The co-founder of Digital Democracy on how activists can use technology to respond to problems—from natural disasters to violence against women.
Women working at the 572 call center. Image courtesy of Digital Democracy.
A hackathon is a work of intense collaboration: computer programmers, software developers, graphic designers, and others gather together for a few days with the goal of emerging at the end with some new, usable software. One might imagine the hackathon phenomenon to be exclusive to Silicon Valley, but the host of a major hackathon this weekend will be a city not normally associated with the computer business: Port-au-Prince. From February 1-3, justice-minded techies will rally in Haiti’s capital to turn its sexual assault call center into a national crisis-response service. The hackathon is hosted by Digital Democracy, which worked with a local women’s organization to create the call center in the wake of rampant sexual assaults in refugee camps following the 2010 earthquake.
The idea for Digital Democracy was born in the fall of 2007, when co-founder Emily Jacobi received cell phone photos of nonviolent protestors being attacked during the Saffron Uprising in Burma. Jacobi transmitted those images to news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times. Then the Burmese government shut down mobile phone and Internet access for five days and the uprising went silent. Jacobi was moved by “that juxtaposition of the potential of these tools and also the threat they pose.” In 2008, she founded Digital Democracy, which has the mission of empowering marginalized communities to use technology to fight for their human rights.
This year, with the support of the Knight Foundation, the organization is launching “Remote Access” in the Peruvian Amazon, a new project to help indigenous communities tell their own stories and decide their own destinies when it comes to international development projects or multinational corporations.
In early November, when New York was still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I met with Digital Democracy co-founder Emily Jacobi in a Gramercy café in Manhattan to discuss her organization, its work in Haiti, and how lessons learned abroad could be applied to New York.
—Erika Anderson for Guernica
Guernica: What brought you to co-founding Digital Democracy?
Emily Jacobi: In fall 2007, there was an uprising inside the country of Burma/Myanmar, the largest in a generation. In a country that had been under military dictatorship since 1961, all of the sudden there was this massive uprising in the streets. It was a really amazing, nonviolent protest led by the monks, and it really only happened because of increased access into the country to mobile phones and to the Internet. Less than 1 percent of the population had mobile phones, and less than 1 percent had Internet access, but that small amount of access allowed these activists to band together and plan these protests in a way that hadn’t been possible for twenty years.
My co-founder Mark and I were in the United States at the time—people were sending us pictures on mobile phones of people who’d been attacked in the streets, and we were helping to get those out to mainstream media. The idea for Digital Democracy was really born from the fact that new communications technologies were allowing people to engage in democratic action in a way that was opening up new pathways and new doorways.
We saw a need for more training, a need for more partnership—activists really want to use these tools but they don’t always know how. And that’s where we really saw the opportunity for the organization of Digital Democracy to emerge. It’s focused on helping the most marginalized groups use tools to amplify their voices, but then also about sharing these lessons that happen in really remote corners of the world with the broader global community.
So the way that Burmese activists in 2007 were using technology for their right to participate in government was really inspiring in the American context, where at the time I felt like our democracy had stagnated and people we’re taking their rights for granted.
Guernica: Malcolm Gladwell, after the Arab Spring, said in The New Yorker, “Twitter did not bring on the revolution.” Do you see any truth in that?
Emily Jacobi: I think that his argument was super simplistic. I mean, we always say that technology is not a panacea, technology isn’t the only thing. Community change, democratic transition, all these things take people, and technology is just tools. I would never say that Twitter is responsible for any of these revolutions, but I would say that when you do see a tool like Twitter, or any other tool—you can’t deny that those tools were used, the same way that in the 1980s, fax machines and copy machines were really important in the pro-democracy movement in the Soviet Union.
The women in Haiti, who have seen many foreign photographers come in and document the plight of living in the tent camps, they realize, “Oh my goodness, those people were telling a story, and I have the power to choose the story that I want to tell.”
Guernica: Do you see Digital Democracy as a mobilizer? International development loves the term “capacity building,” though it’s not always clear what that means.
Emily Jacobi: That term does get thrown around a lot, but that actually is what we see ourselves doing. We work with grassroots activists who are amazing leaders in their own right and are really subject-area experts. And they don’t necessarily know how to use technology, or they’re afraid of it. So we work with them in a partnership model, where we bring in technology expertise so that they can do the work that they’re already good at even better. Technology’s really the amplifying effect. If you can amplify by a power of ten, what kind of reach would they have? So that’s what we do. We do particular projects where we feel like we can really move the needle.
For example, in Haiti, the program is on gender-based violence. It’s a major issue all over the world, but in Haiti, particularly after the earthquake, women who were living in camps were under much increased risk of rape and sexual assault due to not having doors that they could lock, not having even walls that were sturdy, and a lot of young women were being abducted, raped, gang raped. The work we’ve done has been helping a women’s organization that already existed, it’s been around since 2004, helping them have a better use of technology in the work that they’re already doing, networking survivors, holding weekly meetings. They actually formed informal security patrols in the places where police were refusing to come.
So we built the whole system with them—it started with community reporting and blogging, helping them launch a comprehensive database where they have monthly reports of all the reported incidents, and then also a call center, the first call-line at the time in the country, which is providing needed support to women when they face a crisis.
Guernica: That makes me think of a development method called Appreciative Inquiry that’s about asking what’s right instead of what’s wrong—that assumes that the solution exists within the community. Does that inform your work?
Emily Jacobi: You also build solutions that can last and can be locally owned. The call center was our partner’s idea. You know, they really own it. We had access to the Clinton Global Initiative, which is how we got the mobile phone companies to convince them to donate short code, so there were things they were able to do much more quickly thanks to our help than they would have been able to do on their own, but the project is really theirs.
He said to her, “We’re going after you. We’re going after your daughters.”
A lot of the buzz in the international development world around technology and SMS. SMS is a great tool, it’s really inexpensive, it’s really helped with a lot of scenarios, but what we learned from our partners, KOFAVIV, who runs the call center is that when a woman’s been raped and needs urgent help, a text message is actually not the right way to get that information to her. She needs to call, she needs to hear a voice, she needs to talk to someone who has gone through the same thing, a call center operator who is herself a survivor, who can coach her through it, who can be present with her, and it’s all made possible because it’s a free phone call. A lot of women in the community are illiterate or semi-literate, so just imagine trying to send a text message when you have an emergency. That reality is so obvious when you talk to local people, versus what you can come up with in a boardroom somewhere far away.
Guernica: A researcher at the University of London does a lot of digital photography in development, and in local communities. He calls it “unlimited language,” something along the lines of when you move beyond words, you can move beyond education. Does you see that in your digital literacy workshops?
Emily Jacobi: The way we train people is to focus on storytelling, so not just the technical aspect of “here’s how you technically take a picture,” but actually, “What is the story you want to tell, what is the story you create between these [hands held together in a frame.] You create a frame.” Once they understand that—the power photographers have—those who have been photographed before, the women in Haiti, who have seen many foreign photographers come in and document the destruction, the plight of living in the tent camps, they realize, “Oh my goodness, those people were telling a story. They chose which story they were going to tell, and I have the power to tell the story that I want to tell.”
The essence of our work is empowerment. The word empowerment is often denuded of meaning. It’s thrown around, everyone’s talking about empowering this and empowering that but how do you measure whether someone is empowered? At the same time, you actually do see it happen. I am a product of it—the youth journalism program I did in Cuba really did empower me. It taught me how I could use tools and actually have a voice in ways I previously thought were impossible.
Guernica: When you’re doing those initial workshops and women are telling their own stories, what happens to those photographs and what stories do they tell?
Emily Jacobi: This past summer, we traveled to Haiti with our board of directors and we had a meeting with our partner KOFAVIV. And one of the leaders of KOFAVIV talked about a photo that was taken of her by her co-founder, Eramithe. It was taken of her standing behind a doorframe. You can see her in the shadows; part of her face is lit. She’s wearing a black top and a pink skirt, and you can tell that she’s in hiding. They took that photo to symbolize at that time, Malya, who had been living in the tent camps, because of her activism, and because of the fact that she advocated for women and tried to prevent further rapes from happening, she’d been targeted by one of the gang leaders, who was an escaped convict. And he said to her, “We’re going after you. We’re going after your daughters. You’re on our hit list.” She ended up having to move out of the camps and into a safe house. She felt like she had lost, she felt like she was abandoning the other women she had been working on behalf of.
While natural disasters impact everybody, they also exacerbate existing inequalities.
Two years later, she now has her own home that her family lives in. They’re no longer working out of a tarp in the driveway of another organization. They have their own space, which is a women’s center where they’re providing services to dozens of women. They’ve supported thousands of women through the call center, thousands of women through the database. They’re now working with the ministry of health and the women’s ministry. She said, “I look back at that photo and I see how far I’ve gone. And I see the ways in which we have been able to accomplish so much over the past two years.”
Guernica: Going from that to this idea of equality and partnership—as much as you or Digital Democracy has had to teach them, what have they had to teach you, in particular regarding natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy?
Emily Jacobi: A lot of my friends in Haiti had told me how they didn’t really have earthquake education. It wasn’t common knowledge that they were on a major fault line. Californians grow up learning how to protect themselves during an earthquake. But a lot of [Haitians] said that when the earthquake began, they didn’t know what to do, so people ran into buildings. They didn’t know what to do. Imagine: you don’t even necessarily know what an earthquake is and all the sudden the ground starts shaking. You have no idea what to do. People ran into buildings and many were trapped.
What would you do if you were in a situation like that? People immediately started banding together and tried to dig people out of the rubble. Our team in Port-au-Prince at the time, they were actually meeting at Fonkoze, which is a microcredit organization and they actually ran out of the building as it was collapsing. And they got out because of the people holding open doorways as they got out of the building.
There is an emergency line in the country, 114, but it wasn’t well known, it wasn’t well staffed, there’s no response mechanism the same way 911 has with ambulances here. So there was no emergency line at the time that people could call to get help, which was where the idea of 572 came from.
Hurricane Sandy had its origins in the Caribbean and it hit Haiti really hard. The call center was actually open during the hurricane. Operators worked really hard to get there, some of them walked through the rain, and they stayed extra shifts because nobody else could come.
One of the major things I learned from Haiti is that natural disasters impact everybody. [The disputed death toll ranges from 46,000 to 316,000.] Every Haitian I know knows someone who was lost. You have this incredible loss and you have the need to rebuild right away and move into survival mode.
While natural disasters impact everybody, they also exacerbate existing inequalities. If you’re already poor or marginalized or vulnerable in some ways, you are more vulnerable to natural disaster. People who are disabled or became disabled because of this earthquake, poor women, children who became orphans were the most vulnerable to the lasting effects of the earthquake. And I think that’s an important lesson for the rest of us to keep in mind, because we saw the same thing during Hurricane Sandy. In Lower Manhattan, for example, people who were wealthier were able to leave beforehand, move to a hotel, or get out of the city in some way, or have backup generators, meanwhile people who live in public housing who maybe are elderly or are immobile obviously are so much more at risk in those situations. When we think about the kind of community we want to live, these issues are really important.
Whether it’s with political repression or a natural disaster, when people feel like they’re forgotten, that feeling of being left behind that is terrifying.
The other lesson I’ve learned from Haiti is that when we don’t involve certain populations in planning process when the government is responding to a natural disaster, we are absolutely inviting those people to be further hurt by the response. For example, most of the camps were run by camp coordinating committees, and in the early days, very few of those camp-coordinating committees had women as part of the leadership. And so they were making decisions around where the latrines were going to go, lighting, feeding, all these issues without taking into account women’s perspective. And it was very much the flaws in those designs that further exacerbated the violence. In some of the camps where women were part of the leadership and they were helping design the layout and having to decide who was doing safety patrol, there were less problems around violence and social unrest.
I think that’s relevant here. When you look at issues like really complicated questions like how do you redevelop the Rockaways or Staten Island, involving local voices in that is absolutely paramount. Without incorporating local populations in that systematic process, you set yourself up for future failures, you’re moving toward future disasters.
Guernica: Does digital fit into that potential collaboration?
Emily Jacobi: Yeah, absolutely. Any tools will help ensure that that will happen. It’s really interesting to look at the role that digital media and social media played in changing the debate around the New York City marathon. Of course, the media picked up the story, but the media was getting the story initially from a huge outcry on social media saying, “Wait, we’re suffering so much, we’re struggling, how can resources be diverted for the marathon when we’re just struggling to get by? How can you devote a single police officer or national guardsman to help keep the marathon going when we’re suffering?”
Guernica: How have you seen disasters affect marginalized populations?
Emily Jacobi: Whether it’s with political repression or a natural disaster, when people feel like they’re forgotten, that feeling of being left behind that is terrifying. I saw a picture, and I don’t know if it was in New Jersey or in the Rockaways, saying that a shelter was closed due to the weather. It is a symbol of the worst thing that can happen.
I think that we have to decide as a community whether or not we’re willing to let people be left behind. And if we’re not wiling to let people be left behind—because we believe in the fundamental rights and dignity of every human being—then we have to look at what are the ways in which on a community level we’re keeping in touch.
We need to look at the roles in which ordinary citizen actions can complement and support governmental ones. I’ve never felt more grateful to live in a country that has an emergency management system and an emergency response system then when I spent time in Haiti after the earthquake. That’s a place where, if you have an emergency, there’s not an ambulance you can call. We can debate the role of government, but when all of the sudden a natural disaster arrives at your doorstep, the fundamental idea that government is there to support people, that’s what it’s all about, right?
At the same time, FEMA and other [governmental agencies] can take a longer time to mobilize. So it’s really a question of how can we have citizen networks that really work with and support and help sustain our larger infrastructure so you don’t just sit around—if you’re able bodied, like you and I are—waiting for something to come. We help so that when emergency personnel do come in they’re able to do the work, so we’re all working together, recognizing that shared responsibility, and the sheer joy that comes from that.
Emily Jacobi is co-founder and executive director of Digital Democracy. Since 2007 her work has focused on researching and supporting the capacity of local organizations in closed and transitioning societies. She previously worked for Internews Network and AllAfrica.com and as assistant bureau director for Y-Press. Jacobi began her career as a youth journalist; at the age of thirteen she reported from Havana, Cuba on the lives of young Cubans during the Troubled Period.
Erika Anderson is an online editor for Electric Literature, teaches with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and tweets for the Franklin Park Reading Series. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn.