Sometimes, the cellphone is mightier than the sword. In 2008, after a bitter presidential election in Kenya, a wave of ethnic political violence there left more than 1,000 people dead. Fortunately, the next presidential election, in 2013, was relatively peaceful — thanks in part to cheap cellphones.
Alice Nderitu founded the Uwiano Platform for Peace, a partnership between the government and several nonprofits, including PeaceNet Kenya. While the deep political divisions of 2008 hadn’t healed, the desire to avoid bloodshed was strong. Nderitu believed the average Kenyan wanted to help but didn’t know how. Hence, the phones.
Nderitu’s group set up a system to provide mobile devices to people around the country. People would then send alerts of potentially dangerous incidents via text message — and there were enough tips that at some point their two servers crashed. It’s hard to explain to civilians what conflict indicators are, says Nderitu. “So we told people specifically what to do: Look through your window, tell us what you see,” she says. Small signs were telling. “Are children going to school? Are markets open? When you go to hospitals, are there medicines? Are people standing in small groups?”
Nderitu was recently in Cambridge taking part in the annual Colloquium of Inclusive Security, an event that promotes efforts by women to bring peace and stability to troubled regions in the world. Grass-roots deployments of technology have revolutionized elections in unexpected ways. The use of biometrics to register voters and the “crowd-mapping” of electoral irregularities can prevent fraud and, ultimately, violence.
But the success of Nderitu’s project in Kenya came from something less tangible: trust. It was set up as an early warning system to ensure proper response from law enforcement. “We stepped in and filled that gap,” she says, sending police to hot spots. “When the violence was going on and we were on the ground, people were telling us, we knew the violence was coming but we did not know who to tell.”Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.