Working towards a world without genocide
Combining innovative tech with on-the-ground expertise to prevent mass atrocities across the globe
Combining innovative tech with on-the-ground expertise to prevent mass atrocities across the globeBy Elizabeth Rogers Faculty of Arts
A mass atrocity can start with just a few words. It could be a label that divides people into “us” versus “them,” hate speech that fuels persecution, or a rumour about a threat from another group that pushes tensions into violence. We don’t see genocide in the headlines often but it’s still happening and the first signs of the next mass atrocity could already be emerging.
Christopher Tuckwood, a University of Waterloo alumnus, believes that recognizing these early warning signs of genocide and working directly with the people affected can save lives — and emerging technologies could be the connection.
Tuckwood co-founded The Sentinel Project with fellow alumni Taneem Talukdar (BASc ’08) and Kristin Biefer (BA ’08) in 2008 at Waterloo. At the time, people in developing countries were rapidly gaining access to the internet and social media thanks to the adoption of mobile phones. This new technology also made it possible for the Sentinel Project to gather and analyze information, and today they are developing machine learning to monitor trends in hate speech to help identify potential risks.
However, the Sentinel Project was focused on more than just technological solutions. “Our goal was always to operate on the ground and work directly with the people who are affected,” Tuckwood says. “We bring expertise on the technology side but they have the local, on-the-ground experience.”
While a student at Waterloo, Tuckwood started the UW Genocide Action Group to help raise awareness of the issue of genocide and the violence raging in Darfur, Sudan. The group hosted a variety of events from film screenings and guest speakers to fundraisers and advocacy initiatives.
While the UW Genocide Action Group was one of the most active student clubs at the time, Tuckwood soon saw there were limits to what they could do from Canada. “This realization inspired me to start thinking about ways to directly assist the people in harm’s way and to help predict and prevent this kind of violence,” Tuckwood says. “That's really where the idea for the Sentinel Project came from.”
Any new initiative starts by working with local people, organizations and sometimes governments to assess risk and gain an understanding of sensitive issues and ethnic conflict as well as the best way to work with certain groups. The NGO got its start in Kenya, a country with a long history of ethnic rivalry that puts it at a high risk for intercommunal conflict that threatens civilians. After the success of the Una Hakika project, the Sentinel Project expanded its work to other countries including Burma/Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Uganda. Today, a team of 15 and more than 4,700 volunteer project ambassadors support seven projects in five countries.
The Sentinel Project has conducted nearly 1,900 investigations and interventions, such as lending support during the highly contentious Kenyan elections in 2017. Tuckwood and his team, including director of operations Drew Boyd (MA ‘11), expanded their misinformation management system from the rural area where it started to the major slums of Nairobi, which are known for electoral violence. The team operated an interactive information service so that residents could report rumours, such as fighting in nearby areas, via text messages, social media and phone calls directly to volunteers. The team then investigated and reported back to the community with verified information. The service worked as a local early warning system to keep people aware of threats like gang activity or police using violence against protestors.
“The information we were able to give people and the high degree of engagement we saw really demonstrated that what we are doing brings value,” Tuckwood says. “We provided accurate information to stop the spread of harmful rumours, notify people of dangerous areas to avoid, and give them important safety and security information to help them make better decisions.”
The organization’s latest project, Hagiga Wahid (meaning “one truth” in Juba Arabic), aims to counter the spread of harmful misinformation related to the conflict in South Sudan and support Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. Misinformation can create an environment of distrust and fear which increases tensions among refugee groups and their host communities, thereby increasing the risk of violence. In one instance, a schoolyard fight between children almost led to more violence when a rumour spread that it was an attack by a rival tribe. Providing reliable access to accurate information from a trusted source and encouraging the development of critical thinking skills are two of the strategies the Sentinel Project uses to help to build trust and establish lasting peace.
The work is challenging, and even heart-wrenching at times, but Tuckwood hopes to expand the organization he’s dedicated his career to for more than a decade. “Our unique approach to the issue of mass atrocities is critical for saving lives in the face of some of the world’s worst crimes. We’ve already done good work as a small organization but I know that we can do much more if we gain the resources to grow the Sentinel Project to its full potential. We have to keep going.”