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New Data and the Importance of Collaboration

New data streams have revolutionized every industry.  It’s no different for human rights.  No different, also, is learning to understand how these work to leverage them for the greater good.  That’s what Amnesty’s Alt-Click project is about.  How do we take the great opportunities out there – micro tasking, social media streams, large databases – and use them to help achieve the mission of Amnesty International.

One of the ways we’re doing that at the Citizen Evidence Lab is by setting up our Digital Verification Corps.  It’s a big challenge – we’ll be working with Amnesty volunteers to find content in social media streams and to verify videos and photographs to help Amnesty researchers monitor and report on human rights violations.  Thinking about all of this while listening to other organizations share their own experiences of different data streams was so important  That’s why we’ll also be using this platform – www.citizenevidence.org – to share our experiences as we build the Digital Verification Corps over the next few months.  We’ll write about our successes, our failures, content we have been able to verify, content we’ve debunked in the hope that this can help other organizations with their own challenges around how to use social media data streams.  

This project will require a lot of collaboration from Amnesty’s staff and volunteers.  But there is so much to learn, so much that changes, so many new tools that appear each month that keeping up is hard.  That’s where the other side of collaboration comes in – working with organizations that could be seen to be competing in some way to leverage these new tools for everyone’s greater good.

That’s why some of Amnesty’s Alt-Click team and Citizen Evidence Lab joined a writing retreat in Germany in May with several other organizations working with new data streams in the human rights sphere. It was a week to share learnings, share knowledge, share failures all in the goal of writing a text that can help other non-governmental organizations working with similar challenges. The final text will be published by The Engine Room in August. It’s also been out for consultation across the community

But before its publication, here are some thoughts on the advantages and rewards of sharing knowledge in this new space.

  1. The reward of collaboration.  In reality, while organizations think they are competing, there’s not much of it going on.  Each organization has its own angle, its own objectives, its own niches. All of this varies.  Therefore, by collaborating on issues such as how to tackle the issues around modern data streams we all work towards achieving our goals. It’s much better to share learning and share knowledge.
  2. Using data means different things to different people and to different organizations.  Data isn’t just  spreadsheets and statistics.  Data isn’t just digital content.  And questions about data vary too. There are questions of usage. There are also questions of protection. There are questions of ethics.  Tackling all of this is tricky – and likely beyond the remit of any one single organization.  Working together to understand all of this is important now – an importance which is only going to get bigger as more streams, more challenges, more opportunities spring forth.
  3. Platform agnosticism.  We have a tendency to think about how YouTube changed social media or Tableau changed data visualization and recommending how others may use those tools.  That’s useful.  But more useful and important is thinking about processes and workflows needed to achieve data visualization or tracking down social media content.  We need to understand these processes as new, better tools are appearing all the time – but often the processes remain the same.
  4. When we talk about collaboration, it’s also about understanding the limits of what can be achieved before jumping in headfirst. Surely better to discuss with organizations that have done the same and learned the lessons than to blindly explore?
  5. How it fits into traditional research and work.  It’s also important to talk about how people have worked on using new data streams within their traditional work.  New data is not a panacea, but it becomes very, very useful when integrated into more traditional investigation, research and reporting.  Understanding how other organizations have done this can help you understand how to leverage the opportunities these new tools to better effect.

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