Citizens Net: Crowd-sourcing human rights violations?

The Sunday Leader recently reported on a new, unique initiative by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) in Sri Lanka to gather information on human rights violations. Called Citizens Net, the news report notes that it is open to logging “issues regarding gender-based violence, the rights of children, the elderly and the disabled.”

However, there is no mention of this on the site itself, which already displays well over 1,500 human rights violations at the time of writing.

Conceptually, this is an unprecedented site in Sri Lanka, opening up a reporting platform for citizens to log their complaints over human rights violations. Unsurprisingly, this is bound to be a controversial idea and its execution rife with questions over how CHA will handle and verify incoming reports. Already, those like Bonaparte on the Sunday Leader site raise the obvious, knee-jerk concerns by those partial to government that a site such as this will be used for war crimes investigations. It is perhaps why the news report suggests a very specific set of human rights violations that will be logged.

Confusingly then, and invariably adding to the chorus line of pro-government supporters is data already in the system relating to, for example, death by air strikes as shown in the map below.

Likewise, the site already contains records on a whole range of human rights violations, including death in detention or police custody, disappearances, torture, killings in indiscriminate attacks such as bombings and deliberate killings of specific individuals. Sri Lanka is, sadly, no stranger to significant violations in all of these categories, but it is unclear from where the site gets its information, and the process of verification employed. All of these categories are politically explosive. Potentially more explosive, no pun intended, are records displayed on the website related to the last stages of the war.

For example, a search for all records related to the Killinochchi District pertaining to air strikes, direct actions which violations the right to life, IED explosions and unexplained killings from 1 January 2009 to 1 June 2009 results in 27 victims. It is not clear who these victims are, how they were logged, and given that none of them are verified, what steps CHA can and will take in the future to ascertain the veracity of this information in a political context almost completely closed to such investigations. This is further exemplified in the topline charts on the home page.

What do these figures mean? How does one interpret the graph on the right, and what is the scale used? It is very difficult to drill down to specifics on the site, and given that most records in the system are unverified, it is not very clear how useful these visualisations are at present.

Tellingly, there is no privacy statement anywhere on the site, and given that logging an entry requires a citizen to put down her / his name, email address and contact number, it is unclear as to what extent CHA will treat this information as confidential, and whether for example it will turn over submission information upon a court order, or as often the case in Sri Lanka, the diktat of the Ministry of Defence. This is an inherent problem of the model of data collection undergirding this site. While the platform itself is well designed, I have significant concerns about using what Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier calls an unbounded crowdsourcing model to ascertain human rights violations, without any publicly available model of verification or data privacy to boot. If the idea of the site was to create and present a publicly accessible score card of human rights in post-war Sri Lanka, populated by its citizenry and verified by CHA, the underlying model has to be revised and more openly published.

The technology as it stands is fine for this purpose, but the lack of clarity over what this site actually does and stands for risks, from the get go, undermining the public confidence it needs to be genuinely useful in human rights advocacy and activism.

The arrest of the ‘blogger’ in Sri Lanka: Crowd-sourcing trumps traditional media follow up

Ayubowan, a blog I didn’t know of before, helpfully posted a screen grab of a post from Gossip Lanka, a blog I also didn’t know of before, on the recent arrest of a ‘blogger’ in Sri Lanka that had many concerned. Gossip Lanka’s post is in Sinhala and doesn’t render at all on my Mac, which is why Ayubowan’s screen grab is helpful. The post avers in Sinhala that,

A few days ago, a derogatory email, also containing five nude photos, were sent to the Secretary of Defense and the President. Resulting CID investigations probed the IP address to ascertain the sender. It was discovered that the email was sent from a cybercafe in Matale. Based upon further investigations, the Police were able to apprehend the individual who was a regular customer of the cybercafe and owned the account used to send the email. However, the suspect vehemently denied he had sent the email in question. “This must have been done by someone to set me up” he said. The Police then asked who this could be. It was then the suspect said that his password was with his former girlfriend, who was not on good terms with him.

The Police then questioned the suspect’s girlfriend, who let known in her fear that she had given the password to her new boyfriend. She also told Police that her new boyfriend had set out to teach her old boyfriend a lesson.

Gayan Rajapakse is the name of her new boyfriend, and he admitted that he had sent the email. He will be in remand till the 6th under the instructions of the Matale District Courts.

This version is corroborated, also in Sinhala, by Web Alochana, an identity I read and trust. As Web Alochana notes, it is still not clear what the exact nature of the threat to the Defense Secretary and the President was.

It is not yet confirmed whether Gayan Rajapakse is a blogger, though he could still turn out to be one. His actions deservedly put him in the hands of the law and cannot be condoned. However, sending an email is emphatically not the same as publishing “offensive and defamatory comments regarding the President and the Secretary of Defense through a website he was operating”, which is what the Daily Mirror first reported and in turn gave rise to fears that a blogger had been arrested in the context of Sri Lanka’s atrocious media freedom. The Daily Mirror’s follow up story the day after also failed to mention that the suspect had been arrested over an email.

There has been to my knowledge no further reporting by the Daily Mirror on this incident. Leading Sri Lankan bloggers, justifiably alarmed, wrote a number of posts such as this one by Indi Samarajiva to find out more information on the incident that were also picked up by Global Voices Online. And it’s on comment threads on these posts, and on the blogosphere, that the incident was probed deeper and a more comprehensive account determined.

It’s an interesting model of crowd-sourcing a story, and one that the Daily Mirror and other traditional print media are well advised to study. The Guardian in England has already shown how this works to hold government accountable.

The pros and cons of crowdsourcing election monitoring

Sharek’s Katrin Verclas has a great article looking at the pros and cons of crowdsourcing election monitoring, based on the experience of Lebanon recently. 

I agree that crowdsourcing anything leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy and information fit to feed into critical decision support processes. This is why the ICT4Peace Foundation is working on a crisis information management demonstrator, built on top of Ushahidi, that has information qualification routines built in. The tool will not be for the masses, but for agencies with trusted networks of field personnel who will feed in information, with the system itself open to social media input that can be vetted by agency trusted personnel. This opens up the system to be wholly crowdsourced, à la the Lebanese model, or completely closed to those outside the trust network(s) of an agency / agencies working on a particular issue, in a certain region or towards a shared goal. The design also allows the system to be anything in between these two extremes, so that the key responders to a crisis can determine the best degree of openness.  The important point that even if different international and local agencies had different approaches to what degree the system should be made public (i.e. extend to untrusted, initially unverified crowdsourced information) the common underlying information management architecture and standards would make for far greater and easier interoperability and information harmonisation. 

I’m interested in how Ushahidi’s evolving Swift River concept tackles this problem, that Paul Currion has succintly and accurately expressed here.  

Until such time there’s a better solution, I’ll still be training election monitors at the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) how to enter data into Google Maps that are verified for accuracy in a timely manner. Right now, there’s no escaping the labour required for the task – each location and incident is entered into the map directly, no automated source from the web is used to populate maps. Helps us give as close to a real time image of the ground situation in the lead up to and on the day of election, more useful we are told by extensive feedback from local media, than a mashup that just puts unverified reports on a map along with other data streams.

The future of journalism – Pros and Cons by Keith Hammonds

Keith Hammonds from the Ashoka Foundation has an interesting guest post on DigiDave on how new technologies are changing the way we consume, produce and disseminate news. As he correctly cautions and points out,

Only now, we’re appointing new agents of trust – professional colleagues, friends, friends of friends, whomever we’ve decided to follow on Twitter: these self-constructed social networks act as our editors, essentially determining by committee not just what’s truthful, but what’s most urgent and most valuable to us at any given moment.

Which may be at once compellingly democratic and flat-out dangerous. Democratic, because we enable as information participants a ton of people who weren’t in the game before. Dangerous because many of them don’t know what they’re doing: the risk, we agreed, is that a largely news-illiterate crowd will accept and distribute information that’s “just true enough.”

That’s troubling because of the increasingly tight linkages between information and action. More and more, Paula noted, news will assume and inform action, becoming more of a continuum; information will, in fact, activate communities.

That phenomenon, of course, could go either way. We could see historically passive audience members transformed into active, effective citizens, joining in networks whose use of truthful, trustworthy information strengthens and advances democratic society. Or we could devolve into an era of self-interested hype, sensationalism, and propaganda.

This is a note of caution I’ve struck earlier and I’m glad to hear others echo. Technology is no panacea to problems created my women and men. But just as it can and is known to exacerbate, technology can heal and reconcile. These aspects, less known and harder to capture and define, is why I bear witness to Sri Lanka’s current events and processes using new technologies at my disposal. Deriving hope from the power of people in the know, yet acutely cognisant of the violence of repressive regimes, we may not change the world as it is today through our work. But bearing witness may help someone change it for the the better tomorrow?

Disclaimer: I am an Ashoka News & Knowledge Entrepreneurs Fellow.

Cutting through crowdsourcing

Paul Currion has a very interesting post that cuts through a whole lot of codswallop on the potential of crowsourcing in disasters. His pointed post refers to two by Patrick Meier, entitled Internews, Ushahidi and communication in crisis and Ushahidi: From Croudsourcing to Crowdfeeding

I consider both to be significant thought-leaders in the domains of humanitarian aid and in particular, the use of technology for relief and effective response. Paul notes, inter alia, that,

Because crowdsourcing is unfamiliar, it’s untested in the field and it makes fairly large claims that are not well backed by substantial evidence. Having said that, I’m willing to be corrected on this criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that the humanitarian community is legitimately cautious in introducing new concepts when lives are at stake.

As I noted in response to Paul’s post and referring in particular to the vital challenge he presents of having to prove the direct benefits and impact of ICTs in humanitarian aid,

Just to note that not everything generated from the field, and subsequently verified to the extent possible, is for decision support in the present context. Much of what I and others are able to gather today from the field in Sri Lanka (and information from the ground is precious and dangerous to produce) is bearing witness, silently, at what is going on.

Used for parochial optics and propaganda, the value of crowdsourcing soon diminishes. This is not to say that information cannot be used howsoever their handlers choose to. I am merely trying to respond to your question as to whether a Twitter feed can shape events. Perhaps not the one you point to (but then again, who knows?) but the technology certainly can. Used to bear witness, cognisant that there is no one truth and that a multiplicity of viewpoints is better than fewer, technologies such as Ushahidi, Twitter and many others help a great deal in my line of work – which is self-effacing and outside the domain of headlines and handshake moments.

Making victims witnesses is possible through new technologies. We are just discovering how.

Please join the discussion here.

Updates – 1st April 2009 | 6.21pm +5.30GMT
Paul responded to my comment by saying,

The general principle of collecting detailed information about human rights violations and making them available in some useful form is not controversial. What bothers me is whether a) “crowdsourcing” as a methodology yields more information benefits than costs and b) how useful this information actually is in the form(s) that it will be collected. Our starting position is that technology can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of our work; I just want to see somebody explain to me exactly how this technology will make the specific difference that is claimed for it. So far I haven’t seen that explanation.

I reciprocated by saying,

This is a shared bother. From Ushahidi’s own Swift River concept to the ICT4Peace Foundation Crisis Information Management Demonstrator that seeks to augment the platform with more robust information qualification and analysis tools (and for a closed, trusted network – not public writ large) there’s work afoot to make sense of the noise of crowdsourcing.

I like the term though, but that’s because I live (and have grown up in) a country hugely partial to violent censorship. More eyeballs on events and processes is for me refreshing, even if they are by definition partial accounts. The danger in crowdsourcing though is that they may not be seen as such, and this is where a single SMS can exacerbate violence hundreds of miles away – rapid onset disasters facilitated by new media!

As for your second points – it depends? A “camjo” with a mobile phone who captures footage of police abuse can post this video to Witness to create a storm of advocacy against police brutality. Quieter initiatives such as oral histories through audio and video, or even celebrating champions within Govt who stand up against corruption, or document, through the eyes of children armed with mobiles, life in conflict or with HIV / AIDS – these can be moving, powerful narratives that lead, over time, to social change. Eyeballs on Darfur through Google Earth catalyses and sustains limited and transient global interest in claims of genocide. An initiative like Wikileaks can support whistleblowers and strengthen transparency and accountability in polity and civil society, including in NGOs.

My gut instinct, forged through the bloody difficult work I do is that tech helps, but I would be the last to suggest that it is a panacea. The metrics of measuring impact, or put another way, building up the evidence base of ICTs actually “making the specific difference that is claimed for it” would be an interesting study for luminaries in the field like you, Tom and Paul to take on?

I’ve also responded to some key points brought up by Tom Longley.

This will be my last update, but I’m glad Paul’s original post has stimulated such a lot of great comments.