disputed Kenyan elections.
It offered people information about where conflict was brewing
Since then it has played a key role in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Afghan elections and the earthquake in Haiti.
PAX faces a huge task to globalise the Ushahidi model. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies there are around 75 places in the world where tensions could break out into war at any given time.
Lars Bromley knows all about conflict and how seemingly innocuous images can paint a thousand words.
He works for UNOSAT (United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme), an imaging group that provides data from commercial satellites to bodies such as the UN and charities.
"The images are a snapshot of what is going on. They can show, for instance, troop movements and arms build-ups," he said.
UNOSAT has teamed up with actor-turned-activist George Clooney as part of his Satellite Sentinel project, which aims to offer real-time evidence of what is happening in areas such as Sudan.
It has proved a powerful combination with the Hollywood star - featuring on CNN and other news outlets.
Both UNOSAT and Satellite Sentinel are involved in the PAX project.
Mr Lapping hopes that PAX can help bring down the high cost of satellite imagery.
"We are hoping to persuade governments to help us and say to the satellite firms that, as this is for the purpose of preventing war, we can have the images cheap or free," he said.
The world has been forced to take notice of technology's power to bring change in the wake of recent events in the Arab world.
Wael Ghonim was an activist who set up a Facebook group credited with organising the protests which very soon after led to the overthrow of Egypt's President Mubarak.
Mr Ghonim downplays his own role, saying he was just one individual and "no hero", with the real power lying in how social networks were able to harness the collective will - something he describes as "revolution 2.0".
But his actions caught the attention of Google chairman Eric Schmidt and in February he appointed him as head of Marketing for Google in the Middle East and North Africa
While revolutionary executives may be just the start of Google's ambitions on the world stage, for others it is ordinary people that will unlock the potential of technology.
PAX will require "hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of amateur evaluators," - people who know the local area and can speak the language - to sift through vast amounts of data from areas identified as at risk, said Mr Lapping.
"I know a lot about Pakistan. I love the people and I wouldn't want to see a war there so I would do anything I can to prevent it. I think a lot of people think like that," he said.