I was honored to be invited to a one day strategic discussion today on a new human rights video hub being created by the non-profit WITNESS. Started at the initiative of Peter Gabriel, in 1992, WITNESS uses the power of video to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses.
Traditionally their work has entailed sending off video cameras to human rights activists around the world who document their situations, then send the physical tapes back to WITNESS’s headquarters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. From there, WITNESS disseminates those videos to media outlets and the general public through various means. It is labor intensive, risky and very important work.
They are currently invested in a process to transform their mission in a networked, digital age. As they describe it:
WITNESS proposes creating a new human rights website, the Video Hub aimed at serving concerned citizens, activists, journalists, researchers and advocates worldwide. It will allow anyone with human rights related footage from around the world to upload video using the internet and mobile devices. It will allow users to create groups of community members with similar interests or concerns for issues that incorporate videos, online forums, event organizing and the ability to create campaigns and petitions so that video is not only seen, but also acted upon. In short, the hub will be a forum for on-line communities and individuals to organise action around video to create positive change.
More concretely, WITNESS has realized that with the spread of mobile phone telephony and internet access has come tremendous opportunities for individuals to video document human rights situations and share those videos in real-time with a world-wide audience via the web. But what has been lacking is some organized aggregation of this human rights video content, which is the hole WITNESS seeks to fill.
Imagine the impact of having one site gathering videos of a Tianenmen Square-type demonstration or a Katrina disaster and putting them out to the public, with expert commentary, and links for further action. Videos can be so captivating and galvanizing that they make possible new kinds of internet-time advocacy and social change.
However there are a number of thorny questions to address in transforming WITNESS’s work into an internet environment, including a number of difficult security, content management and community development challenges. How do you protect the identities of people who upload video content to the site? How do you manage the potentially thousands of videos that could be sent to the site? Should people be allowed to comment on and rate the videos? How to deal with graphic violence and sexual content? Etcetera.
My personal interest lies strongly on the community-building aspects of the site. That is, one should take advantage of the power of the internet to push the content management, contextualizing, and tagging of videos out to a wider community of human rights defenders. And the internet can help build bridges between individual human rights activists around the world that didn’t exist before.
Joi Ito, internet guru, presented a number of ways to push the “intelligence out to the edges” including incorporating community-based subtitling of videos using services like Dotsub and video editing sites like Eyespot. Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices made the point that rather than being a video hosting service, the video hub should be aggregating and “amplifying” videos that are hosted elsewhere, similar to the way that Global Voices amplifies the voices of bloggers from the developing world.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the participants urged the WITNESS folks to start small, build out the site in manageable stages, and play to their strengths. It seems self-evident that WITNESS staff are never going to be in a position to process, review, contextualize and translate video content on human rights situations coming in from around the world. So their goal should be to focus on discrete issue areas — such as child soldiers — and regions — like Southeast Asia — and then seek out local partners to work with them to manage the video content. In this way, they can slowly see what works and what doesn’t, and learn how to incorporate wider and wider communities of activists, translators, bloggers, techies and human rights experts. It’s the only plan that makes sense to me.
The promise of a site to aggregate human rights videos is so powerful and compelling. WITNESS plans to launch the video hub in 2007. It can’t come too soon.