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Forum on Global Violence Prevention; Board on Global Health. Communications and Technology for Violence Prevention: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2012 Jun 13.

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Communications and Technology for Violence Prevention: Workshop Summary.

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4Addressing Disparities and Vulnerabilities

The increase in technologies including smartphones, crowdsourcing tools, remote diagnostics, and other innovations does not offer a panacea for ending violence or leveling the power imbalance innate in violent acts. Rather, the increase in technologies used in prevention of violence has fostered an increase in the debate over the positive and negative impacts these innovations have within communities and worldwide. Some of the downsides of technology related to violence include cyberbullying, losses of privacy and security, and stories of perpetrators targeting victims through social media sites.

In the developing world the adoption of technologies such as the mobile phone creates a new path for combating longstanding, ingrained violence. But technology can be only a small part of a solution to help vulnerable populations that suffer from violence. Any successful program that integrates information and communications technology (ICT) into violence prevention will also need strong outreach, branding and publicity, verification, documentation, integration with other existing systems, and careful evaluation.

Including communications technologies in violence prevention strategies would offer great potential to address vulnerabilities among those populations that are most at risk for exposure to violence.


With the increasing knowledge about and widespread use of information and communications technology, there is an increased opportunity to reach vulnerable and isolated populations globally.

For example, mobile technologies increase the reach and communication abilities of community health workers, allowing them to affect larger portions of communities and geographic areas. Confidential hotlines, which were described by several speakers, offer one of the most common ways to penetrate a community and affect wider geographic areas. An example is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States, which individuals at risk for suicide can call for help or reach online.

Online platforms can aid in the dissemination and sharing of knowledge among creators, directors, and funders of programs. Furthermore, social media platforms allow an increased dissemination of a victim's experiences and also make it possible for the victims to quickly receive social support, advice, and companionship. Finally, communications technologies can provide a powerful source of funding for such programs and interventions, as text campaigns allowing individuals to donate to certain causes via their mobile phones and the Internet have become increasingly popular over the past few years.

Speaker Erik Hersman of Ushahidi emphasized the broad, large-scale impact of mobile technology on the spread of information. He said that new technology is lowering barriers and “just by its existence it is disrupting things.” He spoke about the vast penetration rate for mobile phones, noting that more than 600 million phones are in Africa, a continent with a total population of approximately 1 billion.

Speaker John Pollock of Technology Review discussed one example of wide-scale community penetration was the power of social media to impact revolutions. He said that youth were starting the revolution, and, importantly, women were involved. In leveraging social media to build a revolution, people were able to find each other in real-time.

Networks are another important way to penetrate communities with violence prevention messages, as noted by Mr. Hersman and speaker Devon Halley of Deloitte Research GovLab (XBC) and discussed in previous chapters. The advantage of networks is they are more flexible, innovative, and resilient rather than command-and-control hierarchies.

Social support is another meaningful component of interventions and programs that can be improved with communications technologies. Social media platforms can help extend the reach of connections and experience sharing. In Senegal, Tostan and UNICEF launched the Jokko Initiative, which allows community members to use SMS to send out various text messages, such as information on vital events, service announcements, and information on income-generating activities. It especially allows women the opportunity to promote their goods and share information and event announcements.

Finally, research dissemination is another area facilitated by the use of information and communications technology. Forum member Kristin Schubert of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said that it is frequently difficult to get information about research to public health providers in a community with target populations. Thus, this is an area where establishing important partnerships with researchers and experts in technology is essential to successful implementation and evaluation. The ability to penetrate markets and spread information more widely could be of huge importance in this respect.


Several examples were cited throughout the workshop of ways in which information and communications technologies can empower vulnerable populations.

Collective Violence

Technologies lead not only to increased communication but also to increased accountability and transparency. For instance, the organization Witness works to use the power of video advocacy by documenting and sharing human rights abuses. By working with constituents on the use of video as a medium for documentation, it has shed light on the repression of ethnic minorities in Burma and has helped to prosecute recruiters of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sexual Violence and Intimate Partner Violence

SMS and geocoding technologies can be used to display incidents of violence in real time, which can be particularly effective in combating sexual violence. In Egypt, Medic:Mobile, in conjunction with the Ushahidi platform, has been used for Harassmap. The basic idea behind the program is that if a woman is sexually harassed she can send an SMS to the Harassmap number with details of the incident. This information will then be mapped on the website, allowing “hotspots” of harassment to be identified. Harassmap also provides help and information for victims. This use of technology is a way to break the silence that surrounds the issue, and it helps empower vulnerable groups of women in this geographic area.

Digital storytelling is another powerful tool for empowering victims and educating offenders on the effects their actions can have. The Mobile Cinema Foundation program uses short films to expose soldiers in camps to the consequences of rape. The goal is to educate the soldiers of the Congolese National Army through victims' testimonies and post-viewing discussions.

Conventional forms of technology and media can also play integral roles in the prevention of intimate partner violence. For example, hotlines and awareness campaigns can use both traditional and new media. Bell Bajao! is a series of public service announcements in India urging men and boys to combat domestic violence by notifying abusers that the community is watching. Liz Claiborne's Love Is Not Abuse iPhone application helps teach parents about teen dating abuse and demonstrates how technology, such as text messages, e-mails, and phone calls, can be conduits for committing abuse.

Texting is also used in some programs to prevent intimate partner violence. FamilyFirst is a program in the United States that uses a texting service that allows victims to report incidents silently via a simple SMS message and to make contact with a crisis intervention worker or police without making an actual phone call.

The Grameen Phone Foundation's Village Phone model is based on providing a small loan and a “business-in-a-box” to entrepreneurs to provide customers with access to a mobile phone and mobile airtime. Providing women with access to mobile devices allows them to move toward economic independence, which reduces their vulnerability to violence.

Elder Abuse

Hotlines and sharing of information via the Internet are integral to helping increase awareness of and to decreasing the incidence of elder abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse has state resources, such as helplines and hotlines.

Social media platforms have been integrated into many elders' residences. For example, MyWay Village is a social network installed in nursing homes that allows residents to connect with new people and their families in order to share memories, information, and experiences, to play games, and most important, to feel less isolated.

Youth Violence

Youth are the fastest adopters of new media and mobile technology. The National Dating Abuse Helpline recently made its services available via text message by allowing teens to text a number and, in return, to receive help from trained peer advocates. CeaseFire in Chicago, Illinois, tracks violence in real time so that interrupters can intervene in tense situations. With Ushahidi, Medic:Mobile, and PopTech, the project PeaceTXT will look at how mobile tools can help accelerate CeaseFire's success.

Speaker Ben Sawyer of Games for Health said that games are an empowerment intervention for youth but that sometimes the empowerment and aspiration developed stay contained within the game. “What we have to figure out is whether or not we can take this really powerful concept that exists within games and … make it translatable outside of their world,” he said. With Play2Prevent, he aims to prompt youth to discuss how they can translate the ideas that they have within games into their real lives.

Another example of a youth violence prevention program, Cool School, is made by Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and is an animated adventure series produced by a game developer that takes a character-based approach to talking about bullying and violence prevention in schools. Other examples include NSTeens from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Web Wise Kids.

Child Abuse

There has been an increase in health text messaging programs that target medically underserved populations. Text4Baby, guided by the Department of Health and Human Services, is a public–private partnership that provides pregnant women and new mothers with free text messages concerning health. The messages range from tips on how to care for the baby to information about what to expect during pregnancy. The mobile phone also offers a way both to report child abuse and to increase awareness of the issue. As well, hotlines are available to both adults and children, including the National Child Abuse Hotline, which is run by Childhelp.

Speaker Judith Carta of the University of Kansas noted that mobile phones can be used to enhance any kind of home visiting or parenting intervention. In particular she suggested they could be used for improving home safety for children and for improving early intervention for children with developmental problems. With certain smartphones or tablets, video streaming is being used to transmit information to parents. The next step is to move toward broad-scale implementation in order to affect a larger number of parents.

Self-Directed Violence

Telehelp, life and crisis lines, and call centers are important in dealing with self-directed violence. There are several online support groups that allow those at risk to reach out and connect with others, thus ensuring that they know that they are not alone. Awareness of and access to services permits many to move past the social stigma that is often attached to depression and suicide.

As in other areas of violence, there is controversy regarding the creation and use of some mobile applications, such as suicide-prevention applications. Some mobile applications let users track their moods and experiences, providing supplemental information for them as well as for their therapists.

As is the case with youth violence, blame is often placed on technology and media for suicide, and for teen suicide in particular, because of the presence of cyberbullying. Several speakers said that, in reality, it is difficult to determine how great a role media and technology have played in these deaths.

Potential Application to Disability and Impairment

Some speakers discussed the potential of information and communications technologies to reach and empower those populations who have cognitive or functional impairments or disabilities, but they noted this area has yet to be explored fully. Speaker and Forum member XinQi Dong of Rush Institute for Healthy Aging commented that the area of elder abuse involves very vulnerable groups, including those with Alzheimer's disease and those who are highly dependent on others. People with disabilities are also at very high risk for experiencing all forms of violence. Speaker and Forum co-chair Mark Rosenberg of the Task Force for Global Health asked, “How can we use social media to compensate for some of the disabilities that people may have to start to protect them against some of the violence?”


Messaging needs to be at a pro-social level that is valuable and targeted for specific groups. For example, speaker Charlotte Cole of the Sesame Workshop spoke about her work in the Middle East, where she and her colleagues are trying to introduce kids in conflict situations to “the other” to reduce acrimony between groups. Their messages seek to model the interactions between the parent and the child. Ms. Cole said, “Having just gotten back from Kabul and watching kids watch this is just amazing. They are just riveted. Part of that is because there isn't much on the screen that has been created for them.” In this case messaging is trying to build pride in self, an awareness for and tolerance of others, and an opportunity to identify models for pro-social behavior onscreen.

Dr. Rosenberg said that these examples of messaging demonstrate the power of going beyond the individual level. It is important, he said, to realize the ability of technology to bring these messages out and to make communication a shared experience for everybody. He also emphasized the importance of the ability of technology to amplify rather than supplant one-to-one interactions.

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Key Messages Raised by Individual Speakers. Information and communications technologies play a powerful role in spreading messages, building movements, and reaching vulnerable, isolated populations. The spread of information and communications technologies (more...)



Market penetration is the entry into a community, gaining new users or enhancing current users' experiences.

Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK200831


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