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Digital Witness

aburazr_sm.jpgFounded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel, Witness supplies video cameras and communication gear to allow people around the world to document abuses of human rights, partnering with human rights groups in over 50 countries. Witness attempts to create pressure for change by shining a light on injustice around the world. The people who take up cameras in the name of human dignity are remarkably brave, facing in many cases torture and death for the "crime" of revealing the truth. But the Witness cameras stand alone; their only connection to the rest of the world is via the hand delivery of video tape.

That will soon change.

In an interview at BusinessWeek online, Gabriel and Witness Executive Director Gillian Caldwell reveal that the organization intends to open up an online portal allowing people to send in video clips from digital cameras and cameraphones -- that is, if they can get the funding.

Are people already sending tapes or images from mobile phones?
Gabriel: We haven't had the structure to do that. That's the next challenge.
Caldwell: Implementation will be in the next 12 months. That's what we're shooting for, although we need financial support.
How will you keep control of the content?
Gabriel: We hope there will be some sort of self-regulating system. People, in order to get content uploaded, would have to rate three or four other pieces of material [on the site]. My country [England] is the most observed country in the world. I think the average person gets filmed eight times a day. The aim here is to turn the cameras back.

Clearly, Gabriel and Caldwell get it -- they understand that what they've built is a humanitarian sousveillance network that puts the power of transparency in the hands of the citizen -- it's the political manifestation of the participatory panopticon.

By making it possible for users of digital cameras and -- especially -- cameraphones to send images and video to Witness digitally over the Internet, rather than through the delivery of physical goods, the organization will make it possible for activists and involved citizens to spread the word about abuses far more swiftly and surely than ever before. The longer it takes for records of human rights abuses to reach the global media, the greater the risk for those who seek to expose these crimes; being able the images and video over phone networks or the Internet will make a real difference.

Witness should expect that contact numbers and URLs will be blocked by the governments of the countries most likely to perpetrate human rights abuses, just as China blocks web access to myriad dissident sites around the world. Along with the web portal, Witness should consider developing a voluntary program wherein other websites with an interest in building a better world can act as digital "drop boxes" for the organization -- making the effort collaborative, so that those who would violate human rights would be unable to block access to Witness.

The combination of thousands -- millions, perhaps -- of citizens providing a record of violations and thousands -- millions, perhaps -- of websites providing access to Witness would be the ultimate in "swarm" humanitarianism.

Let's make it happen.

(Via PicturePhoning)

Comments (8)

Daniel Haran:

The idea sounds great. 12 months for implementation of mobile-to-web uploading sounds like they're envisioning something far too complicated. And developing their own portal like Google Earth? Yikes! Why not just mash it up?

It should be possible to get something simpler off the ground faster if you used something like google video as the storage. This could also be an interesting case for using RSS and bittorrent. Let users give a location, and syndicate the data, and you'll see plenty of people mash it up in their own applications.

First, thanks for the write up!

We are hoping to roll out a working version of the site within the 12 month time frame, but continuing with development adding features as needed. It will definitely be complicated, even if we "mash it up," which we are hoping to do. Using Google or Internet Archive as storage and distribution is a good idea, but is almost secondary to the issues that Jamais alludes to, specifically the very real dangers associated with collecting this type of information, and the lack of access that people living in areas most in need of the service, face.

I would welcome comments and ideas about ways to keep people safe not just in the physical world, but online as well.

-Bryan Nunez, Technology Manger, WITNESS

So, Bryan, are you going to set up a public forum for discussing this? I'm not enough aware of the actual problems to solve to offer any solutions, but I'd love to put some thought into it.


Daniel Haran:

Hi Bryan, good of you to respond here. Like Monty, I'd love to hear more about your specific problems to try and offer better solutions. Recently, some of the most successful sites have had beta versions ready in 2-3 months: the feedback gathered from early users is critical in creating compelling solutions.

I would urge you to invite the people at mysociety.org to the discussion. They have experience with rapid development, and have created some popular projects.

Thanks for the suggestion of the public forum. I've set one up at the WITNES site, http://www.witness.org/forum/index.php/board,14.0.html.


Bryan, that's terrific -- I'll put a pointer up on the main page.

Daniel Haran:

Conversation continues in the post mentionned by Jamais: Build the Digital Witness Project


it seems that not many persons are doing as much sousveillance as one would expect.

clayton patterson, who documented the tompkin's square riots, and NYC police corruption during the 80's states that the culture is not anti-establishment enough at this juncture of current history.



one could argue the recent riots in France where "sousveillance": It seems that the info has been squashed.

Clayton worries that "little brother" will be "Killed" by the idea of "big brother" and that a meaningful participatory panoptican will be undermined by social laziness that is a symptom of the current media hegemony. I argued that blogging is counter the hegemony, coupled with the power of ideas such as Technorati, and google search engines as liberating: but I am not sure if a sousveillance grid will evolve even if the technology makes it possible.

I asked him about a sousveillance grid to take the place of his archiving, continuous documentation of the lower east side: he does not think persons will react in this way.

The ACT up persons where the first to carry on the tradition of individuals from the protestor side to be armed with camera's and video equipment, and then the idea spread to other groups in the early 90's with Rodney King.

The ordinary day in and out of abuse, unfortunatly at the current time is just not documented: the majority within our culture are just not radicalized to make an aggregate sousveillance statement.

I hope to be wrong, but the ordinary and daily abuses I see in nursing homes, just continue, with a plentitude of consumer cameras present in cellphones: persons just don't ordinarly perform sousveillance in this setting, and I find the practice lacking in other forums/situations.

Perhaps the generation burdened with taking care of the elderly, the 50-70 year olds, are not tech savvy to build participatory panoptican systems. The emphasis is on peers setting up friend groups, but not family groups, and hence the biologic bonds that would lead to stronger reactions towards protecting vulnerable members of the group, have not evolved. In fact, the counter is becoming wide spread: light forms of happy slapping. Persons are not taking the fire power of sousveillance serious enough: and those who are radicalized to fight surveillance, have declared an unconditional battle on all forms of surveillance, both sousveillance and surveillance.


I have heard talk of Natalie Jerenmenecko building toy robots to surveille toxic waste dumps: I sent her a map of north jersy, and first hand info from garbage collectors/workers who know the ins and outs about dumping: no follow up on a juicy story, even with zip code data of cancer rates.

It seems the SMS informant idea has more traction: it seems that persons want to participate with government, and institutions rather than be counter:

And quests for justice short lived: I worry leaving the idea of sousveillance grids, or witness programs to be undermined to the randomness of ad hoc.

Files will be distributed and collected, but will there be a will to fight a battle. Perhaps the fighting instinct has been drowned by war computer games that causes an odd form of un critical thought;

I hope I am wrong about a lot of issues: perhaps I am sad right now and seeing everything negatively.

It is positive that the discussion continues...


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