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Digital social innovation and the future of human rights

Nesta’s research on digital social innovation has shown how a diverse set of actors, organisations and individuals are using the combined power of internet, digital technologies, and data to effect social transformation, but are these new technologies being used to enhance the capabilities of human rights defenders in any way? It’s an important question, particularly given the uncertain future of human rights here in the UK.

As someone who’s always had the full protection of these freedoms and rights, I can’t help but think my own experience of human rights is in some senses captured by an old quote of Marshall McLuhan’s:

“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

In the absence of these rights, the countless number of human rights defenders around the world who risk their lives to defend or fight for them might be said to inhabit this ‘anti-environment’. Of them, a small but significant number are making use of digital technologies to extend their reach or better ensure their safety: It is here we find the intersection of human rights and digital social innovation.

Digital human rights defence tools

The creation of digital human rights defence tools marks just one way digital social innovations are being used to better protect human rights defenders. Though heartening to see that technologies can assist human rights defenders in their efforts, they also serves as a reminder of the very real need these digital tools have been developed to address – unlocking the power of technology to assist human rights defenders at risk of being unlawfully detained, abducted, or in some cases, tortured. The following list is a roundup of four of the best examples of digital human rights defence tools:

1. Natalia Project: (See video) So-called after Natalia Estemirova, an award-winning Russian human rights activist, who was murdered as a result of her human rights work in 2009. It is the world’s first assault alarm system designed to protect human rights defenders at risk. When attacked, the wearer’s wristband sends out a distress signal of their precise location using GSM/GPRS, thereby informing a social media network of millions of people of their danger while “connecting them to the world.”

2. Panic Button: Developed through an open design process, Amnesty International’s open source Panic Button app is a collectively designed digital human rights defender tool that protects activists from danger or unlawful detainment. First born out of Amnesty International’s Open IDEO challenge, Panic Button resulted from the combined efforts of activists, designers, programmers, and security experts collaborating to create an app that turns any Android smartphone into a secret alarm. The app is currently available in four languages – and has been beta-tested by over 100 Amnesty volunteers in 17 countries. Once installed, the app is concealed as a standard calculator. When in danger, it’s activated by rapidly pressing the power button five times in five seconds until a vibration is felt. This sends a pre-written message along with the sender's GPS location to three pre-warned contacts. Interestingly in the post-Snowden era, the technology underpinning the app may inadvertently reveal information about the user’s location and trusted contacts in countries known to monitor and intercept human rights activist’s telecommunications. When consulted about this, however, human rights activists resoundingly agreed that this was a risk worth taking.

3. Security in-a-box: Though intended for human rights defenders in the Global South, Security in-a-box is an online toolkit that tackles some of the challenges faced by human rights activists operating online. As more operate online, the risks around digital security and privacy breaches have become increasingly severe. Security in-a-box thus offers human rights defenders a number of practical guides on everything from protecting personal data when planning protests through social networking sites to information on freeware and open-source software tools relevant to their needs.

4. Umbrella is a mobile app which provides human rights defenders with a one-stop-shop of information and tools needed to operate safely and securely online. The app will provide users with practical instructions on conducting risk assessment; making calls, emails and internet access secure; data encryption; planning counter-surveillance; measuring insider threats; using safe houses and guidance on handling other personal safety threats. Umbrella’s developer, Security First, say they were prompted to create the app because 70% of the internet users in Egypt, almost 60% in India and South Africa access the web via mobile only. Working with both the tech and NGO community, Security First plan to enhance and develop more open-source tools to aid human rights defenders.

The list above is a mere snapshot of how digital social innovations can enhance the capabilities of human rights defenders. In an increasingly online world, these examples demonstrate how irrelevant context is to the needs of human rights defenders; as distinctions between environment and anti-environment become increasingly redundant.

Food for thought as we ponder over the future of human rights here in the UK.

If you know of any promising examples of digital human rights defence tools not mentioned here please comment below or pick up the discussion at @digi_SI

Photo credit: riacale via Compfight cc


Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Former Senior Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Sophie was a Senior Researcher in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She is now Director of Sophie Reynolds Research & Consultancy.

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