Geo-location and human rights

“…future monitoring efforts should make sure that precise locations are recorded first time. So, here are two questions for our five or so readers: what’s working well on this issue in the real world; and, what’s the most practical way to manage information about electoral boundaries?”

Some thoughts of the cuff, as one avid reader of Paul Currion’s blog and to a post that poses the question above.

  • It’s not always possible, in fact rarely so that even today HR activists can get precise coordinates of a violation or incident. The accuracy of geo-location depends on anything from media reports to first or second hand accounts by witnesses to the violation.
  • Place names are a problem for any system that records geo-location in English alone. In Sri Lanka, while most major cities and town have standard and well recognised names in English, the smaller villages as well as IDP and refugee camps have no standard spelling in English. This raises the real challenge of multiple records dealing with the same incident, persons or place. (The HR system we developed for Sri Lanka works in the swabhasha and we are working on building semantic intelligence further into the system wherein it will flag records that it feels are duplicates).
  • Even with just place names, it’s possible to do visualisations that demonstrate patterns of HR violations amongst certain identity groups, in certain regions and in response to certain events or processes. These patterns, based on rough yet verified incidents, can prove very powerful instruments through which awareness and civil actions can be engendered and sustained to strengthen and proctect HR.
  • Current crop of GIS location devices are too conspicuous. They can’t be hidden easily and HR activists lugging them around in war zones is simply a non-starter.
  • Not always necessary to have precise place names. It’s a given that there have been more HR violations in cities in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka than, say, for any city in the South over the 25 years of conflict. You may need precise geo-location if you have more than circumstantial evidence to take a specific perpertrator to court locally or internationally, but for most purposes of HR advocacy, awareness raising and protection, just having information of HR violations over time at a provincial level is better than none at all.
  • Most of the really accurate geo-spatial datasets reside with government. If the government itself is a significant violator of HR, as is the case in Sri Lanka today, that pretty much means that these datasets are inaccessible for NGOs and civil society organisations working on HR protection. This means that they have to rely on what may be less acurrate publicly available datasets. With most donors unaware of the vital importance of supporting information services to back-stop HR advocacy, many NGOs can’t afford the significant costs associated with the licensing of commercially available GIS datasets. And with all sorts of varying ways of identifying the same or similar locations – from P-Codes to Post Codes, from old names to new names, from merged Provinces to de-merged Provinces and the entire relocation of towns and cities – what you really need are multiple layers (translucency) on all maps that indicate location data.
  • Again, place means different things at different times and in difference instances. For some cases, just knowing that an incident happened in whatever place suffices. In other cases, it is of vital important to know the exact location of the place where the incident occured.
  • Finally, as an aside, for myself and others engaged in HR strengthening through the use of technology, these are not just academic questions – they deal with real lives and a bloody reality. Some of our programmers, unused to the gruesome descriptions of a few real records they entered at the initial testing stages of our HR advocacy platform, had to take breaks from work to deal with their feelings. Our system was conceptualised, development and deployed to actively respond to a context where activists who use it are at high risk of losing their lives just for speaking out on HR abuses. We could have gone for the perfect solution or one that meaningfully helped them do their work and responded to urgent and vital needs in a manner robust enough to hold flagrant violators or HR accountable for their actions. Our choice was clear.

4 thoughts on “Geo-location and human rights

  1. Sanjana – thanks for the comments, although I should give credit for the blog post to my colleague Tom Longley.

    On your comments – we agree that there are obstacles to precise geolocation in many cases, but that’s exactly the point – how do we deal with those obstacles? The place names issue is a critical one, but the solution is co-ordinates. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to walk around with GPS (although obviously that would help, and GPS-enabled cellphones are one way of making it less obvious) but it does mean better analysis during the data entry process.

    When you say “It’s a given that there have been more HR violations in cities in the embattled North and East of Sri Lanka than, say, for any city in the South over the 25 years of conflict”, my response is – prove it. The more accurate your location information, the better the evidence that supports advocacy, and if the location information is poor it undermines the credibility of the statement. (Note: I’m not contesting the statement itself.)

    Multiple layers are fairly standard in most GIS work, but unless all of your data is captured on the same layer, then you’re going to face serious problems comparing different datasets. In the case of the work that Tom was talking about, everybody feeding into the system has to be working to the same standard, otherwise we run into the apples and oranges problem. Place may mean different things at different times, but if everybody has their own notion of what constitutes a “place” then I’m not sure any system would be able to cope with it.

  2. Hi Paul,

    We have in fact proven it! 🙂

    The system we designed for two of the leading HR advocacy organisations has logged (really sadly – this is home after all) over 1,000 incidents dating back to April 2007 and mostly in the N/E.

    It’s one thing to read it on paper, another really to see it visualised in any number of ways graphically (pie / scatter / line broken by violation, identity group, age etc), though stuff like regression analysis and timeline based animations are still in the works.

    We can prove it because the organisations concerned were fairly bloody disorganised in data storage (a mix of Word, Excel and Access data – a fucking nightmare) but accurate in terms of logging the locations of violations over the years.

    GPS phones are too expensive at the moment and the built in GPS services in all mobiles are just too inaccurate for meaningful readings (+/- 1000m or more).

    Again, as I note in my post, for most HR advocacy (understood here as mainstreaming HR to the larger peace process + negotiations, raising awareness of HR violations, using reports for bilateral meetings with stakeholders including non-state actors, sit-reps and snapshots of a situ in a particular region and historical antecedents etc) don’t need 100% accurate GPS coordinates. Legal prosecution requires a higher degree of accuracy, but anyone who suggests that such prosecution can take place at a time of war is quite simply someone who has experienced violent conflict – Silent enim leges inter arma!

    Multiple layers are useful even if all the data IS NOT captured on same layer. The secret is translucency – for example say an electoral map over a P-Codes or postal code map. One laid over the other can bring up some interesting points for discussion and also further aid in identifying duplicates and related incidents. Fairly standard stuff.

    Competing notions of place have to be negotiated and an understanding arrived as to what exactly is meant for cases where it matters. Again, these are a few cases were the exact geographical location is of vital significance (e.g. was it within a High Security Zone of an Army Camp or just outside it). Some of these cases can never be resolved – because the victim’s memory of place is just too scarred by the trauma to accurately point out again. In other cases, maps that are not now in the public domain can be used. In a few cases, there may be witnesses who can help locate the precise place, or even some physical markers of the location (e.g. a banyan tree, a cave). But the thing is that these are a few of the most difficult cases – for most of the HR violations, we in Sri Lanka have a place and other data.

    Our challenge was to build a system for two agencies in the first instance that would significantly strengthen their HR advocacy work. It’s their challenge to record the violations in a manner that will ultimately help brings the bastards responsible for the violations to book.


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