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Refugee support group works with tech startup on reporting system

Computer Weekly speaks to a refugee support group about its ongoing collaboration with an academic tech startup to develop a digital human rights reporting system for refugees

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 the needs of already vulnerable people are respected and met.

Based at the University of Cambridge, The Whistle is an academic startup that develops digital tools to help connect witnesses of human rights violations with advocacy organisations such as HfRN.

As a self-described slow-tech startup, the firm explicitly rejects Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” mantra, instead opting to develop its technology through direct and extensive collaboration with affected communities and groups.

“There’s not this rush to solve something or build something,” says Ella McPherson, founder and lead at The Whistle. “It’s more doing a huge amount of iteration with the communities we’re working with. What we are trying to do is collaborate with people who are working from the grassroots on various problems where 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 organisations first connected in 2018 after she returned from refugee support work in northern France, where she witnessed human rights violations on “a daily basis”.

Developing a reporting system

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

“Access to reporting is incredibly limited and often, if it does exist, relies on volunteers or organisations, but certainly in my experience there is no real proactive engagement of individuals,” she says. “What actually tends to be the case is that people will come into a situation, talk to a few people, gather some testimony, 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 collect evidence on abuses themselves, a “reporting mechanisms directly in the hands of people” is needed to ensure something is actually done.

“It’s about what do you do with the information if you have collected it – who do you send it to?” she says. “Who’s going to listen to you? Who’s going to do something? What can be done? What’s important to know when collecting?”

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

“I think the most significant aspect, certainly for me, is the idea that using a mobile phone, somebody who is seeking sanctuary can, using SMS or WhatsApp, provide us with evidence and submit a testimony of some kind,” she says.

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

McPherson adds that a central focus of the development cycle so far has been to figure out exactly what refugees would need and want from such a system. “It’s thinking about what data does the community want, not just what do the powers that be need, but what does the community want to get, what data is useful for them?” she says. “And also, what data do they need?”

In terms of the decision to use certain messaging technologies, such as SMS or WhatsApp over others, McPherson says that consulting with refugees and figuring out their tech habits was key, because different groups have different preferred ways of communicating, and it made little sense to ask people to do something they normally would not.

Harris adds, for example, that while the system was initially almost entirely SMS-based, that did not take into account the practical situation many refugees are in. “The vast majority of people don’t have, or are not provided with, financial support, and so phone credit is a real problem.”

Despite this, many refugees will have access to Wi-Fi, either via any accommodation they have managed to obtain, local libraries or other public institutions, and in camps where volunteer organisations will come and set up mobile Wi-Fi spots, says Harris, adding: “Understanding how people are communicating is key.”

McPherson says the project received a grant from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)’s Impact Acceleration Account in November 2021, which is “about having a research partnership that has a real-world impact and doesn’t just stay in the academy, and, in this case, it’s specifically to develop a chatbot with HfRN”.

Iteration in action

As well as creating a reporting system to get information to advocacy organisations, HfRN and The Whistle are building in a way to get information out to refugees as well, after collaboration with those affected and experts on the ground highlighted the “information desert” that refugees face in everything from education and medical care to the details of asylum processes.

“We realised another incredibly crucial thing is this information vacuum, so now we’re at the stage of trying to figure out how you can first provide information that people need, because that is the priority for them – and then pivot at some point to say ‘is there anything you want to share?’,” says McPherson, adding that the partnership settled on creating a chatbot function to do this.

“Basically, there’s a branching questionnaire, and then the data is gathered in a dashboard on the admin analyst side, so they’re able to look through and across cases, but then also to look in depth at a particular report,” she says.

“The benefits are not just in terms of data gathered and information given, but making spaces for conversations like ‘oh, there’s this thing I can access to find out about my rights’. It makes spaces in the community to gather and converse around the issues at stake.”

Although the project is still being iteratively developed, Harris says they are in the process of holding workshops and consulting more expansively with “experts by experience” on design ideas that can help with better evidence-gathering.

“Trust is so important,” she says. “Ultimately, this is people’s lives, and I think by taking time to really think through the possible scenarios, it means we will be confident in asking people to engage with it.

“Our intention is not just to chuck a phone number out into the ether – it’s that it comes with discussion, training, engagement and protection, and that it’s scalable as well. That’s both because it’s the right way to do this but also because, from our perspective, were a really small grassroots organisation and we need to be sure that whatever information is coming in, that there is capacity at the other end to be assessing that and acting on it.”

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