Thoughts on #newmachine conference and #humanrights reporting in #Madagascar

Cross-posted on Foko Blog Club:

On May 4-5 2009, the Human Rights Center at University of California Berkeley organized the Soul of the New Machine Conference on Human Rights, technology and new media to share best practices and develop new strategies for incorporating technology to address human rights abuses. A few partners and friends were part of the panel of presenters, among them Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS, Erik Hersman of Ushahidi and David Sasaki, director of Global Voices Outreach program, Rising Voices.

I will go into further details later on how these three organisations have been of tremedous help in documenting the multiple acts of violence during the Madagascar crisis but for more info now, here is an interview by Solana Larsen of Tahina, one of the manager of the foko-ushahidi platform in Antananarivo, Mg.

A New York Hub for the conference was also organized by Cristina Moon and she graciously invited Foko to present their work at the brooklyn location.

As you know, Foko primary mission is to document the everyday lives of Malagasy citizens and local agents of environmental change, not record potential human rights violations by their government. Yet, the ongoing crisis decided otherwise for the time being. The hub was a great opportunity to meet and learn first hand from Human Rights activists present at the event.

The presentation went over the background of the crisis, the known human rights violations that were documented since January 09, the use of new media by tools by the dynamic new media users' community in Madagascar (both related and non-related to Foko) and the obstacles for more extensive reporting of current events. We also posit that among all the past and current human rights violations in Madagascar ( military repression, limited freedom of speech, arrest etc..) the most glaring offense in our opinion is the 400,000 people (mostly children) currently at risk of hunger in the South because the political deadlock prevents an effective response.

The fact that Foko is present in 5 different regions of Madagascar is important but still insufficient to provide comprehensive reports from all the regions of a nation twice the size of Great-Britain.

The Conference had a specific emphasis on data accuracy, fact-checking and the use of mobile reporting. Michael Ferola present at the NY hub, has been very kind to offer an analysis of the entire database collected on the foko ushahidi platform. We are evaluating a way to measure the quality of the data and present them in an effective manner.

The videos of the panel discussions at the conference will soon be available on fora.tv

However, here a few important reviews made at the conference:

1)On the panel "PDAs and Phones for Data Collections", speakers discuss the potential of mobile reporting for providing additional information during humanitarian crises in developing countries. For more info, here is the notes from Erik's talk at the conference and a post on Kiwanja website on how FrontlineSMS was used in the film "The Reckoning".
No groundbreaking news here so I will take this opportunity to describe the collaboration with mobile technology experts and thank the people at FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi who worked with us overnight to get the platform ready for sms reports as soon as possible.

As Tahina explained, there were a few obstacles to overcome but FrontlineSMS developpers ( Alex Anderson, Carlos Genz and Ken Banks) provided timely technical support and sped up the release of a new version they were working on to take into account the urgent need for an SMS/computer interface for the Madagascar crisis. We cannot thank them enough for helping us establish the first project to collect SMS reports directly onto a computer via the intelliSMS software.
The Ushahidi team was also tremendous in setting up the platform quickly and showing us how to modify the interface to allow for the translation of key words, categories and timeline.

2) on the panel "Blogging Human Rights", David Sasaki spoke about the internet tools used to shine a light on issues that media often ignored. He also explained the importance of giving people on site during the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words and stop using proxy as voices for the oppressed. He also emphasized the importance of translation in breaking the "echo chamber" and reaching new audiences about issues that most people are not familiar with. A case in point for this statement that is related to Madagascar is the online petition for Razily, a protester who was arrested on March 28th for flag theft and who has not been heard of since then. The petition has now reached moe than 500 signatures in a week thanks to media attention in different languages (ny marina momba ny Razily news2dago, Madagascar-Tribune, Ethan Zuckerman, Jillian York on Huffington Post and Madagaskar-Vision.de) For the ultimate comprehensive resource on translation and new media, read Chris Salzberg's thesis on the lingua GV project. (PDF)

Finally, David also emphasized the importance of addressing the safety of citizen journalists

In short, the conference was a reminder that supporting the development of new media users and communities in developing countries is a worthwhile endeveaor, especially considering their added value when a crisis situation breaks out.

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