Staff Spotlight: Zach Tilton on Technology’s Impact on Peace and Development

To celebrate today’s International Day of Peace, Zach Tilton, evaluation specialist for the Digital Impact Alliance, reflects on his time working in peacetech and his career journey to leverage technology for peace and development.

As a young child, I remember sitting on my dad’s lap watching the green and black interface of the MS-DOS screen start up, hearing the dial-up modem handshake cacophonies as my mom logged on to the internet, and intercepting secret love-note faxes between my sister and her boyfriend. My father was an IT worker, my mother a technology specialist, and my older sister has since dumped the fax (and boyfriend) and now works in Big Tech. While technology runs in my family and has impacted my life beyond fond memories, this past summer I joined another digitally-literate family, the Digital Impact Alliance, to help tech have a lasting impact on the lives of others. This post highlights how my experiences with digital development and peacetech underscore why I believe in DIAL’s mission.

I cut my teeth in digital development in 2011, when I helped build and manage an online course for advanced mediation skills during my undergraduate peacebuilding program. During a mediation role-play with some students based in Fiji, who had experienced two coups d’état in the previous decade, I was struck by the role technology was playing in delivering critical services to underserved populations. Years later as Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, I led an monitoring and evaluation (M&E) task force to utilize higher rates of mobile devices in the field (85 percent from 57 percent in the previous cohort) to test mobile data collection methods and hold program-wide conversations about improving cultures of accountability and learning.

I eventually connected with Build Up, a social enterprise that convenes peacebuilders, technologists, and artists, and works on peacetech related initiatives. Aside from volunteering and presenting at their annual Build Peace conferences over the years, I recently worked on two peacetech projects: a #peacehack where participants built Twitter bots to amplify the message of International Peace Day and a campaign following the 2016 US presidential election that utilized Twitter bots and social network analysis to address political polarization, burst filter bubbles, and bring people together for virtual dialogue about polarizing issues.

Throughout all these experiences, despite the number of bots, mobile devices, or automated learning modules, I found technology and program designs were only as good as the people and values behind them. As it turns out, there is evidence to back this up. My love-letter-faxing sister, Jennifer Brook, is still using tech to make connections, just as a Design Researcher for Dropbox. I recently read one of her reports where her research team uncovered a key characteristic of successful, tech-enabled teams is an explicit social contract, or an articulation of what values inform their approach and how they work together.

Incidentally, DIAL is one of the biggest proponents of social contracts in the digital development space. As steward of the Principles for Digital Development, DIAL advocates for ecosystem actors to recognize, commit to, and become signatories of generally accepted standards of technology for development. Internally, DIAL not only practices the Digital Principles, but has developed an organizational social contract, what we call our Values Agreement, to inform and evaluate our work. From business operations meetings, decisions about future investments, strategy discussions, design and work planning, even down to program-specific monitoring, evaluation, and learning plans, DIAL team-members strive to highlight and work by the values we’ve articulated and signed onto.

These conversations are not always easy, but having an explicit values agreement gives us a north-star to guide us though this challenging work. In an era of unintended consequences in official development assistance, social contracts like the Digital Principles and internal value agreements help DIAL and other ecosystem partners ethically and intentionally realize the vision of a world in which the underserved benefit from digital technology.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can email me at and follow us on Twitter for updates about our work.