Takeaways from the Digital Verification Corps Summit

Alix Dunn

Last week, I had the privilege of spending three days on the Berkeley campus with the Digital Verification Corps, (DVC) the student cohort that has been driving video verification, processing, and high velocity support to process video for Amnesty International investigations and other human rights investigations.

I find the work of this community hugely innovative, exciting, and impactful. And what makes it powerful is its multidisciplinary network structure: human rights researchers, lawyers, technologists, brilliant students, and polyglots.

As is often the case, it’s the community behind the technology initiative that make it special, not the technology itself.

The Digital Verification Corps, led by Sam Dubberley and fed by Amnesty International in terms of funding and projects, is impressively managed and run. The DVC has partnered with an ever expanding network of universities together with the Berkeley campus to spread these methods at universities around the world – currently in Pretoria (South Africa), Essex (UK), Toronto (Canada), and coming soon Cambridge (UK), and they’ve built a community around verifying and processing video for human rights investigations.

Thanks to the hard work of Alexa Koenig, participating in human rights research verification is an official course at partner university UC Berkeley. I’m in awe of the way that Alexa Koenig and her team at the Human Rights Investigation Lab mobilise bright students to fight the misinformation war and strengthen human rights litigation. Together with Amnesty International, the process they’ve established of identifying appropriate investigations and incentivising students to invest time and energy is incredibly impactful.

The DVC Summit left my brain full of ideas and thoughts about where the community is going.

Accelerating research questions

The rapidly changing information environment, and the speed at which information can now be spread, has accelerated the process by which claims and counter-claims about human rights violations shape perception of an issue. This speed puts pressure on the human rights research community to respond more quickly to assertions of perpetrators.

For human rights research to be effective at influencing public opinion, new techniques for speedily responding with high quality evidence will be key. While longer-term research is important in the war of history, faster methods are critical for human rights groups to counter the battle that takes place in the media if they are to win over a public bombarded with information.

Designing training for emerging methods

Building robust, cutting edge training for emerging methods is difficult. The DVC Summit had presentations from several superstar researchers and journalists (Bellingcat, Malachy Browne, and Bill Marczak, among others). Learning from the projects of superstars is an important and useful way to inspire amateur and student researchers.

But distilling cutting-edge projects into tactical materials is challenging, and requires thoughtful design. I am hopeful that DVC and the Human Rights Investigation Lab will support new pedagogical methods and community learning to advance the field and the network of researchers in the coming years in a way that goes beyond examining existing and past projects.

Inclusive decision-making around resources

Frontline human rights organisations must be included in choices about resource allocation. Who gets to decide what projects get the attention of open source investigators?

Hobbyists and super star researchers who are pushing the boundaries of methods are hugely important in breaking cases, stealing the news cycle from lying governments, and catching war criminals red-handed.

That said, as these techniques shape into a more mature field and network of actors, it will be absolutely critical to include frontline organisations into the decision-making process of how resources are allocated.

Frontline organisations bring contextual and historical expertise that can only benefit the work of others in this space. They could also highlight which investigations might benefit most from the fine-toothed comb of researchers, and provide useful experience in connecting evidence and research with campaigns, litigation, and policy advocacy. Those connections are essential for open source investigations in the human rights space to reach their full potential.  

Making the most of academic institutions

Academic institutions have a lot to offer. The DVC is training cohorts in key skills to prepare them for careers in human rights research. Campuses provide a great venue for events, and official courses at universities are a great way to unlock resources for human rights investigations. For a new and emerging field such as this one, the prestige of well-known universities offer credibility to these methods, which in turn encourages other human rights researchers to learn more about them, and hopefully, begin to use them to strengthen their work as well.

Existing structures around academia also provide an ideal space for learning new methods and collaboration, especially when projects like the ones through the DVC are associated with course credit, as is the case in Berkeley. It’s rare to see incentives lining up so clearly for real-world impact, and this is a model that many of us could learn from.

Prioritising good community governance

In communities that rely on the energy of volunteers or students, thoughtful and well-designed governance is critical. This is key not only for the sustainability of communities, but also for how leaders are developed and supported to take on increasing or shifting responsibility. We have many examples to look to for inspiration, such as School of Data, DataKind, and Code for All. Thanks to our digital connections, new formations of volunteerism have the potential to unlock value, but only if we can channel those energies into meaningful and effective work.

From inspiration to action

Through the DVC, student sleuths are doing groundbreaking and impactful work. Their shared vision of training the next generation of human rights researchers, combined with using academia to support and strengthen this work, is inspiring for its collaborative and forward-thinking approach. I look forward to supporting and working with the DVC and its ever-growing network in the future! 

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