Amnesty International updates Citizen Evidence Lab for cutting-edge open-source human rights investigations

12 December 2019, 09:55 UTC |
© Vincent LECOMTE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Amnesty International is launching an updated version of its Citizen Evidence Lab website, bringing together cutting-edge open-source and other digital investigation tools which have revolutionized how evidence of serious human rights violations and other crimes are gathered and preserved.

Investigations facilitated by the pioneering Citizen Evidence Lab website have already helped expose human rights violations Cameroon, war crimes in Syria and chemical weapons attacks in Sudan.

The upgraded site provides a space for human rights researchers, investigators, students and journalists to explore and share investigative techniques in human rights. It enables them to take better advantage of the digital data-streams critical for modern fact-finding, while also leading the fight against mis- and disinformation campaigns.

“Human rights investigations in the digital age are constantly evolving, and the Citizen Evidence Lab was originally created as a space to keep on top of innovations by sharing tips, tools and best practices on disciplines such as video verification, remote sensing and weapons analysis,” said Sam Dubberley, acting head of the Crisis Response Programme’s Evidence Lab at Amnesty International.

Human rights investigations in the digital age are constantly evolving, and the Citizen Evidence Lab was originally created as a space to keep on top of innovations by sharing tips, tools and best practices on disciplines such as video verification, remote sensing and weapons analysis. 

Sam Dubberley, acting head of the Crisis Response Programme's Evidence Lab at Amnesty International

“Amnesty International pioneered the use of many of these cutting-edge techniques in the human rights sphere. With today’s re-launch of the Citizen Evidence Lab, we’re aiming to build on past successes and renew our commitment to the burgeoning open source community of human rights investigators we helped to foster.”

Why ‘citizen evidence’?

“Citizen evidence” includes images, videos, satellite imagery, large data sets and other material showing a potential human rights violation that has been collected by someone other than an official human rights investigator.

Frequently shared publicly through social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, this sort of documentation often exposes in great detail crimes that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Although access and technology for gathering citizen evidence are constantly improving, there is also more disinformation that requires multiple data sources or tools to debunk.

Go-to resource for digital human rights investigations

Since its creation in 2014, the Citizen Evidence Lab has become a go-to resource for the thriving community of open-source human rights investigators involved in or inspired by the type of work pioneered by the Crisis Response Programme’s Evidence Lab.

It includes guides on tools and techniques to verify open source videos and images, and highlights Amnesty International case studies showing how methodologies such as remote sensing imagery and weapons analysis can expose human rights abuses. It also details and builds on innovative projects that engage thousands of volunteers to sift through data on a massive scale.

There are tutorials on techniques such as performing reverse image searches, preserving evidence from social media to avoid losing it, and using other data sources – such as satellite imagery – to verify when and where events took place.

Blogs and tutorials are authored by senior advisors in Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab, researchers as well as the community of students, partner organizations and other volunteers involved in its projects.

The site also includes practical tips and advice on how to minimize vicarious trauma from exposure to graphic and disturbing images.

“The rise of the smartphone and social media networks, alongside the lowering cost of satellite imagery has given us unprecedented access – often in near real-time – to evidence of atrocities committed a world away,” said Sam Dubberley. 

The rise of the smartphone and social media networks, alongside the lowering cost of satellite imagery, has given us unprecedented access – often in near real-time – to evidence of atrocities committed a world away. 
Sam Dubberley

“For human rights researchers, this brings immense opportunities to investigate and expose abuses that might otherwise go unreported, but equally it brings great responsibility to adhere to best practices and operate ethically. As we sift through the noise and propaganda to get to the truth, we must also ensure we do no harm – either by putting individuals at further risk or exposing our staff and volunteers to vicarious trauma.”

Background on the Evidence Lab

The website is overseen by the Crisis Response Programme’s Evidence Lab at Amnesty International. The Evidence Lab brings together investigators, engineers, developers and others to pilot new and expanding tools such as artificial intelligence, remote sensing, weapons identification and big-data analytics.

Evidence Lab initiatives feed into dozens of Amnesty International research reports, press releases and other outputs each year. It also creates large-scale, standalone collaborative projects involving volunteers around the world, including:

  • Amnesty Decoders: a crowd-source network of tens of thousands of activists to process large volumes of data such as satellite imagery, documents, pictures or social media messages. Decoders projects aim to go beyond “clicktivism,” enabling volunteers to generate meaningful data for Amnesty International’s human rights investigations.
  • The Digital Verification Corps (DVC), a network of more than 100 multidisciplinary students at six partner universities who authenticate videos and images found on social media to support human rights research in a more complicated world of mis- and dis-information. The programme recently won the prestigious 2019 Times Higher Education award for International Collaboration.

The Evidence Lab has contributed to high-profile, impactful human rights investigations, building on Amnesty International’s legacy of pioneering citizen evidence and remote sensing, dating back to the ground-breaking Eyes on Darfur project in 2007. Just a few examples include: