Technology, people and solutions

By Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of refugee and migrants’ rights

When Amnesty International started more than 50 years ago, our weapon of choice was the pen. Members in their thousands would write letters to governments asking for the release of prisoners of conscience. This simple tool was more effective than anyone could have imagined and helped release human rights advocates and opposition leaders throughout the world.

Over time, the range of tools and interventions we used as a movement grew: from petitions, sit-ins, protest marches, and art installations to lobbying governments and influencing the development of international legal standards. The early email and internet revolution saw a leap in social justice activism and communication; another major leap came with the proliferation of mobile phones and social networks.

Despite the many successes we were able to achieve with these advocacy and communications tools, I often feel frustrated that we can’t do more. When working on human rights, you constantly find yourself imagining a piece of technology that could help people in difficult situations, but it’s not there. It is frustrating because the technology exists, but it hasn’t been adapted to these particular situations.

To give an example of what I am talking about: during the uprisings in Egypt and later in other countries, some organizations and individuals developed digital tools to help activists overcome restrictions on internet access (see here), and there are several ongoing initiative to develop ‘internet in a box’ solutions that would allow communities to set up independent wireless networks from commonly available equipment. These initiatives offered a glimpse of what custom made technological tools could add to human rights work: real life solutions to support people in difficult situations. I could think of many other contexts where different technologies could help our work but it remained a vague idea.

Then late last year, my colleagues working on AI’s digital communications announced they were starting a technology and human rights pilot project. I was intrigued. The idea revolves around open innovation challenges: specific human rights problems are identified within one of the areas of AI’s work and these are opened up to the technology community to develop working solutions.

The first of these challenges was in the context of limiting the impact of unlawful detention, as part of the Security with Human Rights campaign. The challenge was undertaken with IDEO, a leading design and innovation consultancy, and involved AI supporters, human rights defenders and the wider technology community to help us design and build solutions to this problem. The interactive process on the IDEO platform generated 322 initial concepts, which were narrowed down to eight. Fifty participants then convened in a “make-a-thon” weekend in February, which produced four early prototypes. Before any of them are deployed, they still have to go through various stages of refinement, testing, risk assessments and due diligence. But even at this still early stage of the project, they show huge promise for the role of technological innovation in human rights work.

Our second open innovation challenge, in which I am directly involved, looks at our work for the rights of migrants and refugees. We will be examining two situations in specific: migration through Mexico to the US and migration from Africa to Europe through the Mediterranean. Migrants and asylum-seekers face different risks in each situation. For example, in Mexico, migrants are at risk of violence and abuses by armed criminal gangs and corrupt public officials and risk death from hunger and thirst while trying to cross the desert (for more on this see these fantastic videos here and here, and also a report here).

In the Mediterranean, they risk dying from hunger, thirst and drowning while crossing the open sea in unsuitable boats (read this and watch this).

AI is working on this challenge with Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) to generate concepts and prototypes that could be used to help reduce the risks faced by people on these journeys.

You can find out more about the challenge and how to get involved in the RHoK hackathons on 2/3rd Junehere. AI staff and migrant rights’ activists will be present at both the RHoK San Francisco and RHoK Berlin events and will be working with teams of designers and developers to create initial solutions.

I am very excited about this initiative. It is still early days and we still have a lot to learn, but the more we start thinking about solutions and developing them, the more effective our human rights work will be. I will be attending the RHoK Berlin event and will blog and tweet from there (follow on Twitter here). My colleague Tanya O’Carroll (follow on Twitter here) will be doing the same from San Francisco.