Even as Iraq’s Kurdish region copes with a flood of displaced Iraqis fleeing the “Islamic State” extremist group, some Kurds continue to pursue a long-planned constitution of their own. How these two very different challenges are met will help define the future of the semi-autonomous area. PeaceTech Lab is equipping civic groups and authorities with the tech savvy they need to fortify both kinds of campaigns.

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Tahseen Al Zrkiny trains civil society participants on StoryMaker, a mobile journalism tool. Photo Credit: Diyar Azad for USIP

The gateway to this technological power opened in a hotel conference room in Kurdistan’s second-largest city, Sulaimania, last month. While battles with the self-styled “Islamic State” continued across large swaths of Iraq in early May, the U.S. Institute of Peace partner organization SANAD for Peacebuilding in Iraq pulled together 29 activists for a three-day immersion in Sulaimania focused on how low-cost, widely available technologies can be deployed to support citizens’ campaigns.

The session wasn’t the first foray into Iraq by PeaceTech Lab, an independent, non-profit organization created by USIP to further the use of technology, media and data to reduce conflict. Three PeaceTech Exchanges, as the sessions are called, took place in Iraq in 2013 and 2014, drawing 180 civil society leaders. Others have included one in Burma, also known as Myanmar, to combat dangerous speech, and another in India focused on gender-based violence.

This year in Iraq, in addition to Sulaimania, 28 civic activists participated in an exchange in Basra in the south. In a new twist, government officials participated in their own workshops in the two provinces -- 40 in Sulaimania and 27 in Basra.

The goal is to find areas where the civil society leaders and officials can collaborate to improve the effectiveness of the state, said Tim Receveur, director of the lab’s PeaceTech Exchanges, who led the event with other staff and partner organizations on the ground. Evidence increasingly demonstrates that violent conflict often is concentrated in “fragile” countries or areas where government fails to serve its citizens, whether because of corruption, repression or lack of effectiveness.

PeaceTech Exchanges rely largely on local technologists who speak the language, understand the cultural and political nuances and will be on the ground long after U.S.-based trainers are gone. What PeaceTech Lab brings to the table is the influence to boost collaboration among scattered groups and the opportunity for intense exposure to unfamiliar technologies.

“They know their issues well,” Receveur said. “The problem is connecting them with others and with the appropriate tech.”

The Sulaimania session, like the earlier one in Basra, began by dividing the activists into interest groups based on surveys conducted in advance. Each group drafted a problem statement -- “I’m a community activist and I want the government to fix potholes and improve services,” for instance -- then launched into what PeaceTech Exchange calls “SpeedGeeking,”  in which the groups circulate through five-minute talks with 10 to 15 technologists. The tech experts provide case studies of solutions that worked in similar situations elsewhere.

Data Collection With Smartphones

For example, KoBo Toolbox, a product of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, enables data collection in the field using just a smartphone. The information can then be uploaded later to the Internet and massaged into useful forms.

That simplicity fired the imagination of Bahar Osman, a high-energy Kurdish woman who runs a civic group called People’s Development Organization, which is working to assist refugees and internally displaced Iraqis.  At the exchange, Osman focused on technologies including KoBo Toolbox, mapping software, smartphones and Voto Mobile, an outreach program that works with earlier-generation phones.

Osman had been grappling with how to assess and improve health conditions in Kurdistan’s teeming camps for people forced from their homes by war either elsewhere in Iraq or in neighboring Syria. The volume of displaced people threatens to overwhelm the region’s government despite its relative stability prior to the crisis generated by the attacks of the “Islamic State” militants. From December 2013 to December 2014, 48 percent of all Iraqis forced from their homes fled to Kurdistan, flooding the region with more than 1 million displaced people.

Whatever else they left behind, most displaced people still have mobile phones. Estimates are that 90 percent of Iraqis carry one. There are roughly 29 million mobile devices in the country for a population of about 32.5 million. PeaceTech Lab’s focus often involves creating tech solutions for environments that are ‘’low-bandwidth, power-deprived and dangerous.”

Osman saw the potential to have canvassers gather information on infectious diseases in the camps, such as where outbreaks were occurring and how they correlated with other conditions. She also proposed using StoryMaker, a citizen-journalist tool for producing video that would be available on smart phones, to help educate the refugees on how to prevent the spread of disease. Another lower-tech possibility was to gather data through SMS polling tools of Voto Mobile.

 “What I learned was an entirely new way to use these tools in my work and organization,” said Osman. 

Osman was invited back to discuss her proposal at the later PeaceTech Exchange with government officials. These authorities had already begun surveys of their own and were eager to flesh out the idea with Osman’s group and begin coordination, Receveur said.  

‘Just Scratching the Surface’

“Many civic organizations in Iraq aren't aware of how mobile phones, mapping or data analysis can help them build their capacity,” Receveur said. “Civil society there is just scratching the surface on how to use social media, SMS and online tools to communicate, raise awareness and advocate for their interests.”

While Osman bore down on the refugee crisis, others in the Sulaimania sessions wanted to shape Kurdistan’s future through the still-evolving revision of a constitution that has been in limbo since 2009. The regional parliament adopted the constitution at the time, but political wrangling precluded its signing by regional President Masoud Barzani and an intended referendum on the document hasn’t been conducted, though it remains under discussion. Iraqi Kurds still aspire to independence,  but Barzani told an audience at an event sponsored by USIP and the Atlantic Council last month that, for now, the regional government must prioritize the fight against the “Islamic State.” Barzani also said that any independence drive must be peaceful.

In the PeaceTech Exchange, the Kurdish Institute for Elections, a group of legal experts in Sulaimania province, saw its key challenge as raising awareness of free-speech provisions in the proposed constitution and delivering citizens’ views to the drafting committee by the panel’s 90-day deadline.

The technology selected by the elections institute and some other participants working on different legal issues was Legislation Lab, an Internet-based platform for citizen participation in the legislative process. The platform breaks a document into pieces, allowing comments -- and comments on comments -- regarding specific parts of a proposed law. The elections institute wants to crowd-source analysis of the free-speech section of the proposed constitution, get input on wording and produce a report, which will be disseminated to the media, the regional parliament and the drafting committee.

The Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, a partner of USIP since its inception in Iraq, came up with a similar proposal to address its issue -- strengthening constitutional rights for smaller religious and ethnic groups in Kurdistan.

“The technology makes it possible for groups to support one another in ways that might otherwise not be possible,” said Derek Gildea, who helped run the PeaceTech Exchange in Sulaimania. “While working on separate projects, each of these Legislation Lab-powered activities shares information with the others so that they reinforce one another.”

Each of the organizations is now seeking micro-awards of $1,000 to $5,000 from the partnerships supporting the PeaceTech Exchange to carry out its proposed project.

The money will help give them “at least the incentive to get started ,’’ he said.
The use of these technologies ``is a very cheap option” to increase the ability of these groups to ease potential conflicts, Receveur said.

“We take some of the mystery out of it,’’ Receveur said. “Here are the tools, here’s how they work, here’s what you can do with them.

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