What we’ve learned from keeping this blog …and why we’ll keep posting

A combination of the summer in the Northern Hemisphere and many of the team finally taking leave has meant that we haven’t posted on Citizen Evidence Lab for several weeks. While we finish-up various posts that are under production, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on how this blog enriches our work, and the publishing pipeline that ensures the responsibility and labour of writing is shared between team members. 

Logging good practice and lessons learned

Citizen Evidence Lab is a way for the Evidence Lab team and Amnesty’s wider Crisis Response Programme to turn operational knowledge, that is things we learn while doing our jobs, into institutional lessons learned. 

The nature of crisis response means that we often work at speed to unfold situations. The pace of the work and improvisation involved means that research methodologies will often evolve alongside an investigation – if we hit a dead end there is little time to contemplate why. The Citizen Evidence Lab blog plays an important role by providing a space for us to reflect on how we got from A to B. This is a useful exercise for the authors, but also the wider team, as sequencing events and decisions after the fact often brings clarity to project evaluations. 

Crucially, blog posts will stay up after a team member has moved onto a different area of work or left the Evidence Lab. In this sense, posts become institutional memories. They are a reminder that we do not need to reinvent the wheel with each investigation. 

The Citizen Evidence Lab is a way for us to turn operational knowledge, that is things we learn while doing our jobs, into institutional lessons learned.

Documenting external collaborations

The same principles apply to posts co-authored with external collaborators. These are valuable because they capture how specific expertise that we did not have in-house at the time, such as 3D modelling, machine learning or creative coding, impacted our research and point to how such expertise may be applied in the future.

Creating space for reflection and reflexive learning

Our blog posts are not recipes for success. We often reflect on the challenges of an investigation, flawed methods or research that did not get used. Doing so, we believe, fosters a working environment in which learning is valued and team members are not afraid to say when things haven’t gone to plan or they don’t have the answer to a sticky problem.

Sharing work that may not have otherwise been made public can be both therapeutic (so many hours, days unaccounted for!) and useful as outtakes can be revealing. Indeed, when writing methodologies for Citizen Evidence Lab we try to document what we decided to exclude or not do in an investigation and why. 

The long view. Credit: Sophie Dyer CC BY 2.0

Sharing back

We, the Evidence Lab, see ourselves as part of a wider community that includes, among others, open source researchers, journalists, technologists, students and academics. We also understand our investigations as sites of knowledge production. As such, we believe that we have a responsibility to attribute, through citation and acknowledgements, whose shoulders we are standing on, and to share knowledge produced during an investigation. Examples of such knowledge could be a new technique, tool or ethics argument.

If the work of the Evidence Lab exists within a healthy community of practice that is always learning, training up the next generation of investigators and human rights defenders, we all benefit.   

Platforming the voices of volunteers

Our research benefits substantially from the contributions of the volunteers, in particular students involved in the organization’s Digital Verification Corps. However, for security reasons, Amnesty International does not publish the names of authors or contributors on reports. As a result, there may not be an official record of the volunteers who made the research possible. Here the Citizen Evidence Lab blog can be a strategic space where, when assessed as safe, we can either give credit or voice to the teams and individual volunteers behind the work as well as provide a platform for them to share their invaluable perspectives and independent work.  

Recognising the importance of our blog makes it easier to justify time spent writing posts

Our collaborators have commented that they are impressed that we managed to both quickly turn around a piece of research and write a blog post about it. This is possible in part because we include the time it takes to write-up the lessons learned from an investigation into the project timeline. As a result, blog posts are rarely afterthoughts, rather we schedule writing and editing time, and might even scribble contemporaneous notes during fast-paced investigations.

More posts coming soon.