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11 mars 2006

Video Advocacy

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an amazing conference called TED (for Technology, Entertainment and Design). You can read the complete description here in my Pogue's Posts entry, but here's a summary:

"It's four days of talks, each no longer than 18 minutes. The speakers are either famous, pioneers in their industries or just fascinating people--and often all three...They addressed climate crisis, the depletion of fossil fuels, African AIDS, third-world poverty, human-rights violations, the spiral of West-Islamic global hatred, lethal viruses, and other cheery subjects...The organizer of TED makes no bones about the fact that he wants this astonishing network of speakers and audience members to throw their expertise, brainpower and connections behind efforts to address the world's problems."

I wanted to share some of what I learned in this e-column, but I'm aware that some of this column's readers get cranky when the topic strays from consumer technology.

But one memorable talk involved BOTH consumer tech AND doing good in the world, which I thought I'd share with you. (I'll be back with gadget reviews next week.)

It was a talk by Peter Gabriel, the pop star. He didn't play or even mention music; instead, he described the progress of an outfit called Witness (, which he co-founded in 1992 for the purposes of what he calls "video advocacy."

What he means is helping native citizens film human-rights violations as they happen, so that the world can see what's really going on. It's much harder for wealthy countries to ignore the violence and oppression, Gabriel said, when they're watching a video of it.

So Witness sprouted up to supply camcorders and training to, so far, 200 human-rights groups ("partners") in 60 countries. It sounded like such a cool and important project that I decided to interview Gillian Caldwell, the group's executive director, for today's e-column.

DP: Strikes me that lots of the human-rights violations are in, well, hot, humid places that would be the enemy of camcorders. How have the cameras and tapes fared?

GC: Our team definitely has to keep climate in mind when they select the equipment packages, since some fare better in humid climates than others. As for the tapes, we try to get them shipped relatively quickly to our archivists, where they're catalogued, duplicated and stored in climate-controlled vaults for the production work.

DP: Isn't this technology new to, say, impoverished Africans? How do they know how to operate the camcorder, ship the tapes back, etc.?

GC: Most of the people we're training have never held a video camera before, so the relationship begins with an intensive, onsite training program that teaches them how to shoot, as well as what to shoot and why.

DP: Does every camcorder "seeding" bear fruit? Do you actually capture violence and stuff on film?

GC: Well, unlike, say, the Rodney King incident, our primary intention is not to capture human rights abuses in action, although that has on occasion happened. Instead, most of our footage highlights the aftermath.

For example, a reluctant Philippine government is now prosecuting the murderers of activists who were legally pursuing ancestral land claims--after footage taken of the attacks was broadcast nationwide in the Philippines and delivered to the Philippine president at the World Economic Forum. While Witness's partner did not actually capture the attack on tape (it took place early in the morning while everyone was sleeping), they were first on the scene of the attack, and captured irrefutable evidence.

DP: How do the people you supply with camcorders keep them from getting stolen, broken, lost, and so on?

GC: With the exception of some problems with theft in Nigeria, we've actually been pretty lucky. Our partners manage to maintain their equipment very well, and when the time comes for an upgrade, we provide it.

Power is a challenge; we generally provide extra battery packs. Some partners even have solar chargers for their equipment.

DP: At TED, Peter Gabriel mentioned a shift from camcorders to cameraphones?

GC: Staying ahead of the technology curve is a major challenge for us. Communications media have changed dramatically in the 14 years since Witness was founded. In the coming months, we will launch an initiative called the Witness Video Hub ( Our hope is to let people around the world use cellphones and computers to upload media to a central Web site built to promote human rights.

We're facing an unprecedented frontier, with digital technology and the "participatory culture" it has inspired poised to explode. Witness needs to be at the forefront of this transition.

DP: Once the hub site goes up, how can you be sure that the filmed events are genuine?

GC: We're still thinking this through. Currently, we're committed to an open and participatory environment, allowing anyone anywhere to contribute footage. There may be a limited amount of material that we will be able to authenticate, but our goal is to not play a big role in this area. We don't want to serve as gatekeepers ourselves, but to allow for peer review to foster a sense of community responsibility and accountability.

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