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#techforgood: from forensics, to warm welcomes, digital tools are enabling human rights

“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within its field of vision he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” 1984

Innovation always comes with an implicit warning, and the same technology that offers us so much freedom can just as easily be used to take our liberty away. And while vanishingly few technologies are inherently harmful, evil increasingly has broadband too. Authoritarian regimes use technology both as a tool and a weakness to exploit: think of North Korea’s tactic of cutting off electricity before raiding people’s homes, so anyone playing an illegal DVD can’t extract it from the device.

But for all the new surveillance capability at dictators’ command, technology tends to shift the balance towards the previously powerless. In the latest in our series on #TechforGood, we’ll be looking at how digital tools are being deployed in the fight for human rights.

A still from the award-winning BBC investigation into the execution of two women and their children by soldiers in Cameroon in 2018.

Digging for Truth

It took an atrocity to make the world more aware of digital forensics. In July 2018 an horrific video of the murder of women and children started circulating on the web. There were indications that the massacre had been committed by Cameroonian security forces, but the Cameroon government vociferously denied the accusations as fake news. Thanks to painstaking digital analysis by BBC Africa Eye, however, researchers were able to pinpoint the exact location, shaming the government into arresting and trying the soldiers responsible.

Digital forensics is a powerful tool for truth but it’s incredibly labour-intensive. Human rights organisations must sift through massive amounts of unstructured data contained in images, documents, social posts and videos to build a compelling case that will stand up to scrutiny. Since 2016 Amnesty has approached this mammoth challenge through crowdsourcing, giving volunteers microtasks such as classifying, identifying features, counting, comparing or digitising data from offline sources. 

Amnesty’s Citizen Evidence project now comprises over 50,000 “digital activists” who have completed more than three million tasks. Some of its successes have made headlines around the world: from digitising and categorising thousands of documents and images to “decode” oil spills in the Niger delta, to charting the civilian toll of the US-led coalition’s airstrikes against Raqqa, to its “Troll Patrol” initiative uncovering the abuse of women politicians and journalists. 

Amnesty is now looking into adding machine learning and automation, which will increase its capabilities still further. It still needs volunteers though, so if you’d like to help dig for the truth, tweet @milena_iul. 

The other side of the coin

What’s more boring? The breathless, blow-by-blow account of Bitcoin’s daily rise and fall in value, or the latest bonkers blockchain application?

To many, cryptocurrencies are play-thing for people who aren’t short of a bob or two. But there are many more living in the world’s most desperate and downtrodden places for whom Bitcoin isn’t an investment: it’s freedom. 

Why? Because while technology is opening up new opportunities for oppression, often the old ways are best – like cutting off activists’ funding. Money talks, so monitoring cash flows and freezing bank accounts is a highly effective way of squeezing the life out of protest movements.

Apply now for The Stack’s #techforgood Awards

You don’t have to be a Bitcoin evangelist to know that governments can’t control crypto. And, Bitcoin is being used right now in citizens’ struggles against oppression. 

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is one charity operating at the intersection of crypto and protest. Last year, HRF announced a partnership with tech firm Casa, which is providing Bitcoin security training and workshops for activists. Alex Gladstein, HRF’s Chief Strategy Officer, has pointed to several high-profile protest movements around the world where Bitcoin has played a crucial role. These include the anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus, Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and the #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of Bitcoin (in part thanks to an endorsement from @jack).

So if Bitcoin bores you to death, consider yourself lucky you don’t need it. And do watch this fascinating interview where Gladstein discusses how crypto is empowering the next generation of protest.

Living the Canadian Dream

We are all familiar with the American Dream: the multimillionaire business mogul who started their journey at Ellis Island with a single suitcase and $10 in their pocket. 

For all the romance of these rags-to-riches tales, those who haven’t experienced it can’t imagine the sheer bewilderment, the overwhelming sense of helplessness of arriving in a new country and having to puzzle out a strange new land and language. But for newcomers to Canada, help is at hand. And it comes (of course) in an app.

Canada has welcomed more than 400,000 refugees and in 2018 surpassed the US to become the world leader in refugee resettlement. Since 2017, new immigrants have been able to access a wealth of reliable information and resources through Arrival Advisor, the app developed by PeaceGeeks.

Arrival Advisor gets newcomers off to the best possible start to their new life in Canada by providing access to education, healthcare, and employment services, as well as local language schools. The multilingual app also helps users connect with others from their home country, and provides advice on how to access the basics of survival like food, water and medicine. 

“Research shows that a lot of newcomers are not aware of the services available to them, making the challenge of integrating into a new society far harder than it need be,” Jennifer Freeman, PeakGeeks’ CEO, told The Stack. “But Arrival Advisor isn’t just about providing resources to refugees, important as that is. It’s also about helping them to integrate and connect them with society, and to help make Canadians fully aware of the contributions of immigrants to the country.” 

The app is fast-track to citizenship, helping new arrivals become, as the self-deprecating locals say, as Canadian as possible under the circumstances. Arrival Advisor has received rave reviews from users and a clutch of awards, including winning the Google.org Impact Challenge, one of the top five out of 900 nonprofit technology projects that applied. But it’s only one part of PeaceGeeks’ work around the world. The charity has developed a range of digital tools for peace, including mobile platforms for use in refugee camps, as well as tools for coordinating services for those fleeing violence in Iraq, Turkey and Malaysia. PeaceGeeks works closely with (among others) UNHCR, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and governments to develop technologies that have a meaningful impact on local problems and make peace a lived reality for everyone.

“Technology is a powerful tool for building peace, but it can’t be left to tech providers alone,” said Freeman. “When you are working in incredibly fragile contexts like refugee camps or war zones there are plenty of risks with technology, like inadvertently identifying vulnerable people who need to stay hidden from those who would do them harm. But tech can do enormous good when it’s developed in partnership with aid agencies and other NGOs who fully understand users’ complex needs and the risks they face.”

That’s a lesson all tech firms, whether they make supply chain software or human rights apps, would do well to remember. Technology is a double-edged sword, and what works in the lab may have many deleterious, even disastrous consequences in the real world. Never forget the human factor; listen to and engage with users so you can ensure your innovation really will be a #TechforGood.

Apply now for The Stack’s #techforgood Awards: Closing April 30!

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