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Open Innovation Challenge Aims to End Mass Atrocities
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Open Innovation Challenge Aims to End Mass Atrocities

Despite the progress governments have made in reducing genocide, famine, and ethnic cleansing in recent decades, the shameful reality is that these atrocities continue to plague humanity.

Hoping to prevent and minimize such abominations, USAID and Humanity United launched the open innovation Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention in October 2012.

The challenge, which is made up of five separate competitions, aims to find new technologies that can help predict, identify, record, alert, and ultimately prevent mass atrocities.

The Tech Challenge’s first two competitions (“Enablers” and “Capture”) have already closed and the winners have been announced. Last week, three new challenges opened to the public, seeking solutions to the categories “Model,” “Communicate,” and “Alert.”

“What we’re trying to do here is help facilitate a conversation between the technologists’ community and the human rights community that, currently, is somewhat fitful,” Michael Kleinman, Director of Investments at Humanity United, told “If those two communities are able to communicate more effectively, they have so much to offer each other in terms of coming up with really specific tools that can help groups on the ground.”

Past Winners

First, a little about the winning ideas that have already been announced. The Enablers challenge sought solutions to the problem of companies and institutions intentionally or unintentionally supporting atrocities (like jewelers unknowingly buying and selling blood diamonds, for example). The winner in that category was Le-Marie Thompson, who proposed a tool that would “[provide] product designers a way to assess and validate that a component has ‘conflict free’ status during the design and development phase.”

Fiona Mati came in second for her socially-conscious tourism idea, while The Enough Project took third place for an idea to analyze data to reveal previously hidden financial relationships.

The Capture challenge solicited ideas about how to document atrocities. Physicians for Human Rights came in first for an app idea that would allow doctors and nurses with an ability to take photos, document, and compile medical evidence “and securely transmit the data to authorities.”

The second-place winner (who chose to remain anonymous) thought up an app that would allow users to “covertly take pictures while simultaneously recording the location and time during internet blackout situations.” Third place was split between to teams. One proposed a system designed to collect evidence and maintain a clear chain of its custody, so it would be “admissible in judicial proceedings.” The second team came up with an idea for software that would allow analysts to “process and share… remote sensing data specific to predetermined repeating geospatial phenomena.”

New Challenges

While these challenges are now closed, three new ones were unveiled last week: Model, Communicate, and Alert.

Kleinman said the team used lessons learned from the first round to better formulate the challenges that are currently open.

“First, we realized that it wasn’t enough to simply blast the word out, we needed to do more targeted outreach,” he said. “In addition to all the phenomenal work that InnoCentive, TopCoder, and OpenIDEO are doing reaching out to their existing solver audience, in this round, we’re really doubling down and reaching out through our own networks, as well.

“The other piece of feedback we got was we needed to make the challenge language itself a little less jargony,” Kleinman continued. “The underlying goal of the challenge is to engage the broader [tech] communities, who might not have thought about these issues before.”

The Model challenge is seeking ways to predict which communities are most at risk for mass atrocities. Communicate aims to find innovations to “enable better communication with and among conflict-affected communities.” Alert, meanwhile, is looking for new technologies to “allow human rights organizations and others to gather more information and/or verify existing information from hard-to-access areas.”

Rewards for the best ideas are: $10,000 for first place, $7,000 for second, and $3,000 for third; the most promising ideas will get a chance at being developed. The eclectic judge panel includes prominent thinkers like Alec Ross, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Ethan Zuckerman. The judges, Kleinman noted, evaluate each idea on merit in four categories: potential impact, scalability, feasibility, and novelty.

USAID and Humanity United are hosting each challenge on a different platform: Model is on TopCoder, Communicate on InnoCentive, and Alert on OpenIDEO. This was done to expand the challenges’ reach and to capitalize on the strengths of each open innovation intermediary, Kleinman said.

“We thought it would be much more effective to align the challenge with the platform,” he explained.

While the Tech Challenge, on its own, cannot eradicate humanity’s ailments, making these problems – and more importantly, potential solutions to them – accessible to the public is surely a move in the right direction.

“We understand that technology is not a panacea, not a silver bullet,” Kleinman said. “But better… innovations that help to address specific problems in new ways can really help the work that human rights groups are doing on the ground.”

For more information about the challenge, check out the Google+ Hangout below, which features several judges and winners from the first round.

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