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Amnesty Observer App

Around the world, from the Arab Spring to Chinese Anti-Corruption Campaigns to African Crisis Mapping to Occupy Wall Street, people are using mobile phones & online social networks/media to become activists & communicate important information.

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One of the most powerful forms of information being shared is video. As the human rights organization Witness explains, " You can say a story is fabricated...You can say a person is lying. You can say you don't trust newspapers. But you can't say what you just saw never happened." How can technology tools be further developed to support this, particularly where such actions are being suppressed? Below is an example of how an "Amnesty Observer App" (available & applicable around the world) could help support activist behaviors already occurring in China.


Imagine you are a student waiting for the bus in Shanghai, China, excited to be going home to see your parents for the Spring Festival (most important family holiday, like Christmas for China). You see some chengguan (local street police) surround an unlicensed migrant street vendor, demand his cigarette inventory as a bribe, and then begin beating him mercilessly when he refuses & tries to flee. Eventually they haul him away to be charged.

You want to do something about this corruption & excessive aggression, but are afraid of the ramifications for you & your family (you were refused admittance to your desired academic department, due to your lack of participation in the school's Communist Youth League division; your parents were recently interrogated due to their resemblance to organizers of a hospital protest that occurred several weeks ago, and you've heard about people trying to film chengguan excessiveness that were then beaten to death themselves). You feel helpless.


Now, what if you had the Amnesty Observer App (available for all commonly used video-enabled mobiles, both smart & basic feature phones), empowering you to quickly, easily, & safely record & share video.
  • When you see the start of the corruption, you press 1-button to open the app which immediately begins recording (or perhaps auto-streaming). You feel empowered knowing that just a 2nd press of any button will immediately finish the recording, anonymously upload the video with an automatic time & location stamp to a secure publicly accessible location (perhaps searchable & with visualizations by place, time, etc.), and then delete the video from the device.
  • Unfortunately a supervising officer spots your phone and grabs it before you have a chance to press a 2nd button. He looks at the screen (which displays a mock Angry Birds game screen, estimated 100 million downloads in China this year, with a local unlicensed Angry Birds Theme Park already open). He presses the exit button to inspect your home screen for suspicious activity (which automatically uploads, then deletes the video), but all he sees checks out (including the mock Angry Birds Game, which actually contains the Amnesty Observer App)
  • A week later, your video compiled with other local Chengguan Bribe & Beating videos has been spread all over weibo, youku, kaixin, etc. (China's version of twitter, youtube, facebook). Of course, the government quickly moved to shut this content down, but not before the Renrou Sousuo (literally Human Flesh Search Engine, i.e. internet crowd) identified an important un-uniformed public security official nearby in some of the videos. And the content continues to bubble up through different channels, renamed & remixed to avoid automated censors. What you see with your own eyes is stronger than government denials or media spin. What you see with your own eyes cannot be denied.
  • A month later, the offenders are fired, and the identified official resigns after apologizing to the released street vendor. The security department promises anti-corruption & violence reforms.


The people will be watching to ensure the police deliver on their responsibility.

What kind of resources are needed to get this idea off the ground and/or support it over time?

Various video recording apps/technology already exist ( http://www.imaginaryfeet.com/spyvid/ ; note: image is from them). They need to be enhanced with the privacy, security, & distribution needed to more safely record in repressive regimes.

My Virtual Team

(ADDED on Nov 15th, LAST UPDATED on Nov 21st)

Here's an overview of the great builds/updates made & inspired by y'all. Please see the comments at the bottom for the full lively discussion!

*VALIDATION THIS WOULD WORK AROUND THE WORLD: whether in Stockholm, or Mumbai; Tehran, Nairobi, or Shanghai
-Team: Lei Niu ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/rayniu/ ) , Wilfred Lim ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/dinozilla/ ), Johan Löfström ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/664458357/ ), Sargam Gera ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/1021575974/ ), Amin Tadj ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/1001224930/ ), Festus Mbuimwe ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/wamoronjia/ )

*CUSTOMIZABLE MOCK SCREENSHOTS / APP NAMES / ICONS: ensures localization for different contexts (what works in Bogota is likely different from what works in Oakland), and prevents a particular screenshot/name/icon from being used to accurately identify someone as using the Amnesty Observer App. Hypothetically, one could even choose a pre-existing app to imitate (e.g. copying of menu/desktop icon and screenshot of internal app page), or even have the app automatically load/boat when a pre-set genuine app (such as a scientific calculator app you don't use) is opened.
-Team: Meena Kadri ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/meanestindian/ ), Tayfun Uslu ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/24412340/ ), Thorkild Kusnitzoff ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/thorloeg/ )

*EXPANDING BEYOND VIDEO TO PHOTOS / SKETCHES / AUDIO / SMS: facilitates witnessing for users of feature phones lacking video support
-Team: Sarah Fathallah ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/sfathallah/ ), Anne Pizarro ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/apizarro/ ), Emily Goligoski ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/505274790/ )

*SUPPORT PRE-RECORDED VIDEO UPLOADING FROM WEB: supports people who may not have the app, or record the video using a non-cellphone video recording device, and then want to securely/anonymously upload the video (no record of you uploading either on the web, or, if possible, your computer) later once they are in a safer area.
-Team: Steve Hays ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/638037721/ ), Jacqueline L. Chavez ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/jackiechavez/ )

*MAXIMIZING DISTRIBUTION BY LEVERAGING EXISTING CHANNELS: Bundling as an additional feature in Amnesty International's Candle App could jumpstart distribution, though the availability of a standalone observer app is very important for ease-of-use & security/privacy reasons. Perhaps the Amnesty Observer App & Amnesty International Candle App can cross-promote each other as sister apps. Also, as phones tend to come preloaded with certain applications, there's also the possibility of partnering with carriers/manufacturers to have phones come with the Amnesty Observer App preloaded. In general, human rights organizations/websites, app stores, phone shops, street vendors,and other existing channels can be leveraged for increasing distribution.
-Team: Amin Tadj ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/1001224930/ ) , Anne Pizarro ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/apizarro/ ), Arjan Tupan ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/arjantupan/ ), Jamie Holzhuter ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/holzhuter/ )

*INTEGRATING WITH/LEVERAGING EMERGING ONLINE DISTRIBUTION: such as http://OpenLeaks.org (secure anonymous whistleblowing uploads & distribution to established supporting institutions like NGOs, media outlets, & activist groups) & Diaspora . Both established institutions like Amnesty & Witness and the broader community play key roles in identifying, verifying, and surfacing important content. For example, imagine if videos could be browseable, aggregated, and sortable by time, place, shares, votes, etc. Different organizations or individual activists/causes (like Occupy Wall Street) could set up their channels/collections of videos to be shared (think Youtube channels & social network sharing tools). In some cases, perhaps a trusted party (like Amnesty!) could administrate the site. However, in other cases involving repressive Internet-censoring regimes, some kind of more distributed, peer-to-peer system like Diaspora that's harder to takedown/block may make more sense, perhaps in parallel.
-Team: OpenIDEO, Amnesty International, Lei Niu ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/rayniu/ ), Ana Cecilia Santos ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/anaceciliaboman/ ), Marnie Landon ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/mnm3bb/ )

*HANDLING PRIVACY CONCERNS: Photos/Videos taken in public places generally do not require consent, as there's no legally recognized expectation of privacy in most jurisdictions (as Google Street View, as well as security surveillance cameras, has made us more aware of). However, it's important to protect privacy in various scenarios such as protecting innocent bystanders whose revealed presence, affiliations, etc. might cause them harm. In the case of an http://OpenLeaks.org type setup, where vetted partners or a single trusted party (like Amnesty) are responsible for initial distribution, the call to anonymously blur content or not even distribute inappropriate content can be made here. Features can be integrated to support this such as easy administrator tagging/tracking of items to automatically blur in final distributed videos, and reporting functions that allow anyone to make a content blur/removal request (both of these are done by Google Street View). Of course, though the tools are computer automated, the decision of what to blur/remove is ultimately a human driven decision made on a case-by-case basis. Amnesty International would be well suited for this role, which it's already performing in its current operations.
-Team: OpenIDEO, Amnesty International, Owen Pringle ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/opringle/ ), Sara Mac Neice ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/saramac/ )

*FREE/DONATE WHAT YOU CAN PRICING MODEL: app is available for free (to maximize distribution & accessibility for everyone), but people (say a tourist downloading the app as a precautionary measure before traveling abroad) could be prompted to "donate what it's worth to you" or "donate what you can" to support Amnesty's human rights work.
-Team: everyone who's posted to this human rights challenge! This idea hit me right before bed. I was browsing through Amnesty challenge concepts earlier, so I'm sure all of your great posts mixing around in my mind had something to do with it ;)

*INCREASING STEALTH: Hidden/disguised background processes should be used for the uploading of media, particularly important in the case of slow upload speeds. Also, given that people already use accessories for their phones (plugin headphones, bluetooth headsets, even projectors) there may be future possibilities to record video/photos/audio through more discreet devices (camera on earplug, pinhole pen camera in pocket, video recording sunglasses, etc.).
-Team: Tayfun Uslu ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/24412340/ ) , Arjan Tupan ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/arjantupan/ )

*OPEN MESH NETWORKS: for cases when the government shuts down the Internet & Phone networks
-Team: Amin Tadj ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/1001224930/ ) , Paul Reader ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/ubiquity/ )

*PHYSICAL "PHONEBOOTH" VERSION: for those without access to cellphones
-Team: Rathin Deshpande ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/1466419897/ )

*OFFERS TO HELP REALIZE THIS CONCEPT
-Team: Rich Neal ( http://www.openideo.com/profiles/833398761/ )

How could this idea also be adapted to work in low-tech situations?

By making versions of this app compatible with as broad a range of phones (any feature or smartphone with video support) as possible, not just IPhones!

Can also expand beyond video to support photos / audio / sms, thus facilitating witnessing for users of feature phones lacking video support.

Finally, there's the possibility for a standalone "phone booth" version of this for those without access to cellphones (search "phone booth" in comments to see discussion).
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Now mobile phone video has even been used to make an undercover half hour documentary (aired on TV news networks) of the situation in Syria, providing coverage despite the Syrian government's active targeting of journalists: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679518/iphone-investigation-an-undercover-documentary-from-syria-made-using-phones

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