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First Published: Tue, Apr 22 2014. 02 09 PM IST

Archiving the world, one protest at a time

A Bahrain-based website is making an effort to chronicle and create awareness about social justice movements and protests across the world.
Archiving the world, one protest at a time
Earlier this month, Venezuelan students found a unique way to display their disapproval of the repressive Nicolas Maduro government: they posted naked photos of themselves online. The #MejorDesnudosQue (Better naked than) protest was triggered by the stripping and beating up of a student of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas by supporters of Maduro. Over the Easter weekend, Venezuelans decided to give a religious twist to their demonstrations by holding a rally demanding the “resurrection of democracy”.
Welcome to a world where routine or completely bizarre protests are fast becoming more commonplace than acquiescence with the state of affairs. Where a multitude of voices of dissent are rising simultaneously, sometimes grabbing headlines and many a time drowning in the cacophony of information overdose.
There is someone, however, who wants to ensure that no social justice movement in the world goes unnoticed. Meet Esra’a al Shafei, the founder of CrowdVoice.org, a website which tracks protests across the world, with panache. Combining eyewitness videos, photos and reports with content from mainstream media, CrowdVoice seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of movements of dissent which are often reduced to either death toll numbers or which world leader said what.
Launched in 2010 in Bahrain, six months before the Arab Spring began, CrowdVoice crowdsources, curates and contextualizes data from across the Web on various social and political causes. For eg., if a user wants to know about protests in Syria, all one needs to do is go to CrowdVoice’s Syria page and he/she can go through photos, videos, tweets and links collated since the unrest began in the country in 2011. Alongside, there will be a panel with relevant statistics and infographics such as the death toll, journalists killed, the number of refugees etc. To ensure complete understanding of the protest, a separate tab called “backstory” will take the user to an interactive timeline explaining how the movement has evolved over time.
This interface is replicated for countries and causes as diverse as asylum seekers in Australia, ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Myanmar, Native American reservations in North America or police brutality in Angola.
Shafei says the website was conceptualized when she was running advocacy campaigns and realized there was no tool that enabled her to track events across the Middle East. She also realized that many journalists found it difficult to keep up with what the rest of the international media was writing about a specific cause--so she wanted to create a platform that made it easier to sift through what existed around the Web on that particular topic, both in terms of news and in terms of user-generated content.
According to Shafei, the site was initially built for users in the Middle East, because she and her team were based there and wanted to use the site to monitor social movements in the region. However, soon they started receiving requests from other activists around the world to open up the site globally. Right away they started receiving topics from India, Indonesia, Russia, among others and realized the global potential of this tool. Shafei says it was clear to her that the website was serving a need shared with several others in the world, and not just limited to the Middle East.
In an email interview with Mint, Shafei talked about how CrowdVoice works, why she thinks it’s a useful tool and her plans for increasing awareness about the website. Edited excerpts:
How does CrowdVoice work?
Users can create topics about an issue they are interested in and curate information while also enabling others to add any missing links, videos or images to that topic. The platform is built to accept links and content without any distractions or hard work—for example, any user can upload a link, image, or video without even having to sign in. For verification and accuracy, there is a group of moderators who assist in keeping the pages relevant, and all users can also moderate content by either approving a link in the “moderation” view or flagging content for deletion. The site is meant to be as collaborative as possible.
For certain causes, our group of editors also use some of the links that have been curated in order to create an infographic or timeline that puts these issues into further context. These are usually for long-lasting causes or events, such as gender violence in South Africa, rights of immigrants in North America or women’s rights in India.
How do you put together accurate data and create infographics?
Putting together infographics was not something we could immediately crowdsource because we had to research and verify each data point. CrowdVoice has a number of editors who assist in putting these stats together, as well as in creating timelines for specific causes and issues. These numbers are peer reviewed. In case of an inaccuracy in a timeline a user can “suggest a correction” for each event being listed and additionally “suggest an event” in case the timeline was not updated to reflect a certain date. For infographics, each box has a list of sources for people to see where the numbers are from.
Are some countries more active and better documented than others?
The site has been curating information about human rights abuses in Syria since before the nationwide protests started in March 2011, so for a long time we got a lot of users from Syria’s neighboring countries (Turkey and Lebanon) who visited that page in particular. In 2012 and 2013, one of the main countries we received traffic from was Mexico because of our pages on the #YoSoy132 movement and the electoral fraud protests that took place in the country. The traffic usually depends on which topic is in the news. For example, last summer, our most-visited page was the one on the Gezi park protests in Turkey. And in the past few months our page on Ukraine has seen heavy traffic, mostly from Russia and Ukraine but also from other countries (primarily in Europe). Traffic from India is also rising because of our page on sexual harassment and rape in the country.
How do you get more people to participate in CrowdVoice?
We rely on people sharing links to the site on their own blogs or through mailing lists or Twitter and Facebook. A lot of our traffic is from social media outlets. Being a small non-profit makes it difficult to invest in largescale marketing, so we rely entirely on word of mouth and our users to spread the word, especially when users start their own topic pages and rely on their networks in order to populate that page. Some of these users end up engaging in not just that particular topic but others that they see on the site as well.
Do you think protesters benefit from knowing how movements are being carried out in other parts of the world and for what causes? Would you say that is one of your objectives: getting those involved in different protests to interact with each other through CrowdVoice?
I definitely think seeing so many active social movements and protests across the world helps motivate people to speak up for their cause. We ourselves as activists learned a lot from other advocates on the site, and their methodologies, and it has inspired us to be more vocal about our own causes. Alerting others about other or similar movements in different countries is surely one of our main aims so people can understand how other countries are adopting certain strategies and whether or not it could be replicated elsewhere, depending on the political or social barriers. Many times certain issues are relevant in more than one country, such as the rights of women and religious minorities.
Considering the bans, restrictions put on anti-government protests, has there been any ban on/threat to CrowdVoice? If yes, from where?
Yes, we were censored briefly in Yemen until their president (Ali Abdullah Saleh) was overthrown. Since early 2011 we have unfortunately been censored in Bahrain, where the site was founded and where I am based.
What is mycrowdvoice.org?
MyCrowdVoice.org is an extension of CrowdVoice that we are working on right now. While CrowdVoice is collaborative, MyCrowdVoice is meant to be much more customizable and personal. Users will be able to organize information about the causes that matter to them in a simple interface. We encourage anyone who is interested to sign up on the site to learn of our launch, which should happen in the next few months.
How do you plan to increase awareness about your effort? Any India-specific plans?
We believe MyCrowdVoice will assist in increasing awareness about our effort and what we are trying to do, as it will provide a solid solution to users with respect to online curation and organizing content which is currently scattered across the Web. It is important for people to find this content and archive it in a way that could accept crowdsourced contributions. In India, we are hoping to collaborate with civil society organizations and also hire someone soon who will be able to help us expand locally. We will also be partnering with the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore.
Global Roaming will run every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.
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First Published: Tue, Apr 22 2014. 02 09 PM IST
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