Social Media


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 “What is the global trend we’re seeing?” asked Chris Stone, President of the Open Society Foundation. “In some ways its government’s closing the public space available for politics, for debate, for groups to meet, for free expression.”


From restrictive NGO provisions in Uganda to stripping foreign funding registration in India, civil society space throughout the world is shrinking at an alarming rate. As Poonam Joshi, European Director of the Global Fund for Human Rights, notes, “Recently published research shows that from 1993 to 2012, 39 of the world’s 153 low- and middle-income countries introduced laws restricting foreign funding to domestic civil society.”


In the midst of this contraction, Hands-on Education, Law, and Media (HELM) looks to strategically expand the capacities of human rights movements through digital and technical innovation. By partnering with human rights defenders and their organizations to ideate, fund and build social design solutions that promote human rights and access to justice, HELM scales up social justice initiatives that are too often marginalized by these closing civil society spaces.


The success of innovation and technology in human rights is clear but worth repetition. The Arab Spring, for instance, was a coming out party for the power of social media. “The total rate of tweets from Egypt — and around the world — about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day,” noted Philip Howard, professor of communications at the University of Washington who studied the internet’s amplification of the uprising. “Social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”


Facebook and Twitter, previously considered youthful options for advocacy, are now integral components of any organization’s activism. HELM believes this is not a conclusion, but a starting point to coalesce and propel social justice movements forward through the use of innovation. We’ve worked with organizations small and large to develop game-changing technologies that have dramatically improved their advocacy and impact, and we believe this too is only a beginning.


One such project was with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), a human rights organization working on access to justice and access to information issues in the countries of the Commonwealth. CHRI, based in Delhi with offices in London and Accra, has worked to reform the police in India for over twenty years, and while progress has been made to improve service delivery through legislative advocacy and awareness building, the trust deficit between the public and law enforcement has never been wider. Police often did not know the laws they were meant to enforce, and the public considered police stations the most horrifying of options if they were ever in trouble. Indeed, these are the symptoms of surrender.


CHRI understood that better trained police and a more empowered public were key to improving access to justice in India. Through consultation with HELM’s team, CHRI learned of the brilliant possibilities held in 360-degree photography and game-coding, and were introduced to the idea of creating a computerized police station as a classroom where both police cadets and members of the public can learn key areas of service delivery. Thus the Virtual Police Station (VPS) project was born.


Through a series of meetings with HELM, CHRI’s police team explained the key areas that needed to be emphasized in the VPS. HELM in return explained the numerous technical and design options available, as well as the limitations that existed. Once a complete blueprint was created, CHRI and HELM coordinated site visits, scripting, filming, post-production, testing, and preparing the product for mass distribution.


The final result was truly groundbreaking. The VPS allows a user to enter a computerized police station to explore each room in 360 degrees, including the lock up, reception, and case property rooms. While inside, a visitor can click on a variety of markers within each room, including police personnel of various ranks, citizens such as female victims of crime, male victims of crime, witnesses, and juveniles, and objects such as phones, registers, and evidence. If a user clicked on, for instance, the “Female Victim”, a video box would be presented to examine best and worst practices in service delivery, such as how to intake a complaint, what rank and gender an officer must be to register the crime, how to file a First Information Report, and the rights of the victim before and upon reaching the police station. Procedures and soft skills are explained using an interactive format for better understanding and skill development, a vast improvement over the chalk and talk dominating most academy classrooms, as well as an accessible way for citizens and NGOs to understand their rights.


Virtual Police Station (VPS) Trailer


The VPS has been heralded by the former Director General of Police (Rajasthan) as “the next generation of police training”, and called a “democratization of the police” by former Director General (BPRD) Kiran Bedi. Maja Daruwala, Director of CHRI, believes the unique utility of the VPS is in the “new found marriage between technology and domain knowledge” in bringing about “systemic results.”


Due to this new innovation, Police Academies throughout India are now reaching out to CHRI for training on the VPS, opening potential doors for collaboration and, crucially, better policing throughout India in the months and years to come.


CHRI is certainly not alone in their interest in using innovation and technology to improve advocacy. HELM has partnered with numerous organizations such as Ford Foundation and Nazdeek, blending law and media to create high impact solutions to human rights challenges.


Funders and non-governmental organizations across the globe are seeing the power of innovative technology in order to create these powerful impacts. Earlier this year, the NetGain partnership, a group of five major foundations working to promote the use of the internet for social good, “committed a combined $18 million in grants to strengthen the emerging field of public interest technology, with the goal of increasing the number of people around the world who are using their technological skills to improve civil society and government at all levels.”


As civil society spaces continue to be choked around the world, we believe that technology and innovation, combined with the subject matter expertise of activists and NGOs, will be key to forming strong human rights advocacy into the future. It is much harder to close down virtual spaces, and movement building through innovative technology must be part of civil society’s response to the social justice challenges ahead. As Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, put it: “What gives me hope is that technology can be a critical ingredient in the efforts to challenge inequality in all its forms.”


HELM couldn’t agree more.

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