Inside the development of Amnesty’s new Panic Button App

Tanya O’Carroll, Amnesty’s Technology and Human Rights Project Officer, on how emerging digital tools will help activists and human rights defenders.

When Amnesty was founded 50 years ago, our tool of choice was the pen. Thousands would write letters to governments demanding the release of Prisoners of Conscience. Pen and paper helped release human rights advocates in many countries around the world.

New technologies – such as social media and mobile Internet – have fundamentally changed how we shed light on and respond to human rights abuses. Today, almost anyone with a mobile phone can be a human rights monitor and challenge the abuse of power by capturing and sharing documentation of abuses as they happen.

And yet, technology brings new threats. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) are becoming a battleground as journalists, citizens and activists seek inventive ways to protect the secure flow of information while governments invest in sophisticated technologies to intercept, monitor, track and censor those who challenge them.
The Technology and Human Rights project at Amnesty’s International Secretariat in London, UK, focuses on how as an organization we leverage technology to do what we’ve always done, but better: to respond and react when individuals around the world are under threat.

Imagining new kinds of solutions

For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been working on Panic Button, a mobile app for Android that aims to turn an activist’s mobile phone into an emergency alert system (read more about the project here and check out our video as finalists in the Google Global Impact Challenge).

Panic Button was the product of an open design process that we kicked off with OpenIDEO in early 2012. I have been amazed at how many people along the way have devoted their spare time and talents to the simple but transformational idea of creating a mobile alert system for activists. The project has closely involved 648 challenge participants, more than 50 Designers, 30 Activists and 18 Developers since then.

Open design is all about imagination. It’s about working with “makers” and “do-ers” to help us think differently about traditional challenges we face in our work. A recent example was #FreedomHack (read my colleague Katie’s blog post). With feedback from journalists in Mexico, a team of developers created a new ‘Guardian feature’ for Panic Button to broadcast messages should a user not respond to prompts within a given time frame.

This is a breakthrough feature that creates a whole new use-case for the application, facilitating not just proactive but reactive alerts when an individual is attacked.And that’s just the start. We have no shortage of imagination.

Imagine one day if every mobile phone – not just a smartphone – could serve as a personal alert device for those who defend human rights. Imagine if, at the touch of a button, the alert could transmit not just location but a live video recording of what is happening. Imagine if it could ‘shut down’ email and social media accounts, helping to protect an individual’s wider communications and network from being compromised.

The technology to make this a reality is very much within reach. We’ve already been investigating what it would take to replicate the ‘one touch’ panic feature on a basic handset. Activists have been live video streaming from mobile for at least a couple of years. Meanwhile projects such as Kill Packet are already working out how an SMS from a mobile phone might remotely close down private email and social media accounts.

From ideation to implementation

There is no shortage of good will and good ideas when it comes to building tools for activists. The challenge now is to see safe and relevant tools being widely used.

Activists brainstorm and prioritize some of the potential features for ‘Panic Button’ in an open design workshop in Nairobi (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

We need to start imagining less of the technology and more of the human networks that are needed to create scalability and sustainability.

The idea of the permanent hackathon indicates what may be possible when we invest in those ongoing structures and spaces for collaboration. That includes asking the difficult questions about who and how we work together. Are some organizations better placed to focus on development, others on testing and training? How do we attract the level of investment needed to sustain these kinds of joint initiatives?

We are so excited to hear from our partners CommunityRED and Factual in Mexico that a November follow up to the #FreedomHack will focus less on generating new ideas and more on developing existing tools. This is the beginning of a network in Mexico that sees cooperation as the only way we can create lasting projects that serve the communities they are designed for.

After all, without people, technology offers few solutions.

Over the next couple of months, we will be keeping you posted about Panic Button on this blog, and also filling you in on a number of other projects and collaborations in the making. In the meantime, we want to hear from you! If you want to join the community of people working on Panic Button, please leave a comment or email us at [email protected] and we’ll let you know how you can get involved!

This post is part of a ‘Technology for Human Rights Protection’ series, published on Amnesty USA’s blog, Human Rights Now. New entries will be published every week or so, discussing the latest innovations for human rights protection and how the human rights community can use science, technology and open innovation to defend human rights. Get updates on Twitter from @katiestriff and @tanyaocarroll, who work in the intersection between technology, science and defending human rights for @Amnesty and @amnestyonline.

Read moreHow to turn a mobile phone into an alert system for activists (Blog post, 15 April 2013)
A lifeline for activists (Blog post, 28 May 2013)
Thank you for voting – Amnesty’s Panic Button will become a reality (Blog post, 6 June 2013)