Dale Uses Wilson Center Fellowship to Examine Digital Impact on Human Rights

by Anne Reynolds

Dale Uses Wilson Center Fellowship to Examine Digital Impact on Human Rights

John G. Dale, Associate Professor of Sociology, is currently taking part in a nine-month fellowship with the Wilson Center’s international Fellowship program, focusing on his project, “Outsmarting Ourselves? The Digital Transformation of Human Rights.”

The Wilson Center was chartered in 1968 as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson. As a distinguished policy forum that welcomes experts and scholars to take part in solving far-reaching questions of national and international relevance, it aims to address global challenges through research, thoughtful dialogue, and informed analysis.

Dale joins sixteen other members of the 2019-20 fellowship class, which includes fellows from the United States, Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela. Based upon an international competition, the prestigious fellowships offer a nine-month residential program where scholars can conduct research and write while interacting with policymakers on the Wilson Center staff and throughout the Washington, DC, region.

Dale’s research fits squarely within the work of the Wilson Center; his project considers the implications of the intersection of the digital transformation of human rights science with the adoption of social entrepreneurship models for solving social problems. He plans to use his fellowship time to collect data, speaking with leadership and staff of international organizations, government agencies, NGOs, and university and social enterprises. He also hopes to work with the Wilson Center’s experts and network in the DC area to inform his analyses, and draft his findings into a book.

Human rights in a digital age

We live in an era of widespread digital technology, in the form of email, photographs, videos, banking information, GPS data, blogs, and social networks. This technology creates an ever-growing source of “big data” that can serve as evidence to help identify, predict, and prevent human rights violations and humanitarian disasters. Its access, however, is not equally open to all organizations because of budget constraints, insufficient technological abilities, and inadequate government cooperation.

Moreover, the growth in digital technologies such as machine learning, video synchronization, and geospatial technology permit the analysis of large volumes of citizen-created video and publicly available footage. The resulting data is so extensive that it can be analyzed only through the use of complicated mathematical algorithms that shape the questions that the dataset can solve. Because this technology is currently only available to institutions with the equipment, data, and expertise required to formulate these analyses, it limits the actors who can benefit from it. These barriers have the paradoxical effect of marginalizing those who are excluded.

Social entrepreneurship as a model for affecting social change

Dale proposes to examine the impact of digital evidence for social concerns in tandem with the adoption of social entrepreneurship models for solving large-scale problems. Simply put, social entrepreneurship models include a triple bottom-line emphasis on social problem-solving, environmental sustainability, and financial sustainability, and have become broadly used by human rights organizations.

As with the growth in digital documentation of human rights abuses, there is some concern that the move to a social entrepreneurship model is a change that more closely aligns with the culture of better resourced organizations, without recognition of the benefits of the more traditional work of social activists. 

Two examples highlight these changes

Dale is illustrating the convergence of these processes by examining two examples where digital technology and broad transnational coalitions are working to find solutions to human rights and humanitarian relief issues.

He first considers the launch of the Famine Action Mechanism (FAM), the first global mechanism designed to predict future famines. Based on a partnership formed between the World Bank, United Nations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Google, Microsoft Corporation, Amazon Web Services, and some smaller tech companies, FAM is an algorithm that uses analytics to predict areas that are likely to experience significant food shortages. Using data from cell phones, social media, and satellite images, FAMS will work as an early warning system for famine conditions, and automatically trigger alerts for action plans for donors, governments, and humanitarian agencies, allowing for more strategic response to food emergencies.

He also examines the International Criminal Court’s consideration of Myanmar’s practices of forced deportation of Rohingya people into Bangladesh. According to Dale, the ICC will be drawing on digital evidence, such as remote sensing, satellite imagery, and citizen-created photos and video, to produce evidence of human rights violations. This new form of evidence can be compared to questions and data that have been used to document previous human rights violations.

Dale considers the impact of these developments from a distinctly sociological perspective, rather than a more traditional legal or philosophical one, reasoning that the social sciences allow for exploration of the context in which human rights are invoked, including the interaction of non-state actors like faith-based organizations, NGOs, corporations, universities, and activists.