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  • Q&A: Middle Eastern web technology for social change, with Esra'a Al Shafei

An open-source site, CrowdVoice, aims to make governments more transparent and accountable, its co-creator, Esra'a Al Shafei, tells SciDev.Net.

Internet-based technology and tools are becoming vital elements in the movement towards open government. But with so much information available, and so many different social media platforms, it can be hard to find relevant, reliable information.

SPEED READ

  • Open-source website allows users to set up and run social justice campaigns around the world
  • Images, videos, tweets and blogs can be added to draw attention to neglected topics
  • Site documented the Arab Spring, but is now banned in some Arab countries

The Middle East-based website CrowdVoice.org — run by Mideast Youth — was set up to overcome this obstacle. Users can view, add and curate information on various social justice movements around the world, from the Arab Spring that began in December 2010 to recent allegations of electoral fraud in Mexico. Images, videos, tweets and blog posts are collated on the website to create a story — or 'voice' — around each protest.

But several Middle Eastern countries have censored the site.

SciDev.Net spoke to Esra'a Al Shafei, a Bahraini civil rights activist and Mideast Youth's founder and director, about how CrowdVoice uses technology to generate social change; its relevance to communities; and how the project is evolving.

What is Mideast Youth and what does it aim to do?

I founded Mideast Youth in 2006 with the aim of building online platforms that amplify dissenting voices. It's an umbrella organisation for all of our projects and services, such as advocacy campaigns for Kurdish rights; a discussion tool for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in the Middle East; and Mideast Tunes, a platform for underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa who use music as a tool for social change. But our primary focus right now is on CrowdVoice.

How did the idea for CrowdVoice come about?

We had various tools and campaigns, and were looking for services that helped us to organise all of this information, from all these sources. We couldn't find one, so we built CrowdVoice.

The idea behind it is that there are voices of dissent echoing across all these channels on the Internet: blogs, videos, images, tweets and news articles. All this information was so difficult to find and even more difficult to sort by timeframe and media type. With CrowdVoice, you can do all that. It's been used a lot by journalists, filmmakers and academics for research.

What role did CrowdVoice play in the Arab Spring?

It was used most prominently in Tunisia, when the protests kicked off. Site users created a topic, curated information and shared it on Twitter. People started re-tweeting it back and forth until we just saw the servers 'blow up'.

Before the Arab Spring, we had a couple of hundred visitors a day, but suddenly we had 3,000 to 4,000 a day.

How can CrowdVoice help governments become more open?

CrowdVoice helps to expose injustices, so that governments can't hide them — the straightforward approach. We show how many people are talking about an injustice, put it in one place and make it undeniable.

It's difficult for governments to hide police brutality or violence against unarmed civilians when you expose a multitude of sources proving that they happened.

Unfortunately, we started getting censored in February 2011 in Bahrain, Iran and Yemen. I'm based in Bahrain myself and have to use a virtual private network to bypass the censorship.

Sometimes when a site gets censored, people get curious about what's on it. When it happened to us, our traffic went up. Between June and December 2010, we were averaging about 10,000 unique visitors a month. We're now at about 80,000 visitors a month.

The censorship in all these places makes us aware that governments know the potential impact of CrowdVoice. They've censored it because it's a powerful tool that could expose the injustices they try so hard to hide.

How has CrowdVoice had an impact on technology?

We believe in the open-source movement. We are taking advantage of open-source technology: any developer can contribute to the platform and repurpose it. So it makes sense for us to contribute back to the open-source community by offering adaptable tools and features as well as learning from it.

The Internet is a fantastic educational resource for everybody: there's a wealth of information for developers to learn from. When you build a tool like this, you will be surprised by the great things people use it for. Whatever is open source ends up being innovative naturally, because everyone gets to take it, break it apart and improve it. Open source is the way forward for technology.

What CrowdVoice protests have there been that are related to science?

CrowdVoice has helped to document an anti-nuclear project in Japan and a protest in the Czech Republic against illegal logging. We've also had a case in Peru against gold mining. It's not just a place for political dissent, but a place for all kinds of movements.

How does CrowdVoice help minority voices?

We have specific topics about these groups: for example, voices opposing violence against women and female genital mutilation or in favour of migrant worker rights.

This becomes important when people are made aware of them because they see them on CrowdVoice. Maybe they come to CrowdVoice to check out the protests in Egypt, but when they are on the site, they get exposed to other issues, like Kurdish rights in Turkey, or information about Kuwait's stateless community, and so on. Or they might type "Egypt" into the search box and find that there's also a voice about sexual harassment in Egypt.

I feel like it's an educational tool for people to find out what's happening around the world. It doesn't just focus on the causes that mainstream media look at, but it also raises awareness of other causes that don't get as much attention.

Does it create a sense of community?

Absolutely. CrowdVoice can be really useful for uniting a community that wants to get the word out about an issue and collect images and videos in one place. People don't always want to take part in the protests but they want to know about them, and the curation/moderation process can bring likeminded people together.

If you live in a country, such as Libya, that journalists had a hard time getting into when the protests first broke out, it's especially useful in circulating eyewitness sources or videos.

You see people coming together in a community and helping each other put the right information on the site. There are conversations between activists on blogs and Twitter, and you see the collaboration play out in front of you.

How is CrowdVoice funded?

In 2010, we were entirely bootstrapped: we built and funded it ourselves. Now, we have two main sources of funding: the philanthropic organisations Omidyar Network and the Shuttleworth Foundation.

We're trying to monetise the tool somehow — not right now, because we don't feel we're capable and we don't have the traction — but there's a lot of room for exploration in that field so that we're entirely financially sustainable in the future.

CrowdVoice is based online: can you see it expanding to include people without Internet access?

We've considered it, but we have few resources to expand into mobile phones. We'd have to bring someone on board with the right expertise and it's not feasible for us. We would love to create a way for those without the Internet to access us easily on phones, but that's not our target audience at the moment: we are aimed at bloggers, online activists, people who want to be discovered.

What's next for CrowdVoice?

We rebuilt the site from scratch last year and have introduced some major features this year, such as the infographics feature that allows users to pull out and present statistics.

We're aiming to double the number of unique visitors to our site within a couple of months. We've been working really hard on getting a lot of features out of the door, building an installable extension of CrowdVoice called mycrowdvoice.org, making improvements to the user interface and just figuring out new ways to improve the platform.

Our services can work well worldwide and not just in one particular geographical area. We may have started out in the Middle East, but now we're branching out globally.

See below for a video about CrowdVoice:
 


 
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