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Using New Technology to Give Voice to the Voiceless

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Co-authored with Renata Giannini

Simply by virtue of where they live, roughly 1.5 billion people are dangerously at risk of becoming a victim of violence this year. Families living in countries, cities and towns torn apart by war and criminal violence are particularly vulnerable. While lethal violence is always traumatic, the intentional killing of children is depraved. Yet more than 75,000 young people die violently each year due to the direct and indirect consequences of armed violence, most of them outside of conflict zones. Not surprisingly, some societies are more affected than others. Brazil -- host to the World Cup next month -- could be considered one of the world's most violent. The nation's homicide rate is classified as well above "epidemic" using World Health Organization standards. Roughly 50,000 are violently killed each year, with at least half of these preventable deaths consisting of adolescents and children.

Lethal violence is just the tip of the iceberg in Brazil. The consequences of violence for young people are far-reaching, spanning generations. Exposure to an assault and abuse does not only leave physical scars. Recent neurological research shows that it can induce lasting physiological deficits, psychological trauma, declines in educational achievement and perverse behavioral changes, including increased aggression later in life. It is telling that young Brazilian males between 15 and 29 years old not only constitute the greatest burden of victimization but are also disproportionately represented as perpetrators. Some factors make them more at risk than others. For example, their exposure to violence at a very young age, often in the home, alongside inequality and dislocated families are all significant contributors.

And while there is growing commitment to preventing violence against children, the fact remains that the scope and scale of the problem in Brazil -- and around the world -- is still poorly understood. This is an invisible crisis. Just how many young people are affected by chronic insecurity in Brazil? The latest census data indicates that there are 63 million young people in Brazil, 29 million of which are children under 10. A significant proportion of these people live in low income areas affected by chronic and episodic violence. Simply because of their class and socioeconomic conditions, they are at a higher risk of becoming a victim. And the statistics bare this out: the Ministry of Health reported that between 1980 and 2010 there was a 346 percent increase in homicide rates among young Brazilians. Every single day the country's hotline -- the Disque Denuncia -- registers 129 cases of psychological and physical violence.

The first step to treating and reversing violence against children is correctly diagnosing the problem. It is not enough to commit resources to preventing violence without first undertaking quality research. Fortunately, new technologies -- including those being developed by the Igarapé Institute and others like Promundo, Shine-a-Light, NECA and UNICEF can help. Owing to the rapid increase in digital connectivity and access to information communication technologies, governments and non-governmental organizations are beginning to identify new ways of generating data that were previously thought impossible. As a result, young people who were previously invisible are now empowered with a louder voice to shape their own safety and security.

The Igarapé Institute is developing a new smartphone-based app to identify and hopefully help prevent violence against children in Brazil. One of our latest products is a Child Security Index (CSI) that consists of an open source application designed to track children's perceptions and experiences of violence. Based on a review of the public health and child behavior literature, the CSI consists of 30 basic questions that assess risk, exposure and protective factors. It documents how young people experience security in their home, at school, and in their communities. Information is safely stored and visualized on an online platform showing patterns and trends. Between 2014 and 2016, the Institute will work with partners in Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and up to 50 cities to track the dynamics of violence against children and identify evidence-based solutions to prevent it.

Good information is the cornerstone of effective policy. While not a panacea, the use of new technologies can play an important role in the development of targeted and cost-effective solutions. By giving organizations the tools to improve their work on preventing violence against children, the CSI is one example of how technology can help make our communities safer.

*The CSI is a finalist for the Google Social Impact Challenge. To help give voice to the voiceless, please vote before May 8 2014.