Drones, data and digital tools lauded as new ways to fight human rights abuses

A pilot flies a Phantom drone by DJI company at the 4th Intergalactic Meeting of Phantom's Pilots (MIPP) in an open secure area in the Bois de Boulogne, western Paris March 16, 2014. ― Reuters pic
A pilot flies a Phantom drone by DJI company at the 4th Intergalactic Meeting of Phantom's Pilots (MIPP) in an open secure area in the Bois de Boulogne, western Paris March 16, 2014. ― Reuters pic

LONDON, Nov 16 ― From “citizen science” identifying slavery to drones mapping degraded land, technology and data can help create a “search bar for the planet” and detect and fight all manner of human rights abuses, experts told a conference yesterday.

Geospatial data and satellite images give analysts and authorities news ways to tackle issues ranging from human trafficking to deforestation, said Andrew Zolli, head of social initiatives at Planet Labs, a US-based space and AI company.

“This search bar for the planet allow us to unpack incredibly complicated narratives,” he said at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference which focuses on a host of human rights issues.

“Environmental stressors, conflict, food security... we can see issues like deforestation happen in real time.”

That information can help planners intervene early to tackle disasters before they happen, he added.

For example, organisations like the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre are using weather predictions and historical data to trigger the release of funds or other assistance before a disaster like flooding strikes.

Technology can also prove a potent force to improve people’s land rights, experts said, with apps and drones being used to map land and forests and establish property records.

With an estimated 70 per cent of the world unmapped, more than 5 billion people lack proof of ownership, according to the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

But technology does not have to be complex or out of reach for most, said Anne Girardin, land surveyor at the Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools to document and analyse land and resource rights information.

“If we empower communities to use easy technologies ― like smartphones ― then they can register who owns what land and fill the gap left by poor documentation,” she told the conference.

Crowdsourcing and “citizen science” can help people track slaves, said Kevin Bales, research director at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the world’s first large-scale research platform on modern slavery.

Its “Slavery from Space” project, which relies on crowdsourcing, involves online volunteers who sift through satellite images to identify possible hives of slavery, which can also help to improve artificial intelligence, the anti-slavery expert said.

Banks have a crucial role to play in training employees and using their data to uncover trafficking activity, said Erik Barnett, Europe head for financial crime threat mitigation at HSBC.

“HSBC as a global bank has data that is a quarter of the size of Facebook,” he said, adding this could allow it to identify suspicious online transactions.

But technology and data are no silver bullet, panellists said, and require effective partnerships between governments, businesses and academics.

“We will make pixels by the inch and the pound, but they will be worthless unless we collaborate together,” said Zolli. ― Thomson Reuters Foundation

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