Human Rights

Human rights and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined in a world of crowdsourcing, YouTube and camera phones. But how can human rights and democratic transparency be strengthened by new communication technologies in the developing world? This was the central question considered by this panel.

Moderator: Stephanie Hankey, CEO of Tactical Tech, an organisation which empowers human rights advocates to use information and communications more effectively for social change.

Erica Hagen, Director of GroundTruth Initiative and Founder of Map Kibera, a project empowering young people to build an interactive map of the Kibera slum and share stories of their community and challenges their community face.

John Kipchumbah, Program Associate and INFONET Program Co-Founder at Sodnet, which promotes civic concerns and empowers civil society using internet platforms to increase access to information on government.

Patrick Meier, Director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, which deploys mobile and web tools to enable citizen reporters to give early warnings about human rights violations, monitor elections and support humanitarian responses.

Sameer Padania, CEO of Macroscope, a research, policy and advocacy consultancy working on the future of human rights, media and technology.  Sameer is also a consultant to Witness and recently published a report Cameras Everywhere on the challenges and opportunities of technology for human rights activities.

Overview

Human rights work is powered by documentation of information.  Increasingly new technologies, particularly mobile phones, are being used to collect important information for furthering human rights.  These platforms have a variety of relationships with government: they can operate outside government radar or within a neglected part of the state; they can be used to strengthen the state and reduce gaps between government and people; or they can encourage intergovernmental involvement in issues.  Not only can new technology collect information and help to publicise it quickly, it is involving more people in human rights work and brings data in new, accessible formats.  Though this has its benefits, it also creates new challenges, and activists need to be educated as to what the risks of using new technologies for human rights advocacy are.

Lessons from the field

“Is this a new draft of history?”

New technology is allowing human rights activism to take place in ordinary public arenas and by the public, and is strengthening a relationship between people and information that can shape society and how events are documented in history.

  • The use of mobile phones, computers and digital cameras has allowed more people to contribute to human rights data collection and in multiple formats; there is a mix between real time information (such as photos) and statistics/data.
  • Core to human rights work is still the data and evidence that goes into the system; it is not just about new technology systems themselves.
  • New platforms can help inform government of community needs and encourage appropriate policies and development initiatives, for example, that a village “needs a well not a school.”
  • New technology allows people to engage with government and hold it accountable, for example using a government budget tracking tool as developed by INFONET.
  • New platforms are giving voice to citizens who are neglected by the state, for example the Map Kibera project has giving rise to Voice of Kibera website where residents post stories and issues such as forced eviction.
  • In crisis situations people collectively bear witness to events and record them on digital devices.  From this they can map the situation as it unfolds and document history in the making rather than having history written by those ‘who win’, for example Ushahidi and Libya Crisis Map.
  • New technology is allowing visual representation of human rights data in an easy to understand format, such as Anti-Slavery’s map Products of Slavery.

“Is that your password on a post-it?”

Though there are clear opportunities in using new technologies for human rights work, using them exposes the individual and has risks that are not always recognised.

  • Human rights activists always take risks but a problem with using technology is they often do not know what those risks are; there is a trail left behind and this is a risk for practitioner and funders.
  • New technologies have changed the way people engage and document human rights abuses but they have also changed the way people are watching us.
  • Some activists are shunning technology all together and are not carrying mobile phones or going online in order to mitigate these risks.
  • Technology companies could take greater steps to protect people such as pixelating images, although as mentioned there is always a degree of risk involved.

Discussion

  • In the discussion the panel spoke about the broad topic of human rights, what it entails and how it is developing with new technologies.  In Sameer Padania’s presentation he adapted a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on this:  Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works; the telephone he carries in his pocket, the images he takes with his camera, the social network he posts them on.
  • There were questions around scope of information sharing:  e.g. whether something being available online means it should be available to all?  Should we be able to access all information on us that is online?  Is posting something online transparency?
  • There was also agreement that values, ethics and responsibilities are part of human rights and should be part of digital platforms for human rights.  As technology and platforms develop, digital values and ethics need to evolve alongside them.
  • There is a need for ‘infomediaries’, those that understand the technology and the issues and can help inform those using new platforms, and bridge different groups operating in this space.

To learn more about the work of our panelists, click here to view all the speaker videos from the day.

Thanks to Daisy Wakefield, Aphra Sklair and Deanna Laforet of the Institute for Philanthropy for producing these notes.

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