Refugee support group works with tech startup on reporting system

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Humans for Rights Network (HfRN) has partnered with ‘slow-tech’ academic start-up The Whistle to create a digital reporting system for refugees to document human rights abuses against them, using a process of iterative design to ensure that the needs of already vulnerable people are met. and met.

Based at the University of Cambridge, The Whistle is an academic startup that develops digital tools to help connect witnesses of human rights abuses with advocacy organizations such as HfRN.

As a self-proclaimed slow tech startup, the company explicitly rejects Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” mantra, opting instead to grow its technology through direct and extensive collaboration with affected communities and groups. .

“There’s not that rush to solve something or build something,” says Ella McPherson, founder and head of The Whistle. “It’s more about doing a huge amount of iteration with the communities we work with. What we’re trying to do is work with people who are working from the ground up on various issues where they’re pushing for accountability and social change and justice, and they want more evidence or more data to support this thrust.

According to HfRN founder Maddie Harris, the two organizations first connected in 2018 after she returned from refugee work in northern France, where she witnessed human rights abuses. “daily”.

Development of a reporting system

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Harris said that, based on what she had experienced in French refugee camps, there is a clear need for “truly accessible” reporting mechanisms that allow people to document the human rights violations they witnessed or suffered.

“Access to reports is incredibly limited and often, if it exists, relies on volunteers or organisations, but in my experience there is certainly no real proactive engagement of individuals,” she says. . “What tends to be the case is people get into a situation, talk to a few people, collect testimonials and come up with a report that’s more of a snapshot in time.”

Harris adds that while the vast majority of people have cellphones and are able to collect evidence of abuse themselves, a “reporting mechanism right in the hands of people” is needed to ensure something is up. actually done.

“It’s about what do you do with the information if you’ve collected it – who do you send it to?” she says. “Who will listen to you? Who will do something? What can be done? What is important to know when collecting? »

Harris adds that the reporting tool being developed will also come with a training module, which will include information on how to gather evidence, maintain security, conduct an interview, testify, and more.

“I think the most important aspect, certainly for me, is the idea that by using a mobile phone, someone seeking refuge can, using SMS or WhatsApp, provide us with evidence and submit any testimony. “, she says.

The tool will also be open to other organizations and individuals outside of HfRN to gather evidence for their own advocacy work. Harris says they will receive training on how to use the system.

McPherson adds that one of the main goals of the development cycle so far has been to figure out exactly what the refugees would need and want from such a system. “It’s about thinking about what data the community wants, not just what the powers that be need it, but what the community wants to get, what data is useful to them?” she says. “Also, what data do they need? »

Regarding the decision to use certain messaging technologies, such as SMS or WhatsApp over others, McPherson says consulting with refugees and determining their technology habits was key, as different groups have different preferred means of communication. , and it made little sense to ask people to do something they wouldn’t normally do.

Harris adds, for example, that while the system was initially almost entirely text-based, it did not take into account the practical situation many refugees find themselves in. support, and therefore telephone credit is a real problem.

Despite this, many refugees will have access to Wi-Fi, either through whatever accommodation they have managed to obtain, local libraries or other public institutions, and in camps where voluntary organizations will come to set up hotspots. Mobile Wi-Fi, says Harris, adding, “Understanding how people communicate is key.”

McPherson says the project received a grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account in November 2021, which is “about having a research partnership that has real impact and doesn’t just stay in the academy, and, in this case, it’s specifically to develop a chatbot with HfRN.”

Iteration in action

In addition to creating a reporting system to relay information to rights organizations, HfRN and The Whistle are developing a way to also relay information to refugees, after working with affected people and experts on the ground highlight the ‘information desert’ that refugees face in everything from education and medical care to the details of asylum procedures.

“We realized that another incredibly crucial thing is this information vacuum, so now we’re at the stage of trying to figure out how you can provide the information that people need first, because that’s the priority for them – and then pivot at some point to say ‘is there anything you want to share?’ says McPherson, adding that the partnership decided to create a chatbot function to do just that.

“Basically there’s a branching questionnaire, and then the data is collated into a dashboard on the side of the analyst admin, so they can go through and browse cases, but also dive deep into a particular report” , she says. .

“The benefits aren’t just in terms of the data collected and the information provided, but also creating spaces for conversations like ‘oh, there’s this thing I can access to know my rights.’ It creates spaces in the community to come together and discuss the issues at play.”

While the project is still under iterative development, Harris says they are holding workshops and consulting more widely with “experts by experience” on design ideas that can help with better evidence gathering. .

“Trust is so important,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s people’s lives, and I think taking the time to really think about possible scenarios means we’ll be confident in asking people to commit to it.

“Our intention isn’t just to throw a phone number into the ether – it’s that it comes with discussion, training, commitment and protection, and that “It’s also scalable. That’s both because it’s the right way to do it, but also because, from our perspective, we were a very small grassroots organization and we need to be sure that, whatever whatever information comes in, there’s the ability on the other end to assess that and act on it.”

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