Witness unveil the Video Advocacy Planning Toolkit.

Last summer I completed an internship with the not-for-profit organisation Witness, based in Brooklyn, to develop the Video Advocacy Planning Toolkit, which went live last week. The toolkit incorporates Witness’ decades of experience training rights advocates worldwide to use video in bringing about positive change. By shifting this training online Witness can reach many more activists, as demand for training far outstripped capacity. Under the watchful eye (and moustache) of the marvellous Chris Michael, I was involved in the initial stages of development and drafting the text; the task was to find a workable solution to an ambitious and complex technical need. Read Chris’ introduction on the Witness blog for the science bit.

Witness was set up by Peter Gabriel (of Genesis and ‘Sledgehammer’ fame) in 1992 after he videoed personal stories of those he met while touring with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour in 1988.  The police beating of Rodney King in 1991, captured on a handycam by a member of the public and beamed around the world, cemented the role of video as a valuable tool in defending human rights and exposing perpetrators; Witness was born.

Making and distributing a video has become technically easier over the years; anyone can pick up a video camera or mobile phone, press record and upload it to YouTube. However, the skill in effectively delivering an advocacy message in that video requires thought, patience, more time (and probably money) than you would initially imagine and asking tough questions of yourself and your organisation.

The Video Advocacy Planning Toolkit is not a ‘how-to’ guide to film making, although there are links to resources advising on getting the best out of your video visually, but taking on board Witness’ expertise on strategy, security and distribution are a must before picking up a camera. Is making a video the right medium? Who is the target/primary audience for your video and how will they see it? Does your primary audience have the power to influence change? How will you protect the safety and security of your crew and contributors? The toolkit asks searching questions which in the end will give your video more impact.

The toolkit is split into 12 chapters to take you from the initial planning stages to distribution. There are instructional videos, links to further resources and case studies from other advocates who share their experiences in making a video for advocacy.

You can save and return to the toolkit at any time and your plan can be downloaded to share with others. It may look like a lot of work to start with, but completing this plan will save you time and money in the long run and ensure all those working on the video are working to the same message and strategy.

The toolkit was released at the end of September and Witness will need your feedback in order to make improvements and ensure users are gaining a valuable resource.  Witness will be giving away flip cams to the first toolkit users and providers of in depth feedback, so have a go and report back to them. Good luck and well done Witness!

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The Heroes and Villans of London Town.

It is amazing how much you realise your love for a place when it is threatened. I have lived in Hackney on and off for 12 years, sometimes experimenting with other parts of London but always returning and finally settling here.

My flat borders three areas which were targeted on Monday night: Mare Street, the Pembury estate on Clarence Road and Kingsland Road. A long night spent glued to the news, Facebook, Twitter and the view from my window for the best part of 12 hours, while fielding calls and messages from concerned family and friends in other parts of the world and down the road. My very own situation room. While I couldn’t see much from the window and could only hear sirens and helicopters, footage from Twitter and YouTube showed a bus on fire round the corner, major clashes on Clarence Road and Turkish shopkeepers defending Kingsland Road. Even the brand new library was attacked. It was like I had my own satellites focused on the area.

Information was easy to find but hard to digest. There was up to the minute reporting from Paul Lewis of The Guardian on the ground, regularly using Twitter to ask where he should report from next (although he repeatedly misspelt Pembury as ‘Penbury’), footage of an inspiring woman giving the rioters a massive telling off, depressing footage of an injured man being mugged and aphotograph of a woman jumping from a burning building. Those rioting didn’t have a lot to say so everyone else said it for them. Not to ever justify looting, but if they had been stealing food instead of TVs and trainers, the root cause could not have been ignored. So much is to be written on the cause and effects, heroes and villans, but this article is very good (thank you to Dom for sending it to me).

On Tuesday morning, information kept coming, opinions were formed and I noticed all the bins had disappeared from the street. We were treated to an embarrassing display from Fiona Armstrong interviewing Darcus Howe on the BBC. Just watch, it’s awful. The anarchist group Solfed released the most comprehensive comment on the situation and don’t get me started on Nick Griffin’s insights into the situation. Clarence Road seemed to be the only place not yet scrubbed of any trace of the night before. The road was scorched, reporters were still out in force, people were watching shop windows being replaced and when a van crushed the back of a car while turning into the road it was barely noticed.

Theresa May held the fort while Cameron and Boris decided whether or not to come back from holiday. She said “we don’t do water cannons” and I agree. After water cannons are sent in, then what? My feeling is that the use of these would have aggravated and prolonged the situation by days as there is suddenly a legitimate reason to riot against police brutality at that moment, which until now appears to have been restrained. But most importantly, despite Cameron stating there is free rein on “whatever tactics police feel they need to employ”, England does not possess any water cannons. They could be shipped over from Ireland, but due to recent unrest there I doubt the request would be accommodated. Bring in the army? Instead, they brought the Northumbria police. Coming from Newcastle myself, I would advise anyone still bent on trouble to run away fast. Joking aside, the threat of rubber bullets and an extra 10,000 police officers, swelling the numbers from 6,000 on Monday night to 16,000 on Tuesday night, seems to have calmed London but other areas of the country are suffering. It will be interesting to calculate the monetary cost of the policing and clean up compared to the amount of cuts to services in each borough. We may be right back where we started.

This year we have seen Twitter and Facebook praised for helping to mobilise protests in the Middle East and companies falling over themselves to be associated with revolutions (yes you, Vodaphone). In London, Blackberry’s marketing department must be deep in its own COBRA meeting over how to avoid the “Blackberry Riots” tag after reports its BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) app was used extensively to organise looting. BBM quickly allows the user to instantly message groups (one-to-many) even when there is no mobile phone signal and all for free, unlike PAYG texting. Using BBM is not like posting to social networks as it is encrypted, a feature which appealed to the original target consumer: business. Lots of young people now own Blackberry’s because they are cheaper than IPhones, heavily endorsed by celebrities and come in lots of shiny colours. 37% of British teens prefer Blackberry over other smartphones according to a recent OFCOM survey.

Whether Blackberry owner Research In Motion (RIM) will hand over details of encrypted messages to police or not is yet to be seen, although making public that it would cooperate with authorities led to its blog being hacked and a message being posted including :

“Dear Rim; You Will _NOT_ assist the UK Police because if u do innocent members of the public who were at the wrong place at the wrong time and owned a blackberry will get charged for no reason at all…”

British authorities are not alone in this request, Indian authorities requested access to BBM messages last year citing “security fears”. These are some familiar tactics more commonly associated with authoritarian regimes, along with facial recognition technology which was used to identify protesters during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and is now being used to identify looters and calls to cut the BBM service altogether, as Egypt did with its internet. While British authorities are not using this technology to arrest legitimate protesters but those who committed crimes, they need to be careful of what they condemn in other countries and condone at home.

I’ve written nearly a thousand words here, but one tweet I read today sums up both the role of technology and the riots themselves in under 140 characters: You can’t close Pandora’s box.

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The Words That Maketh Murder

PJ Harvey recently said that when writing her latest album ‘Let England Shake’, she imagined herself as an official war song correspondent. Since dubbed the new ‘war poet’ by the critics, the director of London’s Imperial War Museum went so far as to announce they would be interested in commissioning her to go into conflict zones to write a body of songs from the front lines. The mind boggles.

Lead single “The Words That Maketh Murder” laments England and America for the destruction caused in their name:

What is the glorious fruit of our land?
Its fruit is orphaned children.

To close the song, Harvey pinches a line from Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ , a song which lighthearteldy complains of being a teenager in 1958: Working a summer job, chasing girls, not being allowed to take the car out. As a remedy to this he proclaims,

‘I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations!’

The character in Harvey’s song is having a very different summer. This soldier remembers the fierce sun, death all around, bodies blown apart hanging from trees, all the while longing to see a woman’s face. The song closes with the line,

‘What if I take my problem to the United Nations?’

Now this may be a very tenuous link, but it made me think about the change in the way the UN is perceived. The UN was only 13 years old when Cochran wrote ‘Summertime Blues’ and had achieved much in maintaining world peace and resettling millions of people displaced by two world wars. Founded in 1945, the UN’s mandate was to ensure the atrocoties of the Second World War were never repeated, set a benchmark for human rights standards and enforce the treaties adopted in the desire to preserve the dignity of the human being. The UN has since had to adapt to new threats to world security and human rights violations. Mistakes have been made, high profile ones in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq and the jury is still out on the current situation in Libya.

Resolution 1973 adopted on March 17th 2011 made me give out a little cheer. The UK had done something to be proud of on the international stage, pushing for action to stop Colonel Gaddafi slaughtering his own people. But three little words in Article 4 amongst the no fly zone, the arms embargo and the asset freezing could have got us into a whole world of trouble (again): “all necessary means.”

A month later, Gaddafi has still not stepped down and we are still forcefully engaged in military campaigns, stopping short of an all out invasion or occupation. Rightly so, as our presence in Iraq almost 8 years after “mission accomplished” was declared serves as a painful reminder of the consequences of putting boots on the ground.

So what now? Resolution 1973 also calls for “action to be taken on the diplomatic front” but who with? Forty years of oppressing the Libyan people has ensured no political opposition, no clear rebel leader has emerged to present a political alternative and the Gaddafi family are hardly packing their bags.

This is the point where human rights and peace clash. Human rights law demands justice and remedy for victims of human rights violations, which would probably start by indicting Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court. If Gaddafi struck a deal to step down as long as he was allowed to go into exile, it is a blow to justice but would it bring about peace more swiftly?

And so, with no end in sight, millions of Libyans shrug, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”

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V for Viral.

I came across an interesting viral campaign from the 1940s this week. Yes, the 1940s. Clearly it wasn’t viral in the sense we know today, but this could possibly be the best example of a viral campaign I’ve ever seen, and it pre-dates the internet by around 50 years.

One of the best remembered slogans from World War II was ‘V for Victory’. Winston Churchill’s trademark two finger salute (not that kind) symbolising victory and freedom is almost as famous as his ever-present cigar. But this symbolic gesture was not invented by Churchill.  The campaign was actually launched by the BBC in 1941 after  Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice,  suggested in a radio interview that the ‘V’ symbol could be adopted by the people as a show of defiance against the Nazis in occupied Europe. As he poetically put it,

“The occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.”


The BBC then appealed to its listeners to take heed and show support for the Allies by integrating the symbol into every day life , sending a clear message to the Nazis that the fight was not over. The letter ‘V’ in morse code is represented by three dots and a dash, which the BBC adopted as the call sign of all BBC European services and is still used today on Radio 4 at the top of the hour before the news. Soon the letter V began to appear in different forms all over occupied Europe; according to Icons.org.uk ,

People in Nazi-occupied territories were told to chalk Vs on walls, and to make the V signal whenever possible. Teachers could call children to order by clapping the signal, and train drivers could make it using their whistles. Every time someone knocked on a door or rang a church bell, they should use the rhythm of Victory.”

The BBC project ‘People’s War’ which ran from 2003-2006 has collected over 47,000 personal memories from those who lived through the war and has some great stories about the ‘V’ campaign. ‘V’ even had its own merchandise, like this lovely girl is modelling above, it also appeared on badges and stamps.

The celebrity endorsement from Churchill and other world leaders cemented the symbol into history.  As the end of the war was announced,  Churchill ordered searchlights to be directed towards St. Paul’s Cathedral in London forming a ‘V’ on its walls as victory was secured.

This small, peaceful act of defiance and solidarity used en masse empowered the people, provided an antidote to the dominating swastika and boosted morale during the despair of war.

Forget adverts disguised as cool videos and skateboarding cats; before viral was viral, there was ‘V’.

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Adventures in app-vocacy.

One of my major bugbears is seeing charitable organisations charged a fortune for simple technological tasks to increase their ‘online presence’.  If digital advocacy is here to stay, then being able to communicate with your members and donors is of course important. A quick google search will show a wealth of agencies offering to assist, but charging to upload a photo to Flickr? No thanks.

For the big campaigns, there are creative agencies out there with fantastic ideas desperate to get charitable jobs on their portfolio to stand out from the corporate-ness, so you can get some good talent at knock down prices. I managed to get a top design agency to brand a campaign, design a website and produce flyers and posters for £500. If an agency approaches you with an idea, take their hand off.

The old wives tale goes that Oxfam turned down The Global Rich List idea put to them (for free) by Simon Waterfall of the London agency Poke; he promptly took it to Care International, the site received 500,000 visitors in 80 hours, raised £15k in donations and received worldwide press for the little known charity.

More and more NGOs are employing digital media managers, but if your organisation doesn’t have £30k a year to spare, there’s no harm in a little DIY media strategy. However, a Facebook page and Twitter account doesn’t replace content, it is a tool to help you disseminate information and if you have the time (ha ha) you can invent a canny media presence.

I set out to support my theory by making this blog into an app. I have limited technological knowledge and my laptop is less powerful than my kettle. Seriously, how hard could it be…?

1. Firstly, you need an idea: What information are you trying to share, what issue are you raising awareness of? How can you visualise the information? In a previous article I listed the 5 best apps concerning rights. Now you’ve seen what can be done, have a think about the route you want to take. To make an app there needs to be content available on the web already, so you might have to spend some time preparing and publishing  blogs, photos and videos on platforms like WordPress, Flickr and YouTube.

2. Choose your software: Most of the software to make an app is open source, which means anyone can download and adapt it for free. Appmakr seems to be the easiest to use and is quite fun once you get into it. It is unfussy and holds your hand all the way through; play around with the visuals and content until you arrive at something you are happy with.

3. Choose your developer: There are 3 options- IPhone, Android or Windows. I succeeded in about an hour in making this blog into a simple app for Android; the problem is, I don’t have an Android phone so couldn’t publish the app as I don’t have access to the Android Task Manager! For my sins, I have an IPhone so I set about tackling the mighty Apple.

4. Curse yourself for having an IPhone: This is the stumbling block. Designing an app with Appmakr is free, as is publishing it through Android or Windows but surprise surprise, Apple is the only one who charges.  There is a one-off fee of $99, which isn’t astronomical but you have to set up a developer’s account  and Apple will have to vet your app before approving it, which takes time. This article about making IPhone apps is the best step by step guide I came across. The process does get a little complicated down the line and this is where you may need the advice of a techie friend (or the patience of a saint!)

5. Give up or press on: Even though I failed in proving my theory (this time), the point is, it’s not impossible or out of reach. I would definitely not be put off going through the process again in the future if I came up with an amazing idea. The tools are there for us to utilise, with a little time and willpower you can tame this technological beast! Go on, you know you want to…

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Response: Did the Internet matter in Tunisia and Egypt?

In response to Nabila Ramdani’s article and podcast on opendemocracy.net:

Freedom of information is now perceived as one of the biggest threats to governments on the verge of collapse.  Knowledge, at last, is power.  The part played by the relatively new phenomenon of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings certainly has value, in the speed at which information spread and the potential to mobilise people, but we shouldn’t be too hasty in crowning social media as the catalyst for revolution.

Social media sites are not free spaces, as Ramdani claims in the podcast with Tony Curzon Price, they are private companies with terms and conditions, run for profit. As Ethan Zuckerman wrote (and recently quoted by Sam Gregory of Witness),

‘Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech.’

It is uncomfortable to see civil unrest in the Middle East defined by the social media outlet used to publicise it.  To call the Egyptian uprising ‘The Facebook Revolution’ (and Ramdani is not the only one guilty of this) is frankly insulting. A revolution cannot be branded and we should be skeptical of companies using their incidental involvement as a marketing tool and opportunity for brand development amidst chaos and suffering. Is ‘The MySpace Uprising’ coming soon? I hear they could do with the publicity.

It is indeed telling that a government in a state of emergency will shut down the internet before rolling in the tanks.  Ramdani states that ‘Internet Service Providers were shut down’ [in Tunisia and Egypt], but this didn’t stop the revolution; so really how big a part did the internet play? In his article ‘Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted’, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, ” Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.”  In short, PCs don’t start a revolution, people do.

There is also the very real issue of how to protect activists using platforms which jeopardise their anonymity.  Morosov highlights in ‘The Net Delusion’ how social media can be used against activists, for example surveillance, and this issue needs to be seriously addressed before social media can claim its place alongside the revolutionaries.

Morodov and Gladwell’s arguments were not proved wrong by events in Tunisia and Egypt, they highlight the urgent need for enforcing the right to freedom of expression and reinforce a note of caution. If these tools are indeed now a staple of advocacy, activists need to learn to protect their safety and security online as well as offline and out on the streets.

Would these events have happened if social media didn’t exist? We must remember the initial event that resulted in the fall of two dictators, uprisings across the Middle East and a newfound empowerment of the people. The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17th 2010, was not posted on Facebook.

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International Women’s Day 2011: Women and Technology

There were some amazing happenings to celebrate International Women’s Day this week… even the bizarre (but arguably, valiant) effort  by ITN with their promo featuring Daniel Craig . The sun was shining and I flitted from a vigil outside the Swaziland embassy to a protest in Trafalgar Square to a talk at Amnesty International HQ, all the while receiving texts from the ladies I love celebrating, well, us.  I thought about my great-grandmother, who kept the family business running during the First World War and turned a handsome profit; my grandmother, who is very much the leader of our pack; my business executive mother, who was expected to give up work when she married my father (she happily informed  my father’s employer that as she was the bigger earner, this would not be happening) and the cunning entrepreneurs and creatives in my gang who are quietly smashing the glass ceiling.

Women are increasingly utilising technology to combat discrimination and change cultural norms.  During the Egyptian protests calling for the resignation of Mubarak, one of the poster girls was 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz.  Her vlog was a call to arms, radical in her own right, daring  the men of Cairo to accompany her to Tahrir Square.  Predictably, she received threats for daring to consider stepping outside unaccompanied, let alone joining the crowds on the street.  Sam Gregory from Witness recently blogged about how to combat the growing issue of visual anonymity in video and protect the vulnerable.  This will be discussed more in Witness’ upcoming report ‘Cameras Everywhere’ and word on the street is that Witness are also developing a new app around this area which should definitely be worth a look.

There has been a surge of initiatives to tackle street harassment of women and end its cultural acceptance. Comments to women about their appearance dished out by strangers on the street, from passing cars or on public transport, are not flattering or complementary- they are insincere and intimidating. Have you ever met a couple who got together after he shouted ‘nice arse’ at her while waiting at the traffic lights? The worse thing is, it’s accepted as part of being female and only really discussed amongst groups of girls like it’s a secret, which is a real shame as the boys I know were horrified to find out how widespread this kind of behaviour is as, obviously, it never happens when they are around.

Back to Egypt, I have been keeping an eye on the  Harrassmap project since it started at the end of 2010. This is an SMS service for women to text in incidents of catcalling, touching and worse on the streets of Egypt which are then mapped.  A similar initiative, Hollaback,  exists in the USA and UK as an app and a map and is currently being rolled out worldwide.  I like to think of these as a virtual alternative to a Mace spray, but what exactly will happen to the data once it is collected? Let’s hope these projects have teeth and go some way to changing cultural norms and encourage women to speak out about the unspoken.

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