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Contest Winners Find Ways to Engage Public on Arms Control

By Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | 05 March 2013
Crowd of people dressed as "Where's Waldo?" character (AP Images)

One of the runners-up designed a game similar to "Where’s Waldo?" in which players try to spot warheads and other weapons components that are out of place.

Washington — Winners of the State Department’s “Innovation in Arms Control Challenge” received cash prizes for developing projects aimed at informing the public about the challenges of securing components and materials that could be used in weapons of mass destruction, and the potential role the public can play in helping their governments keep these items safe.

The contest was announced in August 2012, asking creative problem solvers to find an answer to the question "How can the crowd support arms control transparency efforts?"

The State Department announced the winners in a March 4 media note, and Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller joined them in a Google+ chat later in the day, where they explained their creations in greater detail.

In the chat, Gottemoeller said one of the current challenges of arms control is that the threats posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons “seem so arcane somehow” in the era following the Cold War. “These days it seems very remote and something that’s not really important to people’s day-in-day-out lives,” she said.

The contest could help to change this perception. Gottemoeller explained that it is “all important” to engage the public in arms control efforts as part of President Obama’s goal of ultimately ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

First-prize winner Lovely Umayam from Middlebury College's Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, won $5,000 for developing Bombshelltoe, an online educational platform that examines how culture and nuclear issues can intersect to improve public understanding of nuclear- and arms control–related issues.

In the online discussion, Umayam described Bombshelltoe as a blog that examines arms control issues through popular culture. She said she had noticed that many people get their information about arms control issues through movies and other popular culture, and are often unaware of some basic issues, such as the difference between uranium and plutonium and what a nuclear-weapons-free zone is.

“The goal of Bombshelltoe is to foster a more meaningful conversation about arms control issues by exploring the intersection” between what the public learns through the media and other popular culture and what is true, she said. She hopes the blog will get more people interested in learning more details about arms control efforts.

There were also two runners-up, who each received a $2,500 prize.

RUNNERS-UP CREATED MOBILE APP, LOCATION GAME

Allan Childers, an aerospace and defense industry consultant from Florida, developed a mobile application similar to the concept of “Where’s Waldo?,” a popular book series also known as “Where’s Wally?” that has inspired online games, a television show and a comic strip.

“I thought it would be a great idea to create a game along the lines of ‘Where’s Waldo?’ except we’d call it ‘Where’s TLI?’ [treaty-limited items],” Childers said, referring to weapons-related materials that are controlled under international agreements.

Game players would get information on how to spot TLI that is out of place and win points when their online avatars discover it.

“For example, a warhead would not travel as a warhead on the back of a flatbed truck so everyone could see. It would travel in a trailer. We would find those kinds of trailers and have people identify [them] if they see that kind of data,” Childers said.

Sharing the runner-up prize is Rudolph “Chip” Mappus, a research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute who was inspired by how people are using GPS devices and smartphone technology for geocaching and other games where they find items that are otherwise hidden in plain sight.

“My proposal was to have treaty experts post online locations and tasks for players to complete, and then the players would go out and seek these locations,” Mappus said. The players would learn how to verify treaty compliance and would submit what they find online for experts to verify that they completed the task, he said.

Gottemoeller said all three prizewinners were able to figure out “how to get the public more engaged in arms control monitoring and verification and to develop public understanding of the challenges that face us in this policy arena.”

She stressed the importance of societal verification, or mobilizing the public to get involved and cooperate with their governments on arms control verification, just as they are already doing on environmental issues.

For example, during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, local communities helped federal, state and local officials in their cleanup efforts by alerting them to where they saw conditions caused by the spill, she said.

In the past, arms control verification focused on larger items such as bombers and missiles that can be seen from space by satellites. Gottemoeller said that in the coming years individuals will play a greater role because there will be a much greater focus on smaller objects such as warheads being kept in storage areas.

In her remarks, the under secretary also announced that there will be another Innovation in Arms Control Challenge competition and that the State Department plans to announce details in the next few months.