Refugee support group works with tech startup on reporting system

The Humans for Rights Network (HfRN) has partnered with academic “slow-tech” startup The Whistle to create a digital reporting system for refugees to document human rights violations against them, using an iterative design process to ensure that the needs of people already at risk are respected and met.

Based at the University of Cambridge, The Whistle is an academic startup developing digital tools to connect witnesses to human rights abuses with advocacy organizations like HfRN.

A self-proclaimed slow-tech startup, the company firmly rejects the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things,” choosing instead to develop its technology through direct and extensive collaboration with affected communities and groups.

“There’s no rush to solve or build,” says Ella McPherson, founder and director of The Whistle. “It’s more about doing a lot of iterations with the communities we work with. We’re trying to work with people who are working from the bottom up on different issues where they’re pushing for accountability, social change and justice, and they want more evidence or more data to support that push.”

According to HfRN founder Maddie Harris, the two organizations first came together in 2018 after she returned from working helping refugees in northern France, where she witnessed human rights abuses “on a daily basis”.

Development of a reporting system

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Harris says that, based on her experience in French refugee camps, there is a clear need for “truly accessible” reporting mechanisms that allow people to document the human rights abuses that they either witnessed or have experienced.

“Access to reporting is incredibly limited and often depends on volunteers or organizations, if any, but in my experience there’s certainly not really proactive engagement from individuals,” she says. “What’s actually the case is that people come into a situation, talk to a few people, collect some testimonies and create a report that’s more of a snapshot.”

Harris adds that although the vast majority of people own cellphones and are able to gather evidence of abuse themselves, a “reporting mechanism right in the hands of the people” is needed to ensure action is actually taken.

“It’s about what you do with the information once 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 when collecting?”

Harris adds that the reporting tool under development will also include a training pack that includes information on how to gather evidence, maintain security, conduct an interview, make a statement and more.

“I think the most important aspect, certainly for me, is the idea that someone who is seeking refuge can provide us with evidence via a mobile phone via SMS or WhatsApp and give us some kind of testimony,” she says.

The tool is also available to other organizations and individuals outside of the HfRN to collect evidence for their own advocacy work. Harris says they are being trained to use the system.

McPherson adds that a key focus of the development cycle so far has been figuring out exactly what refugees need and want from such a system. “It’s about thinking about what data the community wants, not just what those in power need, but what does the community want to get, what data is useful to them?” she says. “And besides, what data do you need?”

Regarding the decision to use certain messaging technologies like SMS or WhatsApp over others, McPherson says that consulting with refugees and finding out their tech habits was crucial because different groups have different preferred ways of communicating and it made little sense Asking people to do something they normally wouldn’t do.

Harris adds, for example, that the system was originally based almost entirely on SMS, but failed to take into account the practical situation of many refugees. “The vast majority of people don’t have the financial means or are not equipped with phone support. Phone support is a real problem.”

Still, many refugees will have access to Wi-Fi, either through whatever shelter they’ve been given, local libraries or other public facilities, and in camps, where volunteer organizations will come and set up mobile Wi-Fi spots, Harris says, adding : “Understanding how people communicate is key.”

According to McPherson, the project received a grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account in November 2021, which “is about a research partnership that has an impact on the real world and not just in the academy, and in In this case, it is specifically about developing a chatbot with HfRN”.

iteration in action

HfRN and The Whistle have not only created a reporting system to transmit information to advocacy organizations, but are also building information to refugees after working with stakeholders and local experts has revealed the “information desert” refugees face in everything from education to medical Care up to the details of asylum procedures.

“We’ve realized that this information vacuum is another incredibly crucial thing, so now we’re trying to figure out how to first provide the information that people need, because that’s the priority for them — and then eventually pivot to that, say.” ‘Is there anything you’d like to share?’” says McPherson, adding that the partnership has agreed to develop a chatbot feature for it.

“Basically, there’s a branched questionnaire, and then the data is aggregated into a dashboard on the admin analysts’ side so they can look through cases and then drill down into a specific report as well,” she says.

“The benefits are not only in terms of data collected and information provided, but also in creating space for conversations like ‘Oh, there’s this thing I can access to find out about my rights’. It creates spaces in the community to gather and talk about the issues at hand.”

Although the project is still iteratively evolving, Harris says they’re in the process of holding workshops and consulting more extensively with “experts in the field” on design ideas that can help collect better evidence.

“Trust is so important,” she says. “Ultimately, this is about people’s lives and I think if we take the time to really think through the possible scenarios, it means we’ll feel confident asking people to embrace it.”

“Our intent isn’t just to throw a phone number into the airwaves — it’s about making it come with discussion, education, engagement and protection, and making it scalable too. This is both because this is the right way to go and because from our point of view we are a really small grassroots organization and we need to be sure that all the information is coming in, that there is capacity on the other end to evaluate it and act accordingly.”

New Technology Era

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