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XIX.5 September + October 2012
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HCI for peace

Juan Hourcade, Natasha Bullock-Rest, Lahiru Jayatilaka, Lisa Nathan

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Two hundred thirty-seven million. That is a conservative estimate of the number of people killed as a direct consequence of war and doctrinal hatred during the 20th century [1]. It's the equivalent of two 9/11 attacks every day for the entire century. One trillion two hundred eighty-three billion dollars. That is the amount of money spent on military operations by the U.S. between September 11, 2001 and March 2011 [2]. It would have been enough to rebuild every primary and secondary school in the U.S. [3].

War is expensive. Very expensive. Preventing, deescalating, and minimizing the damage from armed conflicts all makes sense. The Pentagon agrees. Its 2008 National Defense Strategy says, "Military efforts to capture or kill terrorists are likely to be subordinate to measures to promote local participation in government and economic programs to spur development, as well as efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies."

Despite the high cost of recent wars, we are fortunate to live in a time of relative peace. There hasn't been a war between major powers for more than 60 years, and the number of inter- and intrastate conflicts is at an all-time low. This gives us a great starting point to at least try to maintain armed conflict at this low level, if not reduce it even further.

back to top  1963

The situation was far more dire in 1963 [4]. On the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moment the world teetered precipitously on the edge of the outbreak of nuclear war, a computer consultant in Palo Alto, California, proposed the idea of a new organization: the Peace on Earth Research Center. The proposition, put forth in a paper titled "Computer-Oriented Peace Research," suggests putting the sharpest analytical minds to the practical problems of achieving peace, constructing computer models to understand the problems that cause armed conflict, and developing solutions to prevent future conflicts [5].


Its author, Louis Fein, had just seen the achievement of another vision of his at Purdue University, which established the first computer science department in the U.S. in October 1962. Fein had played an instrumental role in the movement to establish computer science as a discrete academic discipline, separate from engineering and mathematics. Often rebuffed by universities around the country, he persevered in his attempts, publishing papers and presenting his views across the country.

In "Computer-Oriented Peace Research," Fein notes that computer-oriented analysts have directed their experience in many areas, "... banking, insurance, combinatorial mathematics, chemical engineering, and war gaming. We are quite familiar with the role of computers as problem solvers, as calculators and as simulators, emulators, and imitators. But computers play their most significant role as a Socratic goad to analysis and problem formulation."

Just as the Manhattan Project could be completed only with a vast research team, Fein writes, we should not expect that peace is a task for one professor, or a "lone genius ... on a dedicated philanthropist's grant," but rather that we should see it as a project needing serious and expert attention from the community as a whole.

It can be difficult to conceptualize peace and to talk about it, but Fein dismisses complexity as a reason to neglect peace, noting "the distinctive analytic approach to practical problems and computing instruments of computer-oriented analysts" can only be beneficial in finding the solutions for peace.

back to top  Leveraging New Knowledge

Now, almost 50 years later, how has the field responded to his call? The past 10 to 15 years have seen a large number of publications addressing Fein's challenge to understand the breakdown of peace by statistically analyzing empirical data on conflict to better grasp the risk factors. This has resulted in an expansion in the discussion of how to go about achieving peace, from primarily philosophical or religious discourse to scientific approaches—a broadening that is familiar to a field like HCI.

Paul Collier, from Oxford University, developed complex statistical models in the 1990s combining historical demographic and armed-conflict data on countries [6]. His models predict the likelihood that a country will enter into conflict within a few years based on current conditions. Through these statistical analyses, he identified factors that increase and decrease the likelihood of armed conflict. Among the factors he identified as increasing the likelihood of conflict are a dependence on primary commodity exports, a failure of the social contract, and a high proportion of young men in the population. On the positive side, he found full democracy and a more educated population reduced the likelihood of armed conflict. In fact, one of Collier's most surprising findings was that each additional year of education for the general population resulted in a 20 percent reduction in the likelihood of civil war. In recognition of his research, Collier was honored as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

As Collier studied the precursors of war and peace at a societal level, other researchers studied how individuals make life and death decisions. Consider Harvard University's Joshua Greene, who has studied how empathy and compassion work in the brain. In one project he introduced research participants to the runaway-trolley problem, where they are presented with one of two scenarios [7]. In the first scenario, researchers tell participants that there is a runaway trolley that is going to kill five people unless they flip a switch, in which case the trolley will be diverted to a different set of tracks resulting in only one person dying. An overwhelming majority of participants who listened to this scenario decided to flip the switch. In the alternative scenario researchers gave participants the same description, except in this case, in order to save the five, participants had to push one person onto the tracks (with no criminal or legal liability). In this case almost no participants decided to save the five by pushing the one. Although debates concerning this hypothetical scenario are familiar to ethicists and philosophers, Greene's contribution was to monitor participants' decision-making process using brain-imaging technology. He found that in the first scenario, participants used the regions of the brain associated with utilitarian values. But when faced with the second scenario, they used regions of the brain associated with mental-state attribution; they were feeling what the person getting pushed would feel. Greene's experiments offer a window into the role of proximity (physical or social) with respect to life and death decisions, including decisions related to war.

Many others have followed, with an increasing number of high-profile scientists writing books on the subject. For example, Simon Baron-Cohen, best known for his research on autism, recently published The Science of Evil, which provides an overview of what he refers to as the "empathy circuit" in the brain, discussing personality disorders where empathy is compromised, such as psychopathy and narcissism, and explaining how people without impaired empathy can sometimes participate in atrocities [8].

Steven Pinker discusses both societal and individual issues in his large volume The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [9]. In this book, Pinker provides extensive data supporting the argument that the world is becoming more peaceful, and that the closer people are to the "state of nature," the more violent they are. He also makes a case for specific causes behind this decrease in violence while debunking many other theories.

More recently, in May 2012, Science released a special issue titled "Human Conflict," in which much of the research on the factors affecting the likelihood of war and peace is discussed, including human empathy, the roots of racism, the decline of ritualistic murder, the role of gender, the role of government, the impact of climate change, and the use of new technologies such as drones and social media [10].

back to top  Leveraging the Ubiquity of Computing in People's Lives

While a shift toward a scientific approach to understanding the causes of conflict can provide a useful framework for a field like HCI, there is still the question of how, exactly, HCI can play a role. Another change that has occurred in the past 10 to 15 years provides an answer: the increasing ubiquity of computing devices in people's lives.

The advent of Internet connectivity, mobile devices, and social media provides a powerful cocktail for computing and HCI to be key components in peaceful change at both an individual and societal level. The change is such that political discourse and personal decisions are increasingly mediated through computer devices.

The past year has provided us with clear examples of how interactions with contemporary digital tools are having an impact. For example, in late 2011 several U.S. banks canceled their plans to charge customers for using debit cards after an intense social media campaign that opposed the measure. An even more visible example was the maelstrom of dissent against the SOPA and PIPA bills in late 2011 and early 2012. These bills had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress with strong lobbying behind them from groups and businesses that traditionally support both parties. Yet a well-orchestrated social media campaign made SOPA and PIPA toxic, with sponsors abandoning the bills in droves, eventually leading to a decision not to bring them to a vote.

Arguably the most stirring example of the influence of computing technologies on politics, though, came not from the U.S., but from North Africa during the Arab Spring of 2011. While the extent of the impact of social media and mobile devices is still under debate, and political change may have happened without them, the evidence points to these technologies playing a significant role.

The Growing Documentary is an example of how mobile technologies are increasingly being used to provide us with a first-person perspective on dramatic events. This makes it more likely we will experience a deeper compassion than if we just read statistics on the number of deaths or the cost of the destruction.

These trends are likely to become more prevalent, especially in developing regions. As of 2011, more than a quarter of people living in developing regions were Internet users, and eight out of 10 people had a mobile phone subscription (see While the patterns of political change may not differ so much from those spurred by the printing press or the telegraph, they are much more likely to be mediated through computers, with devices, tools, and user interfaces designed in part by HCI professionals and researchers.

The impact of computers will also play a greater role in our perceptions of people from other groups, cultures, and regions of the world. It is still relatively easy for political and religious leaders to paint people from another group as inferior, immoral, or evil. This process of dehumanizing groups of people increases the social distance to these groups, making it easier to support waging violence against them. However, it is increasingly possible and relatively simple to access media from other parts of the world, and thus to access different points of view. Likewise, through social media, there is great potential to connect with people from other regions of the world, and to stay connected with those we meet.

The use of mobile devices as media recorders is also beginning to provide an incentive against the use of violence. While armed groups used to be able to cover up, deny responsibility for, or justify violence, this is becoming much more difficult as videos and pictures of the events are quickly uploaded to media-sharing sites. There were many examples of recorded acts of violence during the Arab Spring. Likewise, this past year, police tactics against nonviolent student protesters at UC Berkeley and UC Davis were exposed through videos uploaded online, prompting calls for the use of less violent methods from civil authorities.

back to top  HCI's Role

HCI can offer a fresh, socio-technically informed perspective to augment other approaches to conflict reduction. HCI has decades of experience in developing into an interdisciplinary field that recognizes and values a range of methods for addressing complex challenges. In addition, we offer expertise in the design, development, and evaluation of interactive technologies at multiple scales—the very technologies that are already having a direct impact on political and conflict-related decisions.

The research question that looms large is how to go about designing and evaluating interactive technologies that have a greater likelihood of promoting peace instead of conflict. Even having identified precursors of peace as goals does not make the problem much simpler. For example, how do we design technologies for democracy, or to encourage governments to make greater investments in education? This is a challenging and nuanced question that the field has only begun to investigate, combining the knowledge from relevant disciplines with HCI approaches through a range of specific projects.

Following a panel at the CHI 2011 conference and a SIG at INTERACT 2011, a group of researchers with a common interest in peace and conflict reduction met for a workshop at CHI 2012 (visit the workshop website at The workshop was a first opportunity for members of the HCI community with an interest in this topic to meet, share projects and ideas, and engage in extensive discussion. The universal appeal of the topic was reflected in the diversity of participants, who were originally from nine countries and are now based in seven countries.

The focus of most of the projects reflected the new realities of ubiquitous access to computing and social media, leading to a bottom-up model for experiencing information and forming opinions about groups of people and events. This is in contrast to the still prevailing top-down model for experiencing information, where it comes almost exclusively from news outlets increasingly controlled by governments and a few corporations. More specifically, the projects spanned the cycle of experiencing events, gathering digital content on these events, curating and organizing the content, visualizing and broadcasting it, and helping people reflect, generating constructive action and ultimately new events to experience and report. The main challenges that came up in the projects had to do with design and evaluation methods, varying contexts and perspectives, and the overall complexity of the problems the projects attempted to address.

Most of the projects also made attempts to engage, in one way or another, Baron-Cohen's empathy circuit in our brains. These regions of the brain, working together, enable us to become self-aware and regulate our emotions, see events from someone else's perspective, and feel empathy and compassion, which involves understanding how others feel (also referred to as theory of mind) and desiring to help them if they need help. We illustrate these patterns here with examples from the workshop.

An example of gathering information from the bottom up came from Janak Bhimani's work at Keio University in Japan on the Growing Documentary, a scalable platform for collaborative storytelling. Bhimani used the Growing Documentary to quickly put together a film about the 2011 tsunami in Japan based on multiple contributions from people who recorded what happened during those horrible days (a version shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival can be seen at The platform enables people to remix the documentary, adding new footage if they choose. The Growing Documentary is an example of how mobile technologies are increasingly being used to provide us with a first-person perspective on dramatic events. This makes it more likely we will experience a deeper compassion than if we just read statistics on the number of deaths or the cost of the destruction.

A more structured example of information gathering came from the Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal project. The project began by conducting video interviews with personnel from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and is now designing an information system to make these videos culturally, linguistically, technologically, and temporally accessible in support of grassroots Rwandan recovery initiatives. This project brings about additional challenges in terms of representation, access, and curation because there are multiple perspectives on what happened during the Rwandan genocide coexisting within a highly restrictive political environment. Tension exists between those who believe discourse is needed so the extent of the atrocities is remembered (and avoided) by future generations and those who fear that remembering will continuously reopen tragic wounds.

Such tensions are reflected and addressed in the Narration Negotiation and Reconciliation Table (NNR-Table), a joint project between FBK-irst in Italy and the University of Haifa in Israel. This tabletop application is designed for two participants and a moderator to compose a shared narration of a particular event. Through this interactive technology, people from two groups can identify points of agreement and disagreement through explicit actions. Preliminary results from a study with Palestinian-Arab and Israeli-Jewish participants suggests they were more likely to view the conflict in more moderate terms after participating in one session with the NNR-Table. This project shows how direct interactions with people perceived to be from an opposing camp can lead to understanding the other side's perspective, and how interactive technologies can help facilitate this engagement.

The potential of networked, digital technology becomes more salient when it is difficult for people to meet face-to-face. This was the situation in Cyprus in the 1990s when Panayiotis Zaphiris set up early versions of online social networking software to connect people from the Greek and Turkish sides of Cyprus. This, again, enabled new ways of learning about "the other side" using a bottom-up approach, encouraging new perspectives. These communications can be important for both forming shared narratives and encouraging reflection on events.

One challenge with bottom-up approaches is that the amount of data and communication possibilities can be overwhelming. Information visualization techniques can help in this regard. Evangelos Kapros at the University of Dublin is working on a project that bridges information visualization, multi-agent simulations, and narrative building with respect to immigration. The combination of bottom-up information gathering with Ben Shneiderman's approach of "overview first, zoom and filter, then details on demand" can prove quite powerful when the details on demand become first-person testimonies or video of events. Similar to the Growing Documentary, this approach makes use of personal narratives to help us reflect and trigger the empathy circuit in our brains.

There are also opportunities for reflection when we are alone, in the absence of personal narratives from others. One example from the workshop comes from PeaceMaker, a video game in which the goal is to achieve peace instead of defeating the enemy. Another example is the work of Neema Moraveji on calming technologies (, which puts an emphasis on building self-awareness, a key component for emotion regulation.

Interactive technologies can also help us take constructive action. Lahiru Jayatilaka's work at Harvard and now with Red Lotus Technologies ( on low-cost landmine-removal equipment that incorporates visualization techniques makes it easier for novices to detect landmines and can also streamline training on landmine detection.

These are just a few examples of HCI research conducted with the goal of promoting peace, and preventing, deescalating, and minimizing the damage from armed conflicts. A paper by Hourcade and Bullock-Rest presented at the CHI 2011 conference lists many other examples as well as other research ideas, organized by the precursors of peace identified through empirical studies [11]. Interviews with many of the researchers behind these projects are available at All of these resources illustrate how HCI can play a role, and how this can happen through a range of disciplinary approaches, making use of HCI techniques and taking advantage of the dynamic landscape of digital, networked technologies throughout the world.

back to top  Challenges

Areas of concern remain, including the ones below, which were discussed at the HCI for Peace workshop at CHI 2012.

Methods. There are many challenges in conducting this research, which involves complex, multigenerational problems and multiple stakeholders, contexts, and points of view. Values-oriented design methods, developed among others by Batya Friedman, who received the SIGCHI Social Impact Award this year, provide a start. These are complemented by Friedman and Nathan's ideas on multi-lifespan systems that are explicitly designed with adaptation and long-term consequences in mind [12].

Another approach is offered by John Thomas, whose workshop contribution included specific design patterns that apply to peace and conflict management. He emphasizes taking advantage of nonviolent conflicts and tensions by turning them into opportunities for constructive change. Thomas's proposed patterns rely on our empathic abilities to communicate across boundaries and build relationships by starting with small points in common before addressing larger challenges.

These example methods and approaches offer initial steps for addressing complicated and deep-seated problems through HCI, work that others can critique, adapt, and improve upon.

Naming the area. It may appear a bit vain, but during the workshop one of the most heated debates ignited during a discussion about the name for this area of research. Many participants were concerned that the word peace carries with it some detrimental connotations that make it difficult for research with the word peace in it to be taken seriously. Perhaps too many North Americans still associate the word with the hippie subculture. Others may associate it with anti-military, unpatriotic feelings or utopian fantasies. The recent Science special issue on this topic struck a balance with the title "Human Conflict: Winning the Peace," using a peace sign for the "o" in conflict. Think about it, how do your perceptions of someone change if they tell you they are working on peace versus conflict management research? This can be a politically charged topic and it can be easy to alienate groups and institutions that should be part of the conversation, such as the military. Hence, we have to carefully select the language we use when we speak about this line of research while being clear about our ultimate goal of reducing armed conflict.

Supporting the community. We also face a related challenge in supporting our community, in terms of professional and financial resources. For our workshop participants, their research on peace and conflict reduction is work they feel deeply passionate about. However, many stated that they are unable to make this work their main focus because of issues related to the perceived legitimacy of and funding opportunities for this work. Few could see professional growth in this area. Reframing the research for funding sources with compatible aims may provide a way forward.

back to top  Opportunity

Working on complex, challenging problems can also bring significant benefits. Our greatest opportunity is in joining other disciplines in researching the topic of peace and human conflict. Disciplines as diverse as neurology, political science, behavioral economics, and sociology have much to offer those developing interactive technologies. Through collaborative efforts we can better understand the influence of interactive technologies at a societal level, while also investigating how they affect specific regions of our brains. New methods need to be developed, and opportunities await.

Our field's interdisciplinary nature and the prevalence of interactive technologies mediating personal and societal decisions means we cannot simple make a contribution—we must participate. The time is now. Join us. Contribute your ideas, time, and skills. Make a difference. Our world can be no brighter than the worlds we dream of.

back to top  Acknowledgements

We would like to thank all the organizers, participants, and authors in the HCI for Peace workshop at CHI 2012: Janak Bhimani, Evangelos Kapros, Trond Nilsen, Daisy Yoo, John Thomas, Daniela Busse, Kelsey Huebner, Neema Moraveji, Janet Davis, Panayiotis Zaphiris, Ronit Kampf, Esra Cuhadar Gurkanyak, Nathan Stolero, Batya Friedman, Oliviero Stock, Massimo Zancanaro, Chaya Koren, Zvi Eisikovitz, and Patrice L. (Tamar) Weiss. We would also like to thank Ben Shneiderman and all the other members of the HCI community who have supported and encouraged our efforts in this line of research.

back to top  References

1. Brzezinski, Z. Out of Control. Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-First Century. Scribner, New York, 1993.

2. Belasco, A. The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11. Congressional Research Service, March 29 2011.

3. Calculated based on number of public schools (, private schools (, and cost estimates for building new elementary schools ( and high schools (

4. This section was previously published in the HCI for Peace blog:

5. Fein, L. Computer-oriented peace research. Proc. of AFIPS. ACM, New York, 1963, 631–639.

6. Collier, P. Economic causes of civil conflict and their implications for policy. In Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World. C.A. Crocker, F.O. Hampson, and P.R. Aall, eds. United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington DC, 2007.

7. Greene, J.D., Sommerville, R.B., Nystrom, L.E., Darley, J.M., and Cohen, J.D. An fmri investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science 293 (2001), 2105–2108.

8. Baron-Cohen, S. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Basic Books, Philadelphia, 2011.

9. Pinker, S. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin, New York, 2011.

10. Riddihough, G., Chin, G., Culotta, E., Jasny, B., Roberts, L., and Vignieri, S., eds. Human conflict: Winning the peace. Science 336 (2012), 6083.

11. Hourcade, J.P. and Bullock-Rest, N.E. HCI for peace: A call for constructive action. Proc. of CHI 2011. ACM Press, New York, 2011, 443–452.

12. Friedman, B. and Nathan, L.P. Multi-lifespan information system design: A research initiative for the HCI community. Proc. of CHI 2010. ACM Press, New York, 2010, 2243–2246.

back to top  Authors

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the University of Iowa's Department of Computer Science. His main area of research is HCI, with a concentration on technologies that support creativity, collaboration, and information access for a variety of users, including children and older adults. He co-founded the HCI for Peace initiative, whose papers and panels are discussed in this article.

Natasha E. Bullock-Rest is a research assistant at Brown University. Her main area of research is in understanding the causes of communication challenges and assisting people with these challenges. Natasha's work has included the development and evaluation of computer-based activities to enhance the social skills of children with autism, as well as neurological research on the causes of aphasia. She co-founded the HCI for Peace initiative.

Lahiru Jayatilaka is a graduate student in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University. In his research, he has implemented a system to provide visual support to human deminers using metal detectors in minefields. Lahiru also brings the perspective of being from Sri Lanka, a country that has experienced a great deal of armed conflict during his lifetime.

Lisa P. Nathan is a faculty member at the iSchool at the University of British Columbia. Through a range of projects she investigates the design of information systems that address societal challenges, specifically those that are ethically charged and impact multiple generations (e.g., environmental degradation), and creative information practices that influence how these systems are appropriated over time. She is a founding member of the Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal project.

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