Amnesty International is building a network of digital volunteers to help uncover human rights violations and abuses in the conflict-ravaged Sudanese region of Darfur as part of a revolutionary crowdsourcing project launched today.
The Decode Darfur interactive platform will enable Amnesty International supporters to analyse thousands of square kilometres of satellite imagery in remote parts of Darfur where bombings and chemical weapons attacks are suspected to have taken place – just by using their phone, tablet or laptop.
“This is an ambitious, revolutionary project that marks a fundamental shift in the way we view human rights research – and gives anyone with internet access the chance to help expose some of the world’s gravest injustices,” said Milena Marin, Amnesty International’s Senior Innovations Campaigner.
“There is a huge mass of terrain in Darfur where we have information suggesting grave human rights violations have taken place, but analysing this data is a long and laborious task. That’s why we are harnessing the power of our huge network of supporters to help.”
Credible, verified information about the impact of the violence on the civilian population inside Jebel Marra is extremely difficult to find. Restrictions on access imposed by the government means no journalist, human rights investigator or humanitarian actor has been permitted to conduct any assessment of the last few years.
Despite these barriers, an Amnesty International investigative report released last week uncovered harrowing evidence of the repeated use of suspected chemical weapons against civilians, including very young children, by Sudanese government forces in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur over the past eight months.
Based on testimony from first responders and survivors, the organization estimates that between 200 and 250 people may have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents, with many being children.
“Though we can’t travel to Darfur to collect evidence, we can obtain satellite imagery and compare different dates to determine changes in the landscape. This is where the Decode Darfur project comes in,” said Micah Farfour, Remote Sensing Specialist at Amnesty International.
There are thousands of hours’ worth of data to sift through, and Amnesty International is asking digital volunteers to devote anywhere from five minutes to five hours, or more, to help build the evidence that will demonstrate, alongside eyewitness and victim reports, that civilians have been systematically attacked in Darfur.
The organization will use the evidence to strengthen advocacy with the Sudan Government to put an end human rights violations, and hold perpetrators to account. The evidence will also be used to strengthen the organization’s case with the United Nations, the African Union and the rest of the international community that Darfur has been ignored for too long.
The Decode Darfur project will initially be split into two phases. For the first six weeks, participants will help to map a remote, largely barren landscape to locate villages vulnerable to attack in the East Jebel Marra area of Darfur.
In phase two, they will compare before-and-after images of the villages to pinpoint which ones have been destroyed. Before they start decoding, participants will first be given a short tutorial on what exactly to look for.
“By comparing recent images with those from few years ago we will be able to show just where there used to be homes, farms, schools and wells – and what has happened to them since that time,” said Milena Marin
The tool used on the Decode Darfur platform has a built-in verification mechanism – meaning that each image will be shown to a number of different Decoders, and will be treated as verified when they agree on what they have seen. Amnesty International researchers will also do random checks on the data to ensure its quality and veracity.
“The work of our digital volunteers is not a substitute for the rigorous research Amnesty International experts are doing, but it is an excellent way to support our work by turning mountains of messy, unstructured information into evidence of human rights violations,” said Scott Edwards, Senior Analyst, Tactical Research and Analysis Team.
“The task of stopping global human rights violations and abuses is never done. But the more people who join the call, the more effective we can be. Anyone anywhere can genuinely take part in Amnesty International’s information-gathering. All you need is a computer or a smartphone and the desire to make a real difference.”
Decode Darfur is the second project in the Amnesty Decoders campaign, which is building a network of volunteers around the world who use their computers or phones to sift through large amounts of information and assist with human rights research.
In the first Amnesty Decoders project, which invited participants to help log outcomes from past urgent actions, more than 8,000 people in 150 countries took part.