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USAID Rewards Atrocity-Prevention Mobile Apps

Award winners developed tools to prevent mass atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing and respond during catastrophic infrastructure failures.

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Mobile phone software that continues to operate in the event of a catastrophic infrastructure failure and a smartphone tool that lets users collaborate via a spontaneous voice forum using social media are two of the latest cutting-edge tools generated from an ongoing series of high-tech competitions sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Humanity United.

These technologies and an array of other applications are products of USAID's Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, a program designed to support the Obama Administration's strategy for preventing mass atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The technology challenge encourages problem-solvers to create promising technology-based tools that have the potential to save lives in chaotic situations and assist communities at risk in conflict. The winners were selected by a panel of judges composed of human rights advocates, technology experts and federal officials from the State Department, Homeland Security and other government agencies.

[ Want to know more about disaster recovery tech? See DARPA Robot Challenge: Disaster Recovery. ]

The latest round of awards addressed two sub-challenges: Communicate and Alert. In the Communicate challenge, conducted via InnoCentive's crowd-sourcing platform, the New Zealand and Australia-based Serval Project captured the first-place prize of $10,000 for smartphone software that maintains communications even when the cellular infrastructure fails. The system works by letting multiple smartphones form impromptu, standalone networks during a disaster or catastrophe.

A second place prize of $7,000 went to scientists at Microsoft Research India in Bangalore for their Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Junction, which connects an IVR system to cloud services such as YouTube, Facebook and other social media. Using IVR Junction, anyone with a Windows-based computer and modem can establish a voice forum. Affected populations can record and listen to posts via mobile phone, while the global community can access and contribute recordings via the Internet.

A third prize in the Communications category, worth $3,000, went to Steve McGeown of Waterloo, Canada, for a system that uses wind-up radios and AM "pirate" radio broadcasting to support communications during a disaster.

The Alert challenge was hosted on OpenIDEO, an open innovation platform that relies on individuals collaborating for non-monetary incentives. In this challenge, innovators were asked to develop simple, affordable technologies that can be used to gather or verify atrocity-related data from hard-to-access areas.

Selected from 166 submitted projects, the winning entries included Crisis Tracker, an open-source Web platform that extracts situation-awareness reports from public tweets during humanitarian crises, and People's Radio, a hub for spoken tweets that lets people who do not have Internet access share their stories with a broad audience.

USAID's tech challenges have "opened the door to dozens of technological solutions with the potential to empower at-risk individuals and communities," said USAID deputy assistant administrator Sarah Mendelson. "We are encouraged and inspired by the results

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