The Documentalist

The Other Side of The Coin: Digital Cameras Used to Back the Police’s Side of The Story

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on November 28, 2011

Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of social activism that is supported through people’s use of social media, particularly on their cell phones.  The Arab Spring is a particularly good example of this, as well as the labor protests in Spain and other parts of Europe.  In these instances, individuals have taken advantage of texting, Twitter, and Facebook to coordinate public protests, while others have used mobile devices to take photos and video footage of events.  These materials are then posted to a variety of social media forums and are often taken up by news agencies and human rights organizations to draw awareness to events.  In this way, individual citizens are witnessing events and creating information that often calls attention to abuses and violence against people seeking to defend or garner human rights for themselves.

Given all of the stir that this sort of citizen witnessing is causing, and the fact that the images and videos collected from cell phones can be used as evidence against individuals, public agencies (such as police forces), or even governments, it isn’t too surprising that these same groups are getting savvy and beginning to collect their own digital documentation to as potential evidence defending certain actions.  As a story aired on NPR on November 7, 2011 demonstrates, this is exactly what is happening in Oakland, CA as well as smaller towns in the US:

The next time you talk to a police officer, you might find yourself staring into a lens. Companies such as Taser and Vievu are making small, durable cameras designed to be worn on police officer’s uniforms. The idea is to capture video from the officer’s point of view, for use as evidence against suspects, as well as to help monitor officers’ behavior toward the public.

As stated in the article, police departments feel that all to often, they have no hard evidence to back up their side of cases investigating officers for wrong-doing.  These cameras would allow them to gather such material.  However, the cameras also raise other human rights related issues, such as questions about unauthorized surveillance or invasion of privacy.


Cameras Everywhere: A Report by WITNESS

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on September 16, 2011

Grace Lile, the archivist for WITNESS, a video-for-change advocacy group located in Brooklyn, NY, forwarded me information on the report described below.  While the report paints a picture of the current uses and further potentials for video in advocacy, Ms. Lile tells me that it does not thoroughly treat issues related to archiving and preserving the footage captured for advocacy campaigns.  She has asked me to post about the report with the hope that readers will generate discussion related to archiving human rights video materials.  So, I encourage you to read the report and post you comments or insights here.   ~Sarah

Cameras Everywhere

Image courtesy of

WITNESSrecently published a new report, Cameras Everywhere: Current Challenges and Opportunities at the Intersection of Human Rights, Video and Technology  (available here) concerning the importance of video in contemporary human rights activism.  As stated in a press release, the report “provides a roadmap… on how to create a more powerful video-for-change revolution.”

Launching [September 6, 2011], the Cameras Everywhere report calls on technology companies, investors, policymakers and civil society to work together in strengthening the practical and policy environments, as well as the information and communication technologies, used to defend human rights.

“Today, technology is enabling the public, especially young people, to become human rights activists, and with that come incredible opportunities. Activists, developers, technology companies and social media platforms are beginning to realize the potential of video to bring about change, but a more supportive ecosystem is urgently needed. It is our duty, through this ecosystem, to empower and protect those who are risking their lives,” said musician and advocate Peter Gabriel, co-founder of WITNESS.

The report draws from the expertise of 40 experts in technology and human rights to paint a picture of the current role of video in activism, as well as to make recommendations for how to further mobilize individuals to take advantage of this powerful medium as they witness key events.  Based on interviews with these 40 experts, the report presents the following key findings:

  • Video is increasingly central to human rights work and campaigning. With more human rights video being captured and shared by more people than ever before–often in real-time and using non-secure mobile and networked tools– new skills and systems are needed to optimize lasting human rights impact.
  • Technology providers are increasingly intermediaries for human rights activism. They should take a more proactive role in ensuring their tools are secure and integrating human rights concerns into their content and user policies.
  • Retaliation against human rights defenders caught on camera is a commonplace, yet it is alarming how little discussion there is about visual privacy. Everyone is discussing and designing for privacy of personal data, but the ability to control one’s personal image is neglected. The human rights community’s long-standing focus on anonymity as an enabler of free expression must now develop a new dimension–the right to visual anonymity.
  • New vulnerabilities are emerging due to advanced technologies, like facial recognition, which are often instant, global, networked and beyond the control of any individual.
  • With more videos coming directly from a wider range of sources, we must also find ways to rapidly verify such information, to aggregate it in clear and compelling ways and to preserve it for future use.
  • Ethical frameworks and guidelines for online content are in their infancy and do not yet explicitly reflect or incorporate human rights standards.
  • Neither the United States nor the European Union routinely applies human rights standards in forming internet policies. And intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN, are not yet agile players within the policymaking arena of the internet. Meanwhile some governments, notably China, are making headway in both shaping policy against domestic freedom of expression and seeking to influence international standards.

Verifying Social Media Content: The BBC Approach

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on May 25, 2011

One of the challenges faced in digital activism is knowing whether or not digitally-generated documentation of abuses is valid.  Materials circulated via social media can be particularly tricky because content can be lifted from other sources or doctored.  Thus, organizations that wish to maintain a reputation of presenting accurate information need to invest significant time in determining that the digital materials they post is accurate–a process known as “fact checking” in the field of journalism.

BBC’s method for verifying social media

#bbcsms: BBC processes for verifying social media content“, an article published by Alex Murray on the BBC College of Journalism Blog details the process that the newsroom in London engages in as reporters cover the events of the “Arab Spring.”  As stated on the blog, some of the methods engaged for verifying social media content for accuracy and veracity include the following:

At the UGC (user-generated content) Hub in the BBC Newsroom in London, our process has become much more forensic in nature and includes:

– Referencing locations against maps and existing images from, in particular, geo-located ones.

– Working with our colleagues in BBC Arabic and BBC Monitoring to ascertain that accents and language are correct for the location.

– Searching for the original source of the upload/sequences as an indicator of date.

– Examining weather reports and shadows to confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time.

– Maintaining lists of previously verified material to act as reference for colleagues covering the stories.

– Checking weaponry, vehicles and licence plates against those known for the given country.

The article further notes that this is not the full extent of their activities; rather, it is a list of their most common practices.  Following these practices, verification can take as little as a few seconds and as long as several hours, but key to their success in reporting these events is that the BBC has an Arabic division with people who can distinguish accents.  This allows reporters to determine whether a particular audio or video clip originates in eastern or western Libya, for example.  The article also reports that correspondents pay attention to details like shadow length in images to verify the reported time of day, or draw from personal knowledge of locations for determining that a place is accurately reported.

Implications for human rights documentation efforts

Though human rights groups often do not have the same monetary and infrastructural resources that a professional organization the likes of the BBC has, they can rely on several of the steps listed above to help verify content they wish to disseminate for awareness-building and activism.  For example, field workers should be able to draw on their familiarity with events and locations to verify that video or photograhic material indeed represents these places and events. Grassroots groups can also draw on their own knowledge of local linguistic differences to confirm that speakers’ accents or colloquialisms captured in footage are typical of the area where an event is reported to have happened.

A further implication of adopting some or all of the steps outlined in Mr. Murray’s blog post is that doing so will allow groups to attach important metadata to digital items so that they can potentially serve as evidence in legal cases or as part of memory and advocacy building projects.  Knowing that events are accurately portrayed, as well as having good time- and date- stamps from the devices that produce the materials, will go a long way toward creating a body of materials that will support human rights work for the long-term.

New Library Structure Blends Digital and Traditional Research

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on May 13, 2011

Today’s post isn’t about human rights per se, but it does focus on our interest on digital resources and highlights an interesting new approach to large research collections.  That said, the University of Chicago collections house a number of important works related to human rights, and the system described below may make them broadly accessible within and beyond the quads. –Sarah

Next week, the University of Chicago Libraries will open the new Joe and Rika Mansueto library.  As described in this Wired article, the very structure of the new library is designed to capitalize on the new realities of digital research in order to facilitate research in the libraries important physical collections.  As students and young faculty increasingly start the research process on-line rather than in the stacks, use of library space is fundamentally shifting.  The Mansueto library recognizes and harnesses this shift by creating an on-line research space that directs investigators to physical resources now stored in a 50 foot deep underground vault that will house 3.5 million volumes of work not otherwise available in a digital medium.  Once investigators determine that they need to consult a physical resource to complement what they’ve found digitally, they can digitally request that resources.  These digital requests can be made from anywhere in the world via the on-line catalog or email.  Once the request is received, the library’s automated system retrieves the item from the vault within five minutes and places it on hold for seven days.  At this point, of course, the researcher will have to physically collect the book from the library.  The major innovation of this system is that it allows people to digitally search key resources that are only available physically.  The hope is that appropriating digital research practices to direct work back to physical collections will maintain the relevance of these collections by increasing the range of resources that increasingly digitally-oriented students consult in their research.

Preliminary Results for the CRL Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on May 10, 2011

Documentation distribution map. (C) CRL-GRN, Van Deusen Phillips & Simon, 2011

At long last, preliminary results for the Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study at the Center for Research Libraries are available.  Please see the report “Human Rights Electronic Evidence Study: Interim Report” (also available at  CRL’s webpage ) for a detailed discussion of how documentation becomes digitized and formalized as it moves through local networks of human rights organizations.  The report focuses on field observations from Chiapas, Mexico and Kigali, Rwanda, but we believe that the results may be generalizable to most local situations.  Our main finding: small organizations tend to document human rights violations either orally or with paper documentation, but then, as they work with larger organizations with more digital resources, the documentation is converted to digital formats.  Of course at all levels, what gets documented in the first place is determined by local needs and goals, so there is no real standard practice for documentation within these networks of organizations.

Coming soon: a summary of digital documentation practices for human rights organizations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Google & Twitter Use Land Lines to Help Egyptians Tweet

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on February 7, 2011

As posted at,  NEWS 3.o MEDIA: LAB, on February 1, 2011, digital social media needs to sometimes fall back on traditional technology–in this case the telephone land line–to get messages out.  As the quoted post below illustrates, Google’s newly acquired SayNow technology allowed the group to work with Twitter to build a work-around for the Egyptian government’s shut down of internet systems in the face of anti-government protests.

Speak-2-Tweet – Google, Twitter and SayNow enable Egyptians to be heard

A group of engineers from Google, Twitter and SayNow (which Google acquired last week) were hard at work building a speak-to-tweet service for protesters in Egypt this weekend.

The service, which is already live, enables users to send tweets using a voice connection.

Google Blog :: It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and the service will instantly tweet the message using the hashtag #egypt. No Internet connection is required. People can listen to the messages by dialing the same phone numbers or going to

Summary of MobileActive’s Mobile Data Resources

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on December 7, 2010

On December 6, published a summary of the various mobile data collection resources they’ve collected and organized.  The data they’ve collected all focus on the role of mobile devices in the creation of digital documentation in humanitarian aid and human rights, and have been organized at the MobileActive site as follows:

  • Web content: A compilation of blog posts, case studies, and regular posts that focuses on data collection.
  • Peer Reviewed Research: A collection of journal articles, research papers, and literature reviews related to mobile data collection.
  • Reports and Evaluations: A matrix of 20+ case studies, broken down by issue, area of practice, target country, and type of evaluation.
  • How-Tos: Instructions for setting up many of the most popular data collection tools, such as ODK, RapidSMS, and EpiCollect.
  • Inventory: An inventory of current data collection projects around the world, compiled through user submissions and MobileActive’s research. Thanks to all who contributed!

Visit the complete post to access and review the “Ultimate Resource Guide” and associated spreadsheet that serve as navigation tools for MobileActive’s highly useful collection of product reviews, academic and technology research, reports on digital data projects and in the field, and much more.  These resources are constantly updated as the MobileActive team learns more, so take a visit and if you know of a resource they haven’t covered, let them know and they’ll add it to their resources lists, reviews, and databases.

Open Source Technology Making Cell Phone Service Possible Out of Network

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on August 31, 2010

Image courtesy of

At this year’s Burning Man festival in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada, Open Source Subnet is doing their second year of testing for a low-cost cell phone network program called OpenBTS that would allow even the most impoverished areas of the world to have cell phone service.  The OpenBTS system works in conjunction with a small tower unit that can be powered with solar power, wind generation, or batteries.  As author Julie Bort states in “Burning Man’s open source cell phone system could help save the world” (read the full article for details):

Today I bring you a story that has it all: a solar-powered, low-cost, open source cellular network that’s revolutionizing coverage in underprivileged and off-grid spots. It uses VoIP yet works with existing cell phones. It has pedigreed founders. Best of all, it is part of the sex, drugs and art collectively known as Burning Man.

As stated in the article cited above, the technology will likely be announced publicly in September and developers anticipate that the whole installation kit would cost approximately $10,000 versus the $50,000 to $100,000 that typical cell phone towers cost to install.  Moreover,  it operates seamlessly with existing frequencies and networks.  Given the alternative power sources and the price point, this technology could be a reasonable alternative for cell service in remote areas with fewer financial resources.  The implications for human rights and humanitarian work are pretty clear:

“The UN and ITU studies show that when you bring communications services to an area, healthcare goes up, economic well being goes up, education goes up,” Edens says, noting that costs and power needs are low enough that even a small village can afford to do this. Users may need to pay $2 or $3 a month.

Human Rights First Asking What a Networked World Means for Human Rights

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on August 18, 2010

Human Rights First, an international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C.,works to defend people’s rights to equality and for freedom of thought, expression, and religion.  The group was founded in 1978 as the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights and takes as its charter:

…to promote laws and policies that advance universal rights and freedoms. We exist to protect and defend the dignity of each individual through respect for human rights and the rule of law (Human Rights First Charter)

As part of this charter, the group maintains a strong Web presence where work, campaigns and breaking news are presented and regularly updated.  The site incorporates a variety of digital media including video, still images, and blogs to illustrate their work and call attention to key issues in the defense of freedom of expression internationally.

Human Rights in a Networked World

A recent post at the Human Rights First Webpage focuses on the impact of an increasingly digitally networked world on human rights work.  The post, titled “A Networked World: What’s Next for Human Rights” includes a very nice overview video that was commissioned by the group’s partner, Global Partners & Associates, a “…social purpose company working to promote democratic politics, effective governance and human rights.”  The video (embedded below) demonstrates the organic and un-planned nature of digital networking and begins to lay out the hugely positive impact that this sort of social organization can have for human rights defense and activism.

The post further argues that “New technology demands new thinking about how companies, governments and civil society groups can each work to promote Internet freedom, visit our website to learn more.”  See the complete post at the links above for a full discussion of the potential impact of digital networks on human rights.

New Ushahidi Map for August 4, 2010 Elections in Kenya

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on August 3, 2010

Image courtesy of Ushahidi at

Kenya-based Ushahidi, an organization that has created an online platform for gathering and mapping users’ text messages about crises in real time, launched a new mapping project last week to monitor Kenya’s August 4th elections.  This project is particularly significant for Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili) because their work began in 2007-2008 as a response to the violence that erupted in Kenya after corrupt presidential elections (see this Documentalist post for background on Ushahidi).  This year, Ushahidi is using its platform to try to head off such violence before it can even begin by mapping citizen reports of election activities at Uchaguzi (Elections).  For a more detailed description of this project, see this Ushahidi blog post.  As with all of their work, the platform will capture and archive all texts, videos, and images that users submit to the platform for mapping.