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.

InfoShare participates in HURIDOCS workshop

InfoShare was invited to participate in an advanced workshop on Human Rights documentation conducted by HURIDOCS in Geneva, from 14-18th January 2008.

My colleague and the chief / genius coder behind the human rights monitoring, reporting and advocacy platform we created recently, Shiham Tabreez, will participate at this workshop that will hopefully work both to raise awareness of our significant work in using ICT to strengthen Human Rights amongst a larger community of practice and also give us the opportunity to learn from developments in the field from other countries and organisations.


Low-res screen grab of InfoShare’s Human Rights System based on HURIDOCS