By The Hague Hacks Team
On the 8th of December, the first edition of the Hague Hacks 2017 took place: a conference on Peace, Justice and Technology, hosted by the Hague Peace Projects and Impact City. Approximately 120 people from a very wide range of backgrounds came together at The Grey Space in The Hague’s city Centre: NGO professionals, tech startups, academics, lawyers, government employees and others. In one day full of pitches, stories, workshops and discussion, they focused on the question what new and emerging technologies could mean for activists and organisations working in the field of peace and justice.
The morning began with an introduction seminar on “New technologies and Human Rights: A threat or an opportunity?” Before delving into all exciting opportunities new technologies might bring, this seminar was meant to reflect whether the nature of new technologies is indeed as benevolent as many people seem to suggest. Several speakers noted the downsides of new technologies and the potential of abuse by governments and corporations with bad intentions towards their populations and users. Kaustubh Srikanth of Greenhost and Hisham Almiraat of Justice and Peace spoke of the dangers of large powers collecting vast volumes of personal data. Brian Gharibaan even went as far as to say that he has the feeling that we are moving towards a dystopian future because of the immense control that a very limited group of people is able to generate. Hisham presented some optimism by stating that we live in a transnational civil society, where activists can connect and assist each other like never before, which would never have been possible without the opportunities of communication we have today. Tim van Deursen of Hack the Planet also took a more optimistic stance. He stated that he didn’t believe in any “Darth Vader”-type people who are secretly planning all sorts of evil behind the scenes but that it merely depends on your own position whether you want technology to become a threat or an opportunity. Everyone agreed however that we should not be so naive as to think that nothing can go wrong.
This session was followed by an inspiration hour consisting of a series of pitches and stories that highlighted the way in which various art, tech and peace organisations were using technology within their work. It was particularly interesting to hear from Timo Schless’s (Netherlands Ministry of Defense) White Flag prototype. This prototype is using Blockchain technology to develop an application attempting to make communication easier and verifiable within conflict areas. On the other side of the spectrum, Yousif Fasher, from Darfur in Sudan, shared his challenges of working as a human rights activist in a country that is under severe repression and control, while there is very little access to basic technologies, like the internet.
The afternoon consisted of six workshops on digital surveillance, artificial intelligence, big data, polarisation and tech activism. Each had very lively discussions and fresh new ideas as outcomes. For the Blockchain workshop the two problems presented were the use of Blockchain as a tool for communication for Human Rights Defenders in dangerous areas, alongside if Blockchain could be used as a tool to provide transparency in regards to mining. For the Artificial Intelligence workshop the problem presented was the danger and solutions for AI in the future, touching upon topics such as freedom, privacy, transparency and neutrality. The worries at the core of conversation, were about possible discrimination practices through data bias, as algorithms of AI could be programmed with a bias.
The Tech Activism workshop was hosted by Mohammad Al Khateeb (27), a Palestinian Syrian who was very active during the Syrian revolution that started in 2011. First Mohammad spoke about his background. Mohammad’s love for everything ‘tech’ began in 1995. He points out the Microsoft Windows 1995. As a child he sat all day in front of the computer typing away. He practiced to type without looking and as fast as a woodpecker. By the time he was thirteen years of age he was addicted to all sorts of computer programs. All his relatives who had issues with the computers would send their gadgets to him for repair, and he knew just what to do with them. But the popular uprising, triggered by the other Arab Spring episodes in neighboring countries, changed his life completely. He joined the movement, which was full of young ambitious people who were fed up with the corruption and oppression of the Syrian regime and lack of opportunities to live their lives, as they wanted to as well as, develop themselves. Immediately Mohammad’s knowledge of technology came in very handy to the movement.
As an activist he saw it as his main role to bring information and amateur news reports on the demonstrations and actions against the Assad regime to the outside world. He recorded surprise demonstrations at secret locations and sent these videos out. The goal was to make sure the big news outlets like BBC and CNN were receiving the latest updates of the ongoing revolution, so it would gain international attention and support. However this was not easy and often very dangerous. Not only was access to the internet very often cut off or restricted, but also the secret services were very actively tracking down and arresting activists or anyone they thought were behind these demonstrations. Many of those activists disappeared without a trace. A YouTube channel of his recordings still exists. In it he talks of Syrians who got killed, and others who were arrested. It is hard for him to keep watching it repeatedly. He remembers his contributions and how he equipped other activists with a platform for communication. For others, he brought warm meals, provided shelter, medicine and even entertained the children. After a few years the peaceful demonstrations turned into a bloody attacks by the regime on the civilian population and even into an international war. Mohammad could not stay and decided to move to Europe. This was no easy task. He took fifty days to cross the Sahara in order to take a boat in Libya.
Today he wishes to find better, more effective tools to communicate to a larger audience. “Technology offers that today,” he tells the audience. “People need to be aware that they have the power when they work together. Also when using new technologies, we must not forget that we should work together and that technology is there to improve each others lives. In any development of new technologies we have to make sure from the very beginning that it takes account of human rights so that its potential for abuse is avoided from the onset.” Now Al Khateeb studies in The Netherlands. The rights to talk, act, and take advantage of opportunities are something incredibly valuable. Seven years ago he was unable to do what he can do now. Today he is happy that he can use technology to spread knowledge, provide solutions and take action on daily topics that spark awareness in areas of conflict. Generally many of the individuals he interacts with are curious and have a desire to stay updated with events in Syria. By using on-line facilities Mohammad pushes people with interests to be agents of change. By developing new tech applications he wants to help all those activists who are currently trying to speak out on human abuses in situations of oppression and conflict.
All in all, The Hague Hacks was very inspiring, brought about a lot of good energy, interests and new ideas to apply tech solutions for real humanitarian problems. Keep following The Hague Hacks online for new editions and updates on Peace, Justice and Technology: https://www.facebook.com/TheHagueHacks/?ref=br_rs