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Award-Winning Tech Prevents Human Rights Abuses

From better cell service to rapid news alerts, the winners of USAID’s Technology Challenge for Atrocity Prevention contest find ways to couple low-tech solutions for the developing world with life-saving applications.

Whatever you think of the current administration, it’s been good at organizing tech challenges. We’ve written about the State Department’s "TechCamps," and USAID’s "Hacking for Hunger" initiative. And there are others, including several from the EPA. The government has become one of the leading promoters of socially useful technology, perhaps recognizing there’s a limit to what it can do with its own resources.

Another example is USAID’s Technology Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. The contest has five categories, and winners were recently announced in two of them: technologies that help people communicate when communication is difficult (in war situations, say), and technologies that allow activists to gather information in "hard-to-access" areas. Below is a little about the projects.


Serval Project, developed in New Zealand and Australia, won first prize ($10,000) for "mesh extender" software that helps people outside the range of cell phone towers stay connected. That could be particularly useful in disaster situations, when infrastructure is down, or in remote regions, where there isn’t any. Lead developer Paul Gardner-Stephen discusses the project in the video (crowdfunding campaign here).

"We have also been prototyping low-cost low-tech ways to connect mesh networks to cellular networks in disaster zones and other areas where cellular access is impaired, or marginal," he says, via email. "Our simplest solution when nothing else is possible is like something out of a MacGyver episode: we use duct-tape to acoustically couple two Android phones, and combined with our software, this bridges calls both ways between the mesh and the outside world."

Second prize ($7,000) went to IVR Junction, an ingenious system allowing people to record and listen to voice messages via several types of social media. Users without Internet access can use a mobile phone; those with access can go to YouTube, Facebook, and so on, for the same service. The idea was developed by Aditya Vashistha and Bill Thies, in Bangalore, India.

Similarly, AM/Burst SMS, which won third prize ($3,000), aims to facilitate communication where two parties are using different devices, in this case an AM pirate radio on one end, and a mobile phone (text, voice message) on the other. It was created by Steve McGeown, in Canada.


Innovation shop Ideo, which oversaw this category, decided not to award an overall winner, but rather to recognize winners equally. They included CrisisTracker, which mines publicly available tweets during humanitarian situations, People’s Radio, a way for people to tweet via a radio platform when they lack Internet access, and StoryMaker, an app for multimedia storytelling. The other three were People’s Intelligence, P.A.C.T., and Thread.

In addition, USAID previously announced winning technology in two other categories: "Enablers" and "Capture." A fifth category, called "Model," is still open for submissions. The Humanity United foundation co-organized the challenge.