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Meet Mack Hardy, PeaceGeeks' Chief Technology Geek

On Friday I sat down with Affinity Bridge CEO Mack Hardy at his company’s offices in the beautiful and historic Dominion Building in Vancouver. Mack volunteers as PeaceGeeks’ Chief Technology Geek and has spent over eleven years using technology to create a positive change in the world. His company, Affinity Bridge, focuses on software development for social and environmental change, and works with clients like Creative Commons, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, as well as PeaceGeeks.

I talked with Mack about Affinity Bridge’s involvement with PeaceGeeks, the Services Advisor platform, and much more.

Q: How did you get started with PeaceGeeks?

I was asked to help out with some of the projects by a friend who was already volunteering, got interested and became more and more involved.  Can’t believe that was four years ago. 

A few years ago I would’ve said, ‘Oh yeah, tech can do it all.’ Now though, I really think that it’s about personal relationships. I think tech is just a bridge to the relationships between people. It’s a reminder to us all that everyone who’s tweeting, on Facebook, Whatsapp—they’re all just people trying to talk to their people.

 

Q: What are the unique needs and challenges that you face developing software for non-profits?

A: One of the biggest challenges designing or developing products for non-profits is that they have limited internal technical capabilities. So, we’ve been focusing on building open source stacks that are good for collaborating. Sometimes in a small business you might try to build something that’s your intellectual property, but instead, we’re trying to maximize impact and keep the whole platform open to collaboration. Services Advisor has huge amounts of volunteer writing in it, and a lot that was accomplished during a two-day hackathon is still being used in the core platform.

Q:  What are some PeaceGeeks projects that Affinity Bridge has worked on?

A: The Amani platform, which was a PeaceGeeks platform we helped build out, was focused on developing a base website for tracking locations of incident reports—in Sudan, it was incidents of violence. We’ve had folks from other parts of the world take this Drupal open source CMS stuff we built and run with it—because it’s accessible and there’s a lot of good functionality in there.

With Services Advisor, the UNHCR is already working on problems faced by refugees, so we’re trying to bring the technology up so it bridges information gaps in their programs. It’s not always that technology is the solution to real world problems, but you have to fit the solution to the problem set.

Q: One issue Services Advisor is facing right now is making it scalable. In theory Services Advisor could be used for all 16 million UNHCR refugees and in humanitarian crises worldwide. Without getting too technical, if possible, what are the challenges to scalability?

A: There’s a bunch of different challenges. One main technical challenge is building one platform that fits the needs of all the different instances it could be used in. Currently the way Services Advisor is structured is that there’s one set of software and we run a copy of it for every group. So with UNHCR Jordan, Somalia and Turkey, we’re replicating the code and running a copy of it. It’s very much like the prototype—but with an accessible back end for service providers. And now the roadmap will take us to where the app is like a cloud hosted app like Gmail or Google Maps, where you create an account and run the platform.

One of the design challenges will be that not everyone wants the same flavour milkshake. Each situation is contextual and different—and will have different needs and requirements for the app. That’s some of the stuff we’ll figure out along the way, but we’re basically trying to solve the same kind of problem—access to valid information. We’ll put stuff on the map that’s vetted information from the provider of the program that says, 'Yes, this program happens on Wednesdays at 3 o’clock, we’re running it until March, and then it’s done.' Having reliable information is the ultimate goal. One of the benefits of the new Services Advisor is that the information is vetted by the people providing it. It also gives service providers the ability to find each other and make reliable referrals.

Q: What do you see and hope for the future of Services Advisor? What do you see as its potential? What could the impact be if everything went right?

A: We’re just at the beginning. I think we’re getting to the point where we can begin to see the real impact. On the roadmap for the future, if we scale the platform, we want to employ the double strategy of better technology and human coordination. Providing reliable information to people that need it, at scale, would be a great thing.

I think some of the real impact remains to be seen, but the problem is so vast that there’s a ton of work that needs to be done, so it’s hard to measure. But, there’s so much need that anything that makes any impact is better than nothing.

Q: Why should the private sector want to be engaged with non-profits like PeaceGeeks? If the private sector does want to be engaged with humanitarian organizations, what kind of help can the private sector offer?

A: I think something that has worked really well for PeaceGeeks is partnering with tech companies like Affinity Bridge, Appnovation and Axiom Zen, to leverage their technical capabilities to help push PeaceGeeks’ tech forward. Hackathons where developers from these companies come in and help has been huge. It allows PeaceGeeks to develop a long term plan in collaboration with corporations—as opposed to the old model where a non-profit gets a grant, hires a bunch of people and then the project is over when the money runs out. PeaceGeeks keeps their core small and their leverage big.

Other corporate partners for PeaceGeeks, like The Hive and Lush have been amazing supportive partners for a long time. Their power to amplify PeaceGeeks’ message is really important. Their support, financial and otherwise, covers home base for PeaceGeeks and allows them to do what they do.

Corporate citizenship really reflects to values of the people running the companies. Customers care about that too. There’s such a benefit for companies to do business and be associated with non-profits like PeaceGeeks. The rise of B corporations shows how important it is to customers that the companies they support have social mandates. 

Q: Do you think there’s limit or ceiling to how tech companies can impact humanitarian causes and peacebuilding? Can tech do it all, do we not need governments, etc.?

A: A few years ago I would’ve said, 'Oh yeah, tech can do it all.' Now though, I really think that it’s about personal relationships. I think tech is just a bridge to the relationships between people. It’s a reminder to us all that everyone who’s tweeting, on Facebook, Whatsapp—they’re all just people trying to talk to their people. We’ve got to have compassion for all people in the world. And certainly tech can contribute, raise money, help provide tools, but it’s not a solution. It’s just a delivery mechanism for the kind of response that needs to be made.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Written by Max Wood

Feb 9, 2017

PeaceTalk #32 - Tech on Ending Violence Against Women

   

     In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we hosted our 32nd PeaceTalk — Tech for Ending Violence Against Women at the HiVE studio where we partnered with Amnesty International. We had an amazing panel of empowered and inspiring females: Rebecca Chiao from Harassmap, Denise Williams with the First Nations Technology Council and Jessica Ladd from Sexual Health Innovations (SHI). These accomplished women discussed ideas about helping mistreated women through the medium of advancing technologies.

    Rebecca Chiao, our first speaker of the night introduced Harassmap. Harassmap is an online platform created in 2010 that addresses the sexual assault and harassment conflict arising in Egypt. She further explains how many o these victims little or no aid. These women feel compelled to avoid public spaces where they could become exposed to sexual harassment. Harassmap acts as an anonymous channel for these victims to connect to people for support and aims to stop harassment by changing cultural norms by placing more pressure towards local authorities.

    Next we had Denise Williams discuss her concern regarding the lack of access to technology many First Nations communities are faced with. Technology provides users with access to education, healthcare, opportunities to employment and much more, however these First Nations are not able to access the same information as conveniently. With the help of her team members, Denise aims to ensure that all 203 BC First Nation communities have access to technology resources and support.

    Our final speaker, Jessica Ladd spoke about an online platform called Callisto  that acts as an online sexual assault reporting system for colleges. She explains that victims feel reluctant to report the act because they worry that they lack information during the reporting process and victims are often uncertain of whether the act was serious enough. These worries lead to delayed reports of sexual attacks, and unfortunately less than 10% of survivors report their assaults. Callisto aims to address these issues by allowing survivors to report their assaults by offering a judgement free environment.

    To end the night off, we received thought-provoking questions from the audience. Questions ranged from whether these organizations were predominately volunteer based or staff based and how they can help to what could the be cause of disconnect with colleges from accepting an online platform such as Callisto. Jessica responded saying fear is the issue. Universities fear that accepting help would mean that there is an actual problem. In addition, the news may affect donations made by alumni and affect the reputation of the school overall. Thus, Callisto is there to help students who face these issues and support them through this process.

A big thank you to all that attended and helped make this event a success! We hope you all feel more empowered to make a difference and help those in need. 

Mar 11, 2016
Category:

PeaceTalk #32: Tech for Ending Violence Against Women

Guest Speaker:
Rebecca Chiao, HarassMap, Jessica Ladd, Sexual Health Innovations , Denise Williams, First Nations Technology Council
Date:
Mar 9, 2016
Time:
6:00pm
Venue:
The Hive Vancouver

How is technology being developed and deployed to track and prevent violence against women and girls? Come join a lively discussion on how technology is contributing to safety and security for women and girls around the world. Panel members will include Rebecca Chiao with HarassMap, Denise Williams with the First Nations Technology Council, and Jessica Ladd with Sexual Health Innovations. This event will be moderated will be Soudeh Jamshidian.

Partnership With:
Mar 7, 2016
Category: PeaceTalks
Time 2:
6 PM

New Paths: How Social Media & Technology are Changing Refugee Journeys

For many, the words ‘social media’ conjure images of cat videos, photos of acquaintance’s dinner plates and hashtags on Twitter. But social media’s potential as a tool for information dissemination and individual empowerment is vast and only beginning to be recognized. Social media and communication technologies present an opportunity for individuals and institutions to challenge powerful political actors and enhance the efforts of an organized public sphere. Social media provides additional strategies for digital refugees to flee dangerous situations. It eases access to information, facilitates group coordination and supports free public speech. It helps organized groups share knowledge and mobilize members efficiently.

Social media empowers any user of an internet-connected device to quickly and independently publish information. It can be an effective tool to help displaced citizens assume control over available communications systems and regain the power to control information flow, maintain a sense of social stability, protect the vulnerable and address the public sphere.
                               
Social media has become an essential tool for Syrian refugees and the organizations trying to support them. Mobile phone use is the predominant method of communication among Syrians and 49% of citizens in the Middle East have internet access (^). There are approximately 87 registered phones per 100 residents in the region.

Not all refugees have access to social media. In Africa, only 27% of the population has access to the internet and certain areas, like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, have access rates of less than 25%. In places like these, social media is less effective as a strategy for refugees.

Syrian refugees make use of technology to communicate with aid actors and with each other. They use sites like Google Maps to navigate politically and geographically complex routes to sanctuary. First-hand stories told in images and sound bites also help bring refugee experiences directly to the global community in a vivid way. That community can then use social media to share posts and links; volunteers and refugees can share firsthand content to makes appeals for aid and document abuses.

Twitter categorizes shared posts and links, making it easier for many-to-many conversations and opinion sharing to occur. Currently, the top three refugee-related hashtags are #syria, #humanrights and #refugee.

For more in-depth conversations and engagement, Facebook is the user’s choice. Individuals can post content and have one-on-one conversations within organized groups; they can share relevant posts and participate in multi-layered conversations. 

Zaatari Camp Coordination is a Facebook page that functions as a media outlet for the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which currently accommodates more than 80, 000 refugees. The Facebook translate feature gives non-Arabic speakers access to the events and conditions in the busy camp. The UN High Commission on Refugees says that Facebook use by ground level coordinators is an efficient distribution method and better for information that requires trust than Twitter; however, information published on FB does not elicit the degree of trust that face-to-face conversation does. The reliability of the information source is crucial, especially when bad information can  mean the worst outcome.

Social media and communication technology can make it easier for refugees to make their way to a new life but not all refugees have access to these tools. Those with low incomes may not be able to afford the necessary devices. Some refugees originate from areas where there is little access to the internet. The challenge is to reflect on internet penetration statistics as a rough measure of power in the public sphere and to provide connectivity to all.  Internet and social media is increasingly seen as an important human right. Accessibility and evenness of distribution is integral to the role of social media and communication technology as a global, humanitarian asset.

Communication technology can facilitate groundbreaking social change  in situations where the infrastructure and integrity of traditional media has been compromised. Social media places the power of storytelling in the hands of any individual with a capable device and an internet connection. It creates the potential for a well-rounded public sphere and provides an excellent wayfinding system for refugees in transit - but only if Internet and social media are accessible and uncensored.

Nov 9, 2015
Category:
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