Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Sentinel Project’s official founding on 8 August 2008. The ten-year mark is definitely a notable milestone and a worthwhile occasion for a personal note as the organization’s executive director and one of its co-founders. A decade seems to hold special significance and offers an opportunity both to reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far as well as to look ahead at what remains to be done.
When we founded the Sentinel Project in 2008 it was born out of experience with the movement to end the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region. I had been quite involved in this work as a university student but came to realize that the world needed a more direct approach to assisting communities threatened by genocide and mass atrocities. Alongside this focus on working on the ground with the people in harm’s way, others brought in the idea to use the full potential of technology to support our mission.
Of course, starting an NGO dedicated to preventing genocide by using technology to work with threatened communities is easier said than done, especially when the founders are fresh out of university and don’t exactly know how to do any of that. The first half of the Sentinel Project’s life was definitely an exploratory phase as we built a team and figured out how to reach where we wanted to be as an organization. Fortunately, dedication and enthusiasm made up for our lack of experience and funding.
Five years ago we conducted our first fieldwork, deploying a mostly self-funded team to Kenya as observers for the 2013 election and to investigate the Tana Delta massacres. That was an important step that gave us the insights and experience to set up Una Hakika, our first field-based program aimed at directly influencing an atrocity-prone situation. It also happened to be well timed, coinciding with our first external funding and my departure from my day job to focus on the Sentinel Project full time.
Una Hakika quickly became our flagship project as people and other organizations realized the value of using technology to stop the spread of harmful rumours and misinformation that exacerbate conflict. This model not only spread to other parts of Kenya but has since been replicated in Myanmar as the Peaceful Truth project and in the Congo as Kijiji Cha Amani. It’s been exciting to watch that initial gamble on fieldwork in Kenya pay off and turn the Sentinel Project into an international organization.
Along with learning about how to counter harmful rumours to support peacebuilding, over the past five years our team has also learned a lot about how to use technology for things like early warning and crisis communications. We’ve also learned how to go into new areas and better assess the need for these types of interventions, the types of approaches and tools that are most likely to work, how to fundraise for the necessary resources, and how to work effectively with local partners and residents.
Of course, there is still much to be done. The past ten years have seen the Sentinel Project grow from an idea into a team of volunteers and eventually a paid staff with projects in multiple countries. All of these are great accomplishments for a new, small organization but the past ten years have also seen new or continued cases of genocide and mass atrocities in many countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Congo, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and many more. Clearly, there is still work to be done.
Going forward, the Sentinel Project team is committed to taking what we have learned in relatively small-scale, low-intensity conflicts so far and scaling these up to cases like those listed above, where there may be hundreds of thousands or millions of people in danger. We will also continue building on our technological lessons about how to use mobile phones, misinformation management techniques, unmanned aerial vehicles, online hate speech monitoring, and other new tools to support our mission.
I also intend to write more about our experiences in terms of both successes and failures as well as the lessons that we have learned from these. Our website will include more insights on our future plans, outlining the places where we want to work and how we want to work there. With regular updates we aim to share our insights for others to learn from, for our supporters to follow along on what we’re doing, and for all of us to shape how the Sentinel Project’s next ten years will unfold.