The Whistle at RightsCon: Calls for Collaboration

In March 2016, three members of The Whistle team traveled to San Francisco for the annual RightsCon conference, the largest get-together of those working on the intersection of technology and human rights, consisting of human rights advocates, researchers, lawyers, academics, tech company representatives and government officials. We gave a brief presentation on The Whistle’s initiatives in the conference Demo room, providing a quick overview of the aims of the project and potential collaboration efforts.

The Whistle, a digital human rights reporting platform, would enable fact-finders to get digital reports of human rights violations from hard to reach places, and allows civilian witnesses to document these events as they unfold. At the same time, however, the stakes are high in terms of getting this type of information wrong. This is in part because it is relatively manipulable. Some images or videos may be staged, used as propaganda, or for other misguiding purposes. Fortunately, there is a proliferating number of tools to support the cross-checking of digital information. We now have tools to cross-check location and time, extract metadata, unearth details of the source’s digital footprint, to trace back the provenance of the information, and so on. Yet despite these tools, civilian witness information is not being used as human rights evidence as much as one might expect. We’ve identified at least three causes we want to highlight – though we know there are more – which we refer to as the ‘bottleneck’.

1. Civilian witnesses’ lack of digital and information literacy
We have heard from fact-finders that civilian witnesses do not necessarily know what metadata is or that they should include it with their information. This paucity of metadata in their information makes it much harder for fact-finders to verify it.

2. Human rights fact-finders’ lack of digital literacy with respect in particular to digital verification
Though the fundamentals of verification remain the same, the tactics and tools for verifying digital information are new and changing rapidly. This complexity might be discouraging fact-finders from turning to digital information from civilian witnesses.

3. Human rights fact-finders’ lack of time
Even for those who are up to speed on digital verification tools, this process takes time. Individually, each of those tools may only provide a limited indication – if anything – about the veracity of the reported information, and opening up each tool and entering the information to be cross-checked is not only time-consuming but a nuisance.

The question then, in the context of what one journalist called a ‘big data problem’ in Syria, and a limited number of hours in the day, is who gets heard by fact-finders? We are particularly worried – given the complexity of verification and the time pressures of fact-finding – that those who are easier to verify are more likely to be heard. Those harder to verify, due to a lack in digital literacy or footprint, may be less likely to be heard, and it is precisely these civilian witnesses who may be most likely to need human rights mechanisms.

The Whistle is currently in the research and design phase, funded by ESRC and by the EC’s Horizon 2020 programme, and is working with one collaborator, WikiRate, which aims to improve corporate accountability, including workers’ reports of abuses, which is where The Whistle plays an important role. We are actively looking for collaborators such as active fact-finding NGOs and tech companies.

Below are the slides which accompanied our presentation at RightsCon.


Published by

Sarah Villeneuve

Communications Lead @ The Whistle