Human rights, SMS and the power of film

Tonight sees the screening of The Reckoning” – a film about the battle for the International Criminal Court – at The Soul of The New Machine human rights conference in Berkeley, California. In this – the sixth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts – Paco de Onis, the films’ Director, talks about how they plan to use FrontlineSMS as a way of engaging their audience as the film is shown around the world

"The Reckoning"The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague represents the most ambitious attempt ever to apply the rule of law on a global scale to protect the most basic human rights. It emerged from and reflects a world where sovereign nations are increasingly interdependent and at risk. In order to increase awareness of the ICC and highlight the essential role that justice can play in moving societies from violent conflict to peace and stability, Skylight Pictures produced the feature-length documentary film The Reckoning.

To accompany the release of The Reckoning, Skylight Pictures and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) are co-producing IJCentral, designed to be the core of a global grassroots social network and resource for the international movement to bring perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide to justice. IJCentral will implement a multi-platform strategy with online mapping technology to visualize the movement, aggregating blogs, news feeds, short films and media modules created for education and advocacy.

One of the most exciting features of IJCentral will be FrontlineSMS two-way “listening posts” that will allow us to hear from concerned citizens around the world using their mobile phones to join the global conversation about justice, and respond to calls to action coming from the IJCentral social network. These “listening posts” will be deployed through the global network of our strategic partner the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), an umbrella organization of 2,500 NGOs and civil society groups that has been at the forefront of the international justice movement since 1995.

IJ Central

A high school class in Indianapolis will be able to have a real-time SMS exchange with an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Uganda, for example, or in a presentation to Congress the IJCentral map could light up with geolocated SMS messages calling for an effective international justice system. As it accumulates content from users engaged with international justice, IJCentral will become an invaluable database for defending human rights around the world, and a powerful action tool.

For more than 25 years Skylight Pictures has been committed to producing artistic, challenging and socially relevant independent documentary films on issues of human rights and the quest for justice. Through the use of film and digital technologies, we seek to engage, educate and increase understanding of human rights amongst the public at large and policy makers, contributing to informed decisions on issues of social change and the public good. We see FrontlineSMS as a hugely valuable tool in enabling us to open the debate further, and to include individuals and communities who may have otherwise been excluded.

The International Center for Transitional Justice assists countries pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse. The Center works in societies emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict, as well as in established democracies where historical injustices or systemic abuse remain unresolved.

Thank you. You can also follow our work on Twitter via @pacony and @IJCentral

Paco de Onis
Director, “The Reckoning”

Caught on camera

They say a picture paints a thousand words, and that may be the case. But if they cost the earth or you don’t have permission to use them, they end up painting nothing much at all.

When my mobile ‘career’ kicked off in 2003 with research trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I took the opportunity to start taking and collecting mobile-related photos. Back then people were beginning to take an interest in the impact of mobile phones on the African continent, and NGOs were looking to use photos on websites or in project proposals and newsletters.

kiwanja Mobile Gallery

That collection now stands at almost 150 photos, and covers everything from people around the world texting or making calls to pictures of shops, signs, mobiles themselves and other interesting examples of mobile entrepreneurship in action. The images are free to use by non-profits or any other organisation seeking to profile the social impact of mobile technology. Visit the kiwanja Mobile Gallery for the full gallery of images, and for details on how to credit.

The world according to FrontlineSMS

We’re not far off a year since the launch of the revised version of FrontlineSMS, and great progress has been made on many fronts. One of the challenges we’ve faced is that there’s no manual for what we’re trying to do, so it’s been something of a shot in the dark much of the time. The past, present (and no doubt future) of the software remains heavily influenced by the organic spread of the tool – NGOs finding it by “discovery” and adopting it in their own projects, for themselves, by themselves. Leaving them do a little bit of the work themselves helps create the ownership so crucial for a project to succeed, I believe.

FrontlineSMS around the world

Looking at the map of users today, we have a quite amazing spread. Along with expected hotspots in Africa and South/Central America, FrontlineSMS has been “discovered” by NGOs in as far-flung places as the Maldives, Bermuda and the Faroe Islands. How they got to hear about it I’ll never know. Maybe not knowing is half the fun.

FrontlineSMS online community

The online user community also continues to grow and remains very active, and is showing encouraging signs of become self-supporting. As of today we have 478 members and, yes, some of them do like to customise their pages! To date around 20% of NGOs who download the software end up joining the community (downloads to date comes to 2,118), which is not a bad return. We have to do a bit more work on this, I think, as we intend to in the coming months. We also need to focus more on the growing interest from the developer community, who still lack a proper, fully decorated home. Work starts on that any day now.

Of course, there is still much we don’t know – how we measure the impact of FrontlineSMS, how many of the users who download the software that go on to use it with any regularity, what additional challenges there are to adoption over and above the ones we know, and so on. But we’ll keep working at it. We have the funding – for now, anyway – and we have the incredible support of a growing community of NGOs, bloggers, activists, developers, academics, observers and, of course, users.

(Note: A selection of FrontlineSMS Guest Posts are available, written and submitted by users themselves).