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More, Better, Faster: PeaceTech in Review (By Sheldon Himelfarb, PeaceTech Lab CEO)

This guest posts by Sheldon Himelfarb, PeaceTech Lab CEO, is in response to Jacob Lefton’s post “Scaling Peacetech – A Growing Conversation”.

In his blog post, reviewing the February 4th PeaceTech Summit in Washington DC, Build Peace’s Jacob Lefton does a great job of distilling a lot of complex ideas that have been presented on how best to scale peacetech. However, one particularly significant and controversial topic – namely the role of profit in achieving scale – deserves closer examination here.

First, some context: the PeaceTech Summit was a unique opportunity to bring together visionaries and pioneers in the emerging peacetech industry. With over 300 participants, panelists from Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Brazil, Australia, DC, and Silicon Valley, and breakout sessions ranging from “Gaming to ScalePeace” to “Engineering Conflict Solutions at Scale,” it was certainly the most exciting undertaking in the PeaceTech Lab’s short history and we are grateful to all who made it possible.

With the success of the event, however, comes the ongoing challenge: how do we talk about the theme “Scaling Peacetech: More, Better, Faster” not as a tag line but rather as a modus operandi that underscores everything we in the PeaceTech Lab, and others in the field, believe and work towards? Lefton’s piece tees up the complexity by asking: “Who is invited to participate in industrial peacetech, and how do we ensure input from a broad range of peacebuilders and innovators?”

At the Lab, we firmly believe the voices of local peacebuilders are paramount to the success of scaling peacetech. Days before the Summit, we hosted a “Voices from the Field” Twitter Chat using the hashtag #scalepeacetech and were pleased by the participation of activists in Burundi, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and South Sudan. In addition, we were lucky to have iHub Nairobi Researcher Nanjira Sambuli with us on the opening panel, and the voices of other peacetech leaders from conflict countries represented throughout the day.

Lefton’s piece also highlights the important questions: “What does a peacetech company actually look like? How is it funded? Is profit for innovators a foundation of peacetech?”

Our vision of a thriving peacetech industry includes governments laying out seed money and awarding contracts for research and development. The resulting projects would attract investors, and businesses would discover overlapping interests with peacebuilding professionals. Profits would be realized in many cases, by leveraging the power of scale that comes with tech, data, and media work, creating a public-private win-win through more peaceful societies and sustainable economies.

There was one assertion in the piece, however, that was misleading: “For the PeaceTech Lab, the way to scale peacebuilding is through profit.” On the contrary, the Summit was designed to present an expansive array of scaling opportunities, some involving profit and many that did not. We showcased a non-profit peacetech accelerator being launched in Colorado to support in their own words “12 new startups that use technology to reduce violent conflict.” We applauded the work of Drexel University, this nation’s largest private college of engineering, for creating the first peace engineering degree program to help expand development of peacetech, among other goals. We listened to a panel of broadcasters from Nigeria, Pakistan and Netherlands with whom the Lab has recently signed agreements to co-develop peacebuilding media online and for broadcast.

In other words, the PeaceTech Lab is passionate in our belief that scaling peacetech and peacebuilding is a cross-sector undertaking that requires not-for-profit, government, and for-profit practitioners. We also believe that the for-profit sector has been woefully under-utilized — particularly now when low-cost, easy-to-access technology is changing the way information and capital flow. This new normal has unleashed unprecedented opportunities for social entrepreneurship in the use of tech, data and media for peace and prosperity.

For 2016 to be the year of truly transformative peacetech, we must, as Jacob Lefton suggests, employ laser-like focus on delivering impact faster “with more sustainable and broader reaching outcomes.” Media, data, and technology are important aspects of this goal, but to achieve scale requires we also get the people, partnerships, and processes right. To that end, the Lab will continue to work as a convener and strategic partner for businesses, non-profits, and peacebuilders alike, until #scalepeacetech goes from being a goal to being a given.

Continue the conversation. How do you scale peacetech?

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Go Deeper: Cultural Strategy for Peacetech (by Jacob Lefton)

Note: I wrote this essay in part to help frame the arts program at Build Peace 2016. One of the questions I seek to answer is why arts and cultural work are integral to the development of peacetech processes. This year’s conference theme is Toward Transformation, with focused inquiries in political and socio-cultural transformation and ethics. It’s clear to me that arts and cultural work are a series of tools and methodologies that can broaden the engagement and outcome of transformation in political and socio-cultural arenas, and aid people in working through ethical questions. This essay takes the long view: arts and cultural work broaden and deepen transformative processes over long, generational periods of time—and we should plan for that.

Emerging technology continues to be a powerful tool in peacebuilding initiatives, but given a lack of cultural strategy, peacetech’s long-term impacts are unknown at best and destined to fail at worst. Understanding and engaging cultural contexts in peacebuilding processes is vital to their success—the renowned peacebuilding scholar, John Paul Lederach, says, “peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition. It is a dynamic social construct.”

Peacetech is also a political force in its ability to flatten hierarchies and create the conditions for massive, nuanced citizen participation in governance. Use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring movement is one example. It is a stark reminder of the old adage, “politics follows culture.” As peacetech connects the halls of power to grassroots movements, cultural context is everything. Helena Puig Larrauri, co-director of BuildUp, characterizes these peacebuilding implementations as “civic engagement processes that deal with conflict.” Peacetech’s broadening influence on peacebuilding requires understanding and utilization of cultural strategy.

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Cedaria: Blackout – Play for Peace!

This guest post is by Marie Madsen & Josep Garcia from Search for Common Ground.

Search for Common Ground (SFCG) has developed its first ever video game together with the game developer Matsuko. Cedaria: Blackout aims to provide youth in the Middle East with a platform to learn and practice how to manage conflict, solve community problems collaboratively, and understand the perspectives of the “other”. At a time of escalating violence in the region, gaming can be an effective and innovative tool to reach out to young people and promote the experience of non-violent conflict transformation ideas and concepts. SFCG aims to demonstrate that videogames can be a fun and creative way to engage more young people towards collaborative problem solving.

Cedaria: Blackout is a steampunk game set in an imaginary Middle Eastern context. The island of Cedaria used to be a centre for advancement and prosperity. However, the desire to dominate the island gave rise to trouble. Bonds between the different inhabitants shattered, fights ensued, skirmishes broke out around every corner and threatened to collapse the very foundations of the island. It is now the player’s job to help Cedaria leave behind its conflicts and regain peace and prosperity.

Screenshot from Cedaria: Blackout.

Screenshot from Cedaria: Blackout.

In regular video-games players normally fight against evil enemies in order to win. Here they will have the option to experience how it is also possible to win through cooperation with others. By reinforcing the values of cooperation and practicing negotiation and mediation skills, players will be able to change their attitudes towards conflict and learn some more constructive ways to deal with it in their communities. SFCG brings here a long experience in training and empowering communities with non-violent conflict resolution tools in a variety of contexts. Individual attitudes towards conflict and ways to deal with it on the personal level have a relevant impact on both community and national peacebuilding processes. Cedaria: Blackout aims at empowering a new group of individuals in these processes.

While SFCG has a long experience in peacebuilding, we are new in the gaming universe and therefore we kindly call on all peacebuilders and gamers out there to try out the game and give us your feedback! Cedaria: Blackout is not only to be played alone in front of a screen; we want to trigger discussions on alternative ways to address conflicts with the youth of the Middle East.

Download and give your feedback to Cedaria: Blackout.
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We look forward to hearing from you!

Edited 10:56 CET March 07, 2016 with insight into SFCG’s experience in the field.

Scaling Peacetech – A Growing Conversation (by Jacob Lefton)

In February, I attended the Peacetech 2016 Summit, Scaling Peacetech: More, Better Faster, at the United States Institute of Peace’s PeaceTech Lab. They brought together visionaries and pioneers from a variety of industries and government to discuss how enterprises can become collaborators in growing the impact and reach of peacetech.

At Build Peace 2015, Sheldon Himelfarb, the president of the PeaceTech Lab, delivered a keynote “From Innovation to Industry,” making a case for scaling peacetech through industrial methodology.

The forward thrust of PeaceTech Lab’s proposal is that impact goals in peacetech can be reached and exceeded by using for-profit industry models in design and implementation of peacetech processes. This peacetech industry, built to rival other industrial complexes, would be aligned around social values to further peacebuilding objectives. At the Summit, Himelfarb presented supporting discussions, including presentations on the power of GIS, the peering economy, video games, and some innovative media companies, to name just a few. The Summit seemed to frame scaling in peacetech as a profit-motive problem. Tech entrepreneurs are less likely to be drawn to peacebuilding applications for their work, because the current peacetech funding models that exist are not attractive enough.

For the PeaceTech Lab, the way to scale peacebuilding is through profit. This approach to scaling, they argue, would build a bigger tent to bring in innovators who are drawn more strongly to fiscal growth than more traditional peacebuilders seem to be.

peacetech summit

As I attended the Lab’s summit, it seemed the Lab’s investigation on scaling peacetech through profit intersects with inquiries we hope to explore during Build Peace 2016: Towards Transformation. As we said earlier, Build Peace 2016 asks why we use technology to build peace. What are we trying to change, and what can technology affect in these processes? We defined three areas of inquiry: political transformation, socio-cultural transformation, and ethics. Profit models for scaling peacetech raise significant questions in all three, such as:

  • How do we scale peacetech in an effective manner that leads to true transformation? Is profit for innovators a foundation of peacetech?
  • How does industrial peacetech—the peace-through-profit model—work to allow under-resourced stakeholders to participate in on a level playing field?
  • There were few grassroots organizations mentioned, and fewer grassroots voices represented at the PeaceTech Summit. Who is invited to participate in industrial peacetech, and how do we ensure input from a broad range of peacebuilders and innovators?
  • If industrial peacetech is driven by traditional economic structures of capital and investment, how does it address or subvert inherent political and socio-cultural power dynamics associated with private enterprise today?
  • What does a peacetech company actually look like, structurally? Is the peering economy a key ingredient? Build Peace’s Rodrigo Davies looked into that last year when answering the question, ‘is AirBnB a civic tech company, a peacetech company, or neither?’

As we prepare for our three-day conference in Zurich in September, scalability is one of the forefront questions on our mind. Our focus at Build Peace is to deliver on impact faster with more sustainable and broader reaching outcomes. In Zurich, we will continue the conversation as we explore possibilities and pitfalls in various models of transformation through peacetech.

Do you have an answer to one of our questions, or a question of your own? Please share it with us.

We look forward to hearing your voice in the ongoing conversation.

Build Peace 2016: Towards Transformation

Peacebuilding is fundamentally about change, and most discussions about peacebuilding are really about how to change less than ideal situations into slightly better ones. Over time, answers to these questions have increasingly recognised that conflict might in fact contribute to positive political, cultural and societal processes. The change needed no longer revolves around resolving or managing conflict, but rather transforming it away from violence and destruction towards constructive change.

This perspective sees the different spheres of politics, culture and society as closely linked in conflict contexts and the potential subjects to such transformations. So while we explored whether there was a role for technology in peacebuilding in 2014, focusing more specifically on who and how in 2015, we propose to tackle the change question head on at Build Peace 2016 by asking why we use technology to build peace. What are we trying to change, and what can technology affect in these processes?

To cover the key facets of these complex questions, we identify three areas of enquiry as starting points to continue our discussion on how technology can contribute to building peace.

  • Political transformation Discussions on the role of technology in political processes have often focused on resistance – how activists mobilise against oppressive regimes (we heard from Dalia Haj-Omar and her experience in Sudan last year), for example. We propose to extend this conversation to explore whether and how technology can support wider inclusion in and engagement with political processes in peacebuilding. Does technology provide new avenues to engage with or challenge Track 1 negotiation processes? Or does it lead to alternative (or complementary) peace efforts, independent of political and institutional support? Can technologies closely associated with political processes be trusted in fragile or rapidly changing peacebuilding environments?
  • Socio-cultural transformation From current project data we know that the bulk of work that uses technology for peacebuilding focuses on mobilisation and engagement, with the aim of changing behaviours. But in order to contribute to peace, these transformations require reaching a certain critical mass. So what role can technology play in changing behaviours and cultural manifestations? And can technology facilitate processes to build this critical mass? And can it help us know when a critical mass has been reached?
  • Ethics Finally whether we are engaged in political or socio-cultural transformation, there are always values that guide how we go about this work. But technology brings about specific considerations. What ethical challenges does technology highlight in peacetech? What are the ‘side effects’ of using technology in peacebuilding and do they outweigh perceived benefits? How do we avoid the ‘white saviour industrial complex’ and the perpetuation of dominant power structures? Does the sourcing of the technologies we use matter? What values should guide a peacetech industry that seeks to constructively transform society?

Contribute your experience to Build Peace 2016

Ideas, projects and research that consider these questions will be the focus of debates at Build Peace 2016. We are busy curating keynote speakers, dialogues between experts and workshops. The 2016 conference will have more than double the hours of workshop or informal discussion time to create more spaces for making valuable connections or collaborative working. And we are also looking for contributions from all of you. There are different ways you can apply to share your work at the conference:

  • Short Talks are intended to present concrete projects that are in progress or completed. Presenters will speak for 5 minutes and then take questions from the audience.
  • The Build Peace Lab offers presenters a chance to explain a concrete project that is at the idea or design stage. Presenters will speak for 10 minutes and then receive feedback and questions from the audience for 20 minutes.
  • The Crowdsourced Arts project is a global exhibition of visual arts related to peacebuilding and technology, with a focus on the conference themes of political and socio-cultural transformation. We are looking for great photographs or other visual media suitable to reprint.
  • The Technology Fair is a space for people or organizations to present technology tools that can be used to build peace. The Fair will take place in the main conference space throughout the conference. We expect most people to visit the Fair during lunch and coffee breaks.

Join us at Build Peace 2016: what you need to know

  • You can buy conference tickets now: click here. Our standard registration procedure allows to buy up to five conference tickets. If you would like to order more, please contact Tonei to discuss your requirements.
  • If you are interested in sharing your work, you can apply here to deliver a Short Talk, present at the Build Peace Lab, have a stand at our Technology Fair or to submit a piece of artwork for our crowdsourced arts project. Applications are open until April 15, 2016.
  • Most of our ticket sales are used to fund those who could otherwise not afford to attend, and applications are also open until April 15, 2016 for our Travel Fund.
  • Successful applications for the Short Talks, Build Peace Lab, Travel Fund and volunteers will receive a free conference ticket. Unsuccessful applicants will be given the chance to buy conference tickets at the end of the selection process.

Dangerous Together: announcing the Build Peace Fellows program

At Build Peace 2015, we asked participants to be careful with each other so they could be dangerous together. What we love most about the community that has emerged around the Build Peace conferences is this ethos of collaboration, rigor, and learning to better build peace through technology. In this spirit, we are delighted to announce the Build Peace Fellows program.

We are looking for exceptional individuals who want to work at the intersection of peacebuilding and technology. Fellowships are awarded to individuals to work on a peacebuilding intervention to which technology is central. Over a year, Fellows will receive a full package of support, including training, mentorship, technology support and a small grant. Applications are now open until February 1, 2016.

Maybe you’re wondering if this is just another innovation challenge. We know innovation challenges are popular these days, but we think the Build Peace Fellows program is different. Here’s why: we’re not interested in innovation, in the next new technology or the next new tool, what we’re looking for is robust, impactful and participatory peacebuilding. The reason we focus on technology is that we believe technology tools can be game-changers in peacebuilding processes. Why? Because technology allows more people to participate in a conversation. It makes it harder for decision-makers to ignore community voices. And it can be game-changing tool for grassroots initiatives.

If this vision resonates with you and you have an idea for an intervention that uses technology to build peace, then we want to hear from you! Keep in mind that the one-year Fellowship is just the beginning. Our vision is to create a community of Fellows who embody the values of the Build Peace community. The Fellowship will be an opportunity to develop and implement an intervention in one year. But we all know peacebuilding processes take a lot longer than that. The Fellowship is a way to start a long-term partnership: you will become part of the Build Peace community, and we hope to find ways that you can continue to contribute to and benefit from the Build Peace community long-term.

We’re ready to be dangerous together. Are you?

Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders & Build Peace 2016

The best entry in this year’s Tomorrow’s Peacebuilding competition that uses technology in an innovative way as part of their peacebuilding will win a scholarship to attend the ‘Build Peace 2016’ conference in Zurich, Switzerland, and become a Build Peace Fellow.

We are pleased to announce that the best entry to  this year’s Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders competition that uses technology in an innovative way as part of their peacebuilding will win a scholarship to attend the ‘Build Peace 2016’ conference as a Build Peace Fellow, benefiting from an opportunity to present their work and receive other support to use  technology to build peace. Full details of the Build Peace Fellowship will be announced in the Fall. Technology related entries will be assessed by the ‘Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders’ jury and the team at Build Peace to select the winner of this prize.

Build Peace brings together practitioners, activists,technologists and artists from around the world to share their experience and ideas on using technology for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Read more about the conference here.

Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders is Peace Direct’s annual competition which recognises the very best emerging local peace organisations around the world. The three main prize winners will receive $10,000 and an invitation to the prize-winners’ event in London in December. The deadline for entries is 15 September 2015.

More information about the competition, and how to enter, is available here:


Reinventing how we live together (by Helena Puig Larrauri & Sanjana Hattotuwa)


(Photo: Thaths)

Critics of peacebuilding find the concept problematic.

To some, peace is a deeply conservative notion: it can mean compromise; it can mean ‘keep quiet and don’t rock the boat.’ We believe that there is a global movement (with regional variance) in which technology plays a key role to reinterpret peacebuilding as civic engagement.

At every level of polity and society, whether it is consciously articulated or carelessly and uncritically applied, technology for peacebuilding is taking root.

Looking beyond the status quo

Sometimes keeping the peace can be synonymous for simply maintaining the status quo– appeasement and submission may seem like a durable peace– but in the long term, they are not. This is often the case when peacebuilding is conflated with peacekeeping, and main actors are focused on ensuring a peace agreement is not violated. On the Sudan-South Sudan border, the Misseriya nomadic groups and Dinka cattle herders and farmers have been forging peace agreements for centuries, providing rights of passage to the Misseriya through Dinka land. The agreements are very important for avoiding violence in a volatile environment, but the process of sustaining this delicate peace is sustained by a hierarchical structure of power dominated by older men.

This locally-initiated peacekeeping arrangement maintains a status quo and ignores the voices and concerns of women. The arrangement therefore represents a limited notion of peace. In a recent United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded pilot, a team of women living in the border areas used a participatory video process to produce and disseminate a short film that shows what peace means to them, and how peaceful coexistence is critically linked to the availability of water. Their voices, jointly calling for greater water resources, are moving the peace discourse beyond the status quo and into a future of interdependence.

Building a positive peace

Johan Galtung makes a distinction between negative peace (avoiding violence) and positive peace (overcoming not just direct violence, but also structural and cultural violence). Galtung’s positive peace reaches beyond the conservative notions of peace-as-status-quo. It lays emphasis on looking beyond peace agreements and towards deep and sustained coexistence and interdependence.

However, this notion of positive peace can also be problematic if it pushes a particular agenda that does not represent all voices. In the Somali region, politicians and institutions seeking to build peace through democratic elections have worked under a number of assumptions about the preferences of Somalis for particular voting arrangements. An Interpeace-funded project used technology-enabled, participatory polling to debunk these assumptions and begin to redefine what kind of positive peace Somalis want.

For example, the polls found that most people do not support the clan-based power-sharing formula called the 4.5 system.” This ran contrary to the assumption of policymakers working to establish democratic systems, most of whom worked under the assumption that a clan-based system would be the only way to gain broad acceptance for democratic processes. Galtung’s positive peace is important, but just as important is to understand that there are many personal perspectives on what positive peace is.

The personal is political                

National and international actors all too often interpret peacebuilding as a value-free activity. In this sense, the problem with peacebuilding is similar to the problem often seen with technocratic policymaking and development as a whole – it claims to be “post-political” and neutral when it is anything but.

It is in fact subject to a normative consensus that is not made explicit. And in the same way that this subtle consensus lessens the options in democratic systems, it lessens the options in peacebuilding contexts. In too many settings, peacebuilding is given over to technical experts, policy-makers, mediators, and peacekeepers, who neglect engaging with the communities on just what peace is actually being built.

In 2010, USAID funded the development of a Cuban-equivalent to Twitter, a social media platform based on text messages: ZunZuneo. Initially, the platform sought to provide Cubans with a cheap, simple way to connect on social issues – football, TV series, common interests. But from its inception, the project’s aim was also to provide a channel for political discussion and (possibly) political mobilization.

The controversy surrounding ZunZuneo turns on one key point: USAID went to considerable length to hide its involvement in the project. Setting out to open up space for dialogue through a technology platform can certainly support building peace; hiding that you are doing so raises questions about just what peace you hope to build.

Peace: By whom and for whom?

The challenges associated with attaining peace (and peacebuilding) described above boil down to two questions: What peace do people living in violent conflict want? For whom and by whom is this peace being built? A peaceful society is one that is structured in such a way that it encourages us to take the risk to invent, every day, new ways of living together. So for peace to exist, it has to engage in debate all the agendas for peace in a society.  With this in mind, technology can play a critical role in peacebuilding by offering new avenues for alternative discourses to be formed and heard.

In Sri Lanka, Groundviews (and its related initiatives, Maatram and Vikalpa, operating in Tamil and Sinhala respectively) bears witness to systemic violence and a democratic deficit that endures post-war. Through the use of mobile and online platforms for storytelling, Groundviews amplifies voices and viewpoints that have been otherwise marginal, peripheral to, or violently erased from, policymaking. The website, as well as the commentary on it, is a fuller record of contemporary history – with competing narratives, within a framework for civil yet critical discourse.

This works to highlight the rich tapestry of opinions, identities, and ideas in a country often (for expedient political ends of political parties) portrayed as mono-ethnic and mono-religious.Groundviews, through technology, helps contributors and readers imagine what can and should be, when often, realpolitik stymies the country’s post-war potential.

A new paradigm for peacebuilding – through technology?

Technology works for peace when it provides access to discourse and governance processes to more people, and does so in a way that is both disruptive and constructive: communities that can document violence, individuals who can capture efforts they and others make to strengthen peace, groups that can communicate more effectively within their own borders and beyond. Through a spectrum of apps and services on the web, Internet, and mobile devices dealing with conflict transformation, technology can create the templates for peacebuilding’s critical ideas to take root. These information and communication technologies (ICTs) bring about innovative frameworks for the imagination to escape violence, and safe spaces for broadening discourse about conflict transformation.

From Occupy to Podemos to #IllRideWithYou, initiatives for change and civic engagement are increasingly happening outside of established institutions. By leveraging technologies that amplify people’s voices, these new initiatives are more inclusive, more dynamic, and more meaningful on the ground. We see the links between civic engagement and peacebuilding, including the positive function technology can play by broadening avenues for discourse. It is our view that this new paradigm for peacebuilding is parallel to this new paradigm for civic engagement. While many challenges remain, technology enables this paradigm shift, even if it does not necessarily cause it.

We believe technology is at its best when it helps to demystify peacebuilding and the structures of power. Keeping the peace and uniting people across divides is not the only goal of technology in peacebuilding – it may often be to challenge what otherwise remains an unquestioned status quo, dominant power structure, a single story as history, a majority’s perspective as the only truth.

*This post originally appeared on Building Peace Forum’s blog

Thoughts on the 2014 conference (by Jordi Torrent)

Many thoughts, the conference was wide and inclusive of ideas and approaches to the use of games and ICTs towards building more peaceful and less polarized societies. I liked the use of “humour” of some of them… “IsraelLovesIran”, for example. I also liked the grassroots strength of some others, the face to face approach of the Philippines project. I really enjoyed Ethan Zuckerman’s keynote speech, it helped me to better understand other approaches of the “search in the Internet” that other areas of the world might have.  It also made me even more uneasy to the potential dismantling of the Internet as we know it, the end on the “net neutrality” world.

The need to find the right balance between “entertainment” and “educational”. We need to engage audiences emotionally, “educate” through emotional exchange and “entertainment” digital platforms.  People need to feel touched, emotionally touched. The way they do watching films or TV shows they like.

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