Refugee support group working with tech startup on reporting system

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

Headquartered at the University of Cambridge, The Whistle is an academic start-up that develops digital tools to help connect witnesses to human rights abuses with advocacy organizations like HfRN.

As a slow tech startup, the company explicitly rejects Silicon Valley’s mantra of “moving fast and breaking things”, instead opting to advance its technology through direct and broad collaboration with affected communities and groups.

“There isn’t that rush to solve something or build something,” says Ella McPherson, founder and leader at The Whistle. “It does a great deal of iteration with the communities that we work with. What we are trying to do is collaborate with people who are working from the grassroots to solve different problems as they are 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 contacted in 2018 after returning from refugee support work in northern France, where she witnessed human rights abuses “on a daily basis”.

Reporting system development

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

“Access to reports is incredibly limited and often, if present, depends on volunteers or organizations, but certainly in my experience there is no real proactive involvement of individuals,” she says. “What tends to be the case actually is that people are going to come into a situation, talk to a few people, collect some testimonials, and produce a report that is more about a snapshot in time.”

Harris adds that although the vast majority of people have mobile phones and are able to gather evidence of abuse themselves, “reporting mechanisms are directly in people’s hands” necessary to ensure something is actually done.

“It’s about what you do with the information if you collect it – who do you send it to?” she says. “Who will listen to you? Who will do something? What can they do? What is important to know when assembling?”

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

“I think the most important aspect, certainly for me, is the idea that using a mobile phone, anyone looking for a safe haven, using SMS or WhatsApp, can provide us with evidence and provide a testimonial of some sort,” she says.

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

MacPherson adds that the main focus of the development cycle so far has been figuring out exactly what refugees need and want from such a system. “It’s thinking about what data the community wants, not just what the powers need, but what the community wants to have, and what data is useful for them?” she says. Also, what data do they need?

Regarding the decision to use certain messaging technologies, such as SMS or WhatsApp on others, Macpherson says that consulting with refugees and knowing their tech habits was key, because different groups had different ways of communicating, and it didn’t make sense to do so. Ask people to do something they wouldn’t normally do.

Harris, for example, adds that while the system was initially based almost entirely on SMS, this did not take into account the practical situation in which many refugees live. support, so phone balance is a real issue.”

Despite this, many refugees will be able to access Wi-Fi, either via whatever accommodations they have been able to get, local libraries or other public institutions, and in camps where volunteer organizations will come and set up mobile Wi-Fi sites, he says Harris, adding: “Understanding how people communicate is key.”

MacPherson says the project received a grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Impact Acceleration Account in November 2021, which relates to “having a research partnership that has real impact and doesn’t just stay at the academy, in this case specifically developing a conversational bot using HfRN”.

Repetition at work

In addition to creating a reporting system to communicate information to advocacy organizations, HfRN and The Whistle are building a way to communicate information to refugees as well, after collaborating with influencers and experts on the ground who have highlighted the ‘information desert’ that refugees face in everything from Education and medical care to the details of the asylum procedure.

“We’ve realized another very important thing is this information space, so now we’re at the stage of trying to figure out how you can first provide the information that people need, because that’s their priority — and then at some point we focus on is there anything you want to share,” McPherson says. ?”, adding that the partnership settled on creating a chatbot function to do just that.

“Essentially, there’s a branching questionnaire, and then the data is collected in a dashboard on the management analyst side, so they can look at and through the cases, but then also look in depth at a particular report,” she says.

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

Although the project remains frequently in development, Harris says they are in the process of holding workshops and consulting more broadly with “experts by experience” on design ideas that can help better gather evidence.

“Trust is very important,” she says. “Ultimately, that’s people’s lives, and I think by taking the time to really think about potential scenarios, that means we’ll be confident in asking people to engage with it.

“Our intent is not just to put a phone number in the ether — it comes with discussion, training, sharing and protection, and it’s scalable too. That’s because it’s the right way to do it but also because, from our point of view, it was a very small grassroots organization and we had to make sure that whatever information was coming in. There is an ability on the other side to assess that and act on it.”

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