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Use your phone to stop conflict and abuses
January 4, 2017

Cell phone showing apps
(© AP Images)


The information revolution unleashed by mobile technology has made it possible for nearly everyone to be what the United Nations calls a “civilian witness” to help promote human rights.

Along with apps that you can download to your phone, SMS and games are being used for human rights and conflict-resolution purposes, said Theo Dolan, director of PeaceTech Lab Africa, based in Kenya. You can even help fight human trafficking by taking pictures of your hotel room with the app TraffickCam.

“These are not just tools for the elite,” Dolan said. “These are tools that can be used by anyone.”

Many are already familiar with crowdsourcing apps like Ushahidi, Carto and Mapbox and how they have mapped natural disasters, epidemics and civil unrest.

Dolan offered some examples of crowdsourcing for human rights that PeaceTech Lab has helped communities develop to address their specific needs:

  • To counter gender-based violence in Mumbai, India, a group of 12- and 13-year-old girls developed an app to crowdsource incidents and identify problem areas, such as bus lines where attacks were most frequent. They can also use the app to send early warning and early response messages to their wider network.
  • In Iraq, journalists developed an app to track attacks on their peers not only to document the incidents but also to help determine the nature of threats to the media and the source of the attacks.
  • For Kenya’s elections, PeaceTech Lab updated an SMS platform and provided training to community members to document election violence and misinformation. It will function with a core team to independently verify reported incidents and send out messaging to defuse tensions before incidents occur.

Non-Crowdsourcing Apps

Collin Sullivan, a program associate for human rights at the nonprofit organization Benetech, said today’s apps can serve a wide range of human rights uses, depending on what is of concern. Do you want to prove that the photo you took is genuine? Do you want to document an event but protect the identity of some of the people involved (including yourself)? Do you need to protect your internet privacy or encrypt your data? Are you coping with low bandwidth? Sullivan said app developers have been addressing these types of concerns.

Benetech developed the software and app program Martus as a free, open-source and encrypted information management system that can be used to organize, back up and share information securely. After Martus is installed on a desktop computer, its mobile app allows users to feed it anything from photos and videos to interviews and scanned documents but preserves the privacy and identity of the users and makes backups in case a device or phone is stolen. The app also works at low bandwidth and offline, allowing users to collect information into an encrypted package that sits on their phones until they export it through an internet connection, memory card or USB cable.

For photos, CameraV from the Guardian Project helps users verify the legitimacy of images in case they are disputed or claimed as fake. It collects all kinds of metadata for each image, going beyond the phone model, time, date and location to include information on nearby Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth connections, the height of the camera, and other data that provide more proof of a photo’s accuracy.

Guardian also developed ObscuraCam, which does the opposite by stripping out all of the metadata in an image to anonymize it and make it easy to blur faces to prevent them from being recognized by facial recognition technology.

If you are new to the field of documenting and reporting incidents, the app StoryMaker can train you on how to compile a compelling story, including how to set up a shot for an interview or develop an interesting storyline, and it offers templates and other suggestions for production value.

Some words of warning

Gathering data on human rights often carries a certain amount of risk, both to yourself and to those you are documenting. For data you are capturing with your phone, it is always important to be mindful of the need to protect identities and privacy.

“Intimidation of witnesses, of victims who are reporting, is a very real thing in lots of different places, so if you can keep the names of the people you talked to and their contact information private, that’s all the better,” Sullivan said.

He also said that those interested in using privacy or encryption tools like Tor, Psiphon or Signal should be aware that they risk elevating their profile with authorities, hackers or others who might be able to tell they are being used.

“There is this risk that maybe nobody is watching what you’re doing now and you start using Tor or Signal, and then they start watching what you’re doing. They start asking why is this guy using encryption? What does he have to hide? And then they start monitoring what he’s doing,” he said.

Fortunately, some of the world’s most popular sites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp have been integrating security and identity protection features that make human rights reporting safer and anonymous, Sullivan said. For example, when WhatsApp added signal encryption protocol on all of its messages, “they effectively turned on encryption for about a billion people overnight,” he said.

“Getting some of the major providers on board with some of the features that are supportive of human rights workers and activists not only makes it a lot easier for people to use … but the tools people are already using like WhatsApp or YouTube are becoming better for human rights defenders and activists by integrating a lot of the features we in the information security community and the human rights community have been advocating for,” he said. “That’s something that I think is the most encouraging trend.”

Dolan said the proliferation of these kinds of tools, data and access to media through multiple channels is simply empowering.

“That’s a tired word, but in this case it’s hugely influential. And that sometimes transcends points about low internet access ratings. The more these tools are available through multiple channels the more people can do with them — and they are,” Dolan said.

But Sullivan says it is still important for human rights advocates to remember that all of these are ultimately just tools, and that technology is “at best only 50 percent of the solution.” Advocacy also requires developing an effective strategy, targeted advocacy and other factors.

“These things can help. They are definitely not the solution to all of our problems,” he said.

For additional information, here is a chart of more apps, games and other available products, courtesy of PeaceTech Lab’s Theo Dolan:[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Application What it does Who developed it
Panic Button A mobile app for Android that transforms a user’s smartphone into a secret alarm that can be activated rapidly in the event of an emergency, alerting fellow activists and enabling them to respond faster. Amnesty International
Ripoti App A mobile app that Kenyans can use to report incidents of torture and other cases of human rights violations. The app, which is available on the Google app store, enables users to take pictures, videos and audio recordings in real time or from one’s gallery after which one sends it to IMLU (Independent Medico-Legal Unit). IMLU (Independent Medico-Legal Unit), @iLabAfrica and Strathmore University-Kenya
SMS for human rights Tanzanian citizens often cannot afford to file a human rights complaint or follow up on the status of a complaint being processed in a timely manner. The “SMS for Human Rights” project is creating a system that enables individuals to file complaints, check the status of previously filed complaints, and receive feedback through a web/mobile platform. The Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG)-Tanzania
MediCapt A mobile application, by the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), that helps clinicians more effectively collect, document and preserve forensic medical evidence of sexual violence to support the local prosecution of these crimes. Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones
Haki: Chaguo Ni Lako The HAKI: Chaguo Ni Lako is a fun mobile phone game designed to inspire a commitment to peace and tolerance amongst young Kenyans. It encourages dialogue and contemplation about leadership, the rights and responsibilities of Kenyan citizens, and the distribution of resources. It challenges players to reflect on the choices they make and the consequences of those choices for peace in Kenya. Afroes
Online Reporting An online portal that Kenyans can use to report human rights abuses without having to go to the police or the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights offices Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) Kenya
160 Girls This stand-alone mobile app was developed to help enforce protections for girls against sexual violence. It provides all the information available on the 160girls.org website without the need for an internet connection. It also provides directions to police stations in its four pilot districts so that incidents of sexual violence can be reported quickly to the police. The Equality Effect,
Sisi Ni Amani/Jihusishe An SMS based platform that allows community members to report cases of violence or electoral irregularity via SMS. Messages are escalated to relevant authorities and security for early response. Sisi Ni Amani, The Institute for Social Accountability-Kenya