A pocket-size technology that has radically changed how people communicate, hail rides and listen to music could soon play a starring role in transforming how aid reaches people trapped in some of the most dangerous places on Earth.
The smartphone is the platform for a new online tool that a team of Clemson University students is creating to securely connect civilians in conflict zones with people who can provide food, medicine, transportation and other aid.
A prototype of the tool, P2PR2P, was showcased at November’s Paris Peace Forum, where it was warmly received, and students are working on the finishing touches so that it can be deployed to real-world conflict zones.
Users would be vetted to ensure they are trustworthy and then sent a link to download the app-like digital tool to their smartphones. When the tool is opened, users can tap “ask” to detail the help they need or “offer” to describe what goods and services they can provide.
You can view a sample of the tool here: https://danaides.org/p2pr2p/.
Richard Brooks, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is leading the tool’s creation in cooperation with Danaides, a French non-governmental organization co-founded by Félix Blanc and Stephanie Lamy.
The idea behind the tool is to overcome some of the most common challenges in delivering aid to civilians in conflict zones.
Well-meaning organizations sometimes deliver standard aid packages that include items that the recipients can’t use or don’t want. But with P2PR2P, civilians can specify their most urgent needs.
The tool would also help eliminate bottlenecks that develop when all aid is funneled through the same delivery routes, Brooks said. With P2PR2P, aid delivery could be coordinated less formally. For example, a tool user who is driving into a conflict zone could volunteer an open seat to deliver a few boxes of food or medicine.
The tool’s users will include a variety of individuals and groups, including people living in conflict zones, those who have fled the violence to live elsewhere and well-established aid organizations.
People who are reliable would be given the ability to distribute goods and coordinate activities.
“One of the advantages is that we’re empowering people in combat zones,” Brooks said. “If you’re in a combat zone, you often feel pretty helpless. Our tool helps the people organize themselves and take control of what they’re doing.”
Students are also working on a way for users to rate each other’s trustworthiness and could include a system similar to how drivers and passengers rate each other on Uber. The goal is to establish trust within the tool and ensure that aid reaches civilians who need it most and isn’t diverted to militaries or warlords.
P2PR2P had an international audience when it was showcased at the Paris Peace Forum, a three-day conference in November that drew top world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“It was received very well,” Brooks said. “ We had a number of government representatives and humanitarian groups come by to see our work.”
The name of the tool comes from a mash-up of abbreviations for “peer-to-peer” and “responsibility to protect.”
Many of the 17 graduate students who developed the prototype are pursuing degrees in computer engineering or computer science, but some came from other disciplines.
The idea was to help students gain experience in working with colleagues outside of their degree programs and mirror the diverse teams that come together in the real-world workplace.
Chunpeng Shao, a Ph.D. student in computer engineering, said communicating with his teammates was important to ensure the tool is helpful.
“They really helped me understand what I needed to adjust to fit the users’ needs,” he said. “Right now we have a demo version. The next step is to test the tool in a real conflict zone and add more functions.”
Michelle Eichinger, a doctoral student, was able to tap the experience she acquired in a 20-year public health career that included jobs with the state of Delaware, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her own consultancy.
She was able to provide valuable information about how medicine should be stored and distributed.
“Anyone who has worked in this field just wants to save the world,” said Eichinger, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in planning, design and the built environment. “If it’s one person, one community or one war-torn area, it’s one step to saving the world. This project reinvigorated my passion.”
Caitlin O’Loughlin, who is working toward a Ph.D. in economics, is helping foster a sense of trust within the tool. The system could include users’ background, how much they engage with the tool, how many additional users they bring on and user ratings of each other, she said.
“I feel honored to be a part of this,” O’Loughlin said. “Everyone comes from a diverse background, and we’re learning a lot from each other.”
The project was part of Resilient Infrastructure and Environmental Systems, a graduate program funded with $3 million in 2016 through the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program.
Chris Kitchens, who is principal investigator on the program, said that P2PR2P serves as an example of how the program uniquely prepares students for the world’s challenges.
“Our program produces professionals who can analyze complex problems, collaborate across disciplines and build systems that solve those problems,” he said. “Students working on this project learned those skills and positioned themselves to have a real-world impact. It’s a job well done.”
Daniel Noneaker, chair of the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said P2PR2P is helping elevate Clemson’s reputation on the international stage.
“It was a significant honor for the team to show its work at the Paris Peace Forum,” Noneaker said. “I congratulate Dr. Brooks and his team on a successful project.”
Blanc thanked Brooks and his students for their work on P2PR2P.
“It is a privilege to work with such a talented group to take our digital tool from idea to reality,” he said. “Together, we will relieve suffering, prevent needless deaths and empower civilians in conflict zones to help each other.”