Amnesty International Canada: If only we could take them there? We can, and we did.

We are thrilled that Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, decided to pen a few words about our partnership exploring high level Virtual Reality advocacy. You can read his blog below about what we got up to at the UN Security Council, Human Rights Council, the African Union Commission and at Parliaments around the world. You can also watch a public facing version of the 360 content we used with Amnesty, entitled BESIEGED, published today by the dedicated team at Humanitarian News Agency IRIN.

If only we could take them there? We can, and we did.

THURSDAY, MARCH 9, 2017 – 09:47

by Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

New Virtual Reality technology is helping stop a human rights catastrophe

From the frontlines of human rights violations to the corridors of global power.  Over the years I have frequently made the trip to New York after many days in the field documenting the grim toll of war crimes, crimes against humanity and mass displacement.  The aim?  To take Amnesty International’s findings to the United Nations and press for action to end the atrocities.  The responsibility?  To carry the stories of sorrow and survival shared by women, men and children in bombed-out villages and refugee camps and do them justice in conveying their call for support.

And how often I have thought, or even said: if only I could take you there; if only you could see and hear first-hand.  Then maybe it would make a difference.  Then maybe decisions would finally be made, by the Security Council, by UN officials and by key governments; decisions that could turn human rights catastrophes around.

I have certainly thought that after the several missions I have been part of to the Sudanese state of South Kordofan; a shamefully overlooked corner of the world where a staggering human rights and humanitarian crisis has now entered its sixth year and has killed and injured thousands, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes (more than 100,000 of whom have made the impossible decision to seek safety as refugees across the border in war-torn South Sudan).

I have been on the ground in the region three times.  I have heard the tales of suffering.  I have heard the anguished pleas for international action.  I have heard the pained belief that their lives must not matter to the international community.  And each time I have returned home and travelled to New York, and done the Security Council rounds, pressing for something more to be done.

It is not easy to reach the frontlines of this grim crisis in the Nuba Mountains.  It is isolated.  It is virtually unreachable when the rains come.  And a large swath of territory is sealed off from outside access by the Sudanese military, whose aircraft have unleashed an unrelenting campaign of targeted and indiscriminate aerial bombardment  that has made life a virtual hell for the civilian population.

If only I could take you there.

In September I was finally able to do just that, through the medium of evocative 360-degree virtual video footage that comes as close to “taking you there” as is possible without a long voyage.

Meeting with United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict, New York, September 2016

Working with Amnesty colleagues and the amazing team from Transformedia who had filmed and produced the footage, we did take diplomats from a number of countries who sit on the Security Council there, to the ground in South Kordofan.  They heard the bombers in the sky and saw the remains of burned out villages.  They saw what it is like for children to hide out in Nuba Mountain caves, waiting for Antonovs to pass by.  They heard the sorrow, the defiance and the urgent call for assistance.

It was certainly a new approach to high-level advocacy, waiting while diplomats and UN officials, eyes hidden from view by the goggles that were their personal video screens, lost themselves in sights and sounds halfway around the world.  Their heads weaved and bobbed and turned full circle, taking in all that there was to see, hear and understand.

And we had done it, we had taken them there.  That was clear from the subdued reaction as people removed their goggles and returned to a Manhattan skyscraper from the rocky, arid Sudanese landscape in which they had been immersed.

We had taken them there.  And we will take them there again and again.  Until there is real action.  Until the crisis ends.  Until rights are protected.


In addition to the UN advocacy mission in New York, Amnesty International’s Regional Office in Africa, along with media partners Transformedia presented the Virtual Human Rights Mission to members of the Bureau of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in Banjul, Gambia in November 2016.

“This was an innovative piece of work, a different and unique method of doing advocacy on conflict related issues. In Oct/Nov we privately briefed members of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERCW) on the situation in the Two Areas and impact on children’s rights. We showed them the VR/360 film which set the scene for an engaging discussion. We also made a formal submission requesting for a fact finding mission to the Two Areas. In December, the Committee informed us that based on our request, they had decided to conduct a fact finding mission to South Kordofan in March 2017. We think the VR/360 film helped inspire action by the ACERCW as they ‘saw’ for themselves and ‘felt’ the plight of people living in the Nuba Mountains”

– Nyagoah Tut, South Sudan campaigner, Amnesty International

Remote Migration Monitoring in Abyei

As part of a bigger program of policy and technical support to critical Concordis peacebuilding work in Abyei, Transformedia is providing a pilot mobile Migration Monitor using simple smartphones with solar chargers.

Before the secession of South Sudan, the Abyei Area was commonly referred to as the ‘litmus test’ of peace in Sudan. If the agro-pastoralist Dinka Ngok and the Arab Misseriya herders could coexist in this area – and if their governments would let them – then anything was possible. But since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, violence has continually returned to this small patch of land. Abyei Town was completely destroyed in 2008 and 2011.

At the nub of local political contestation is land ownership and usage rights. The nine chiefdoms of the Dinka Ngok claim to be the rightful community owners of the land (the precise borders of which are another question for another time) – and this was recognised in the CPA’s Protocol concerning Abyei. However, a number of Arab Misseriya groups have traditionally migrated with cattle into, and through, the area in search of pastures during the dry season (roughly November-May).Indeed, since the displacement of many Dinka Ngok in the 1960s and 1980s, many Misseriya settled and spent much of their lives in Abyei. The secondary rights to ‘use’ the land for seasonal migration is also recognised by the CPA.

The real interests of both communities are not so far apart. The Dinka Ngok benefit from goods and trade from the Misseriya. The Misseriya benefit from access to markets as well as the pasture and water required for their cattle in the dry season. The fact is that whilst livestock migration can lead to violence and disagreement, such issues could be resolved by local leaders under normal conditions. Instead, the communities are still being used against one another by the national armed forces, fighting as proxies for national strategic concerns.

Relations between the communities hit an all time low in 2013 when the Paramount Chief of the Dinka Ngok, Kuol Deng Kuol, who I met a number of times in Abyei, was assassinated (in full view of the UN peacekeeping mission). ‘Diplomatic’ relations between the communities were cut off.

Since then, Concordis undertook an incredible local trust building exercise. A member of the team spent a year living in Abyei, working first with members of each community as individuals before building up enough trust to start bringing small groups of ‘non-political’ persons together across the conflict line to express themselves honestly and without political pressure. This tireless work led to a breakthrough whereby leaders from both communities agreed to open up dialogue on substantive issues.

The hand of national politics is still conspiring against local peace, but we hope that enabling local leaders to obtain better data about the movements of people and livestock, about unresolved issues, upcoming flashpoints and successes and failures of local response, will help communities and peace-builders ensure that local incidents don’t become national tragedies. We will be updating this blog with the roll-out of this pilot in the coming months.

MM for website imageThe remote data collection is undertaken on simple smartphones installed with an offline-online Migration Monitor application.


Virtual Reality Conflict Transformation: Theory and Practice

We are integrating virtual reality technology into our conflict transformation as well as our advocacy.

The underlying idea is that by enabling policy makers and communities to ‘meet’ each other and experience alternative points of view, VR can help reduce ‘moral distance’, improve understanding, and enhance shared information. As a result, interest-based and humanitarian incentives for peacemaking are both increased.

It’s an exciting and experimental process, but one we believe is founded on well established conflict change methodologies. At the moment, we are focused on using film for VR headsets as this gives the most realistic experience of ‘being’ somewhere else, but augmented environments will have their place. Here is a short table outlining how virtual reality sits alongside a few well known existing approaches:

Conflict Theorist Causes of Conflict Recommended focus for Conflict Prevention Potentials of Virtual Reality
Lederach Conflict is inevitable and natural part of human relationships and can generate positive or negative socio-cultural and socio-economic relations. “Conflict transformation” sees conflict as a process, caused by and causing changes in relationships. In order to build peace, destructive patterns need to be transformed into constructive ones. ‘Levels of leadership’ provides most efficient way to engage in policy-level change. Virtual reality experiences among ‘middle ‘level’ influencers – who connect the ultimate decision makers with the grassroots – to improve access to shared information, improve inclusivity by bringing voices into the room. For example, a VR presentation outlining local and expert views on challenges facing a remote conflict.
Galtung Growing gap between individual expectations and realisations leading to, or being caused by structural, cultural or physical violence. Define the violence along cultural, economic and physical dimensions and envision positive peace; mediate (resolving incompatibility) and reconcile (removing traumas from relationships). VR experiences that enable people to spend time with the other in a virtual environment, help close policy gaps (through providing communities with the experience of directly hearing from leaders and vice versa).
Collier and Hoeffler et al Failure of economic development and greed and grievances. Support to governance processes, state development and state dividends. 2-way VR advocacy (local citizen-policy maker interaction),  training services (e.g, civic education walk-through)
Gurr Relative and perceived group deprivation and mobilisation along ethnic/religious/identity lines. Improved relations between state and citizen and reconciling diverse identities. VR experiences which ‘transport’ participants into ‘other’ communities to increase understanding of shared interests and commonalities, to facilitate ‘personal’ interactions.
Relationship Foundation Conflict is relational and caused or sustained by distance along a number of relational domains. Developing and experiencing “relational proximity” in five domains creates an enhanced quality of “relational experience”, which can contribute to outcomes such as trust, understanding, support, accountability and belonging. (As above) VR experiences allowing personal interactions in the five domains; enabling meetings between people who would otherwise not be able to see each other, or increasing the frequency of interactions.
Ronald Fisher Historical trajectories, different conceptions of peace, competitive group strategies and zero-sum mentalities. “Interactive conflict resolution (ICR)” involves problem-solving discussions between unofficial representatives of groups or states engaged in violent protracted conflict. All the above.

Early indications from our advocacy and those of our friends and partners is that VR can produce strong policy and public engagement, though we need to undertake more systematic and longer term evaluation.

In the conflict transformation realm, we look forward to testing whether the ’empathy machine’ of VR really can contribute to sustainable peace processes, and if so, helping support the development of best practice for its use.

How to track engagement with micro-SD memory cards?

In 2012, we noticed that the use of microSD memory cards to share information between rural persons was reaching a potentially critical level. Could it be considered a significant medium for social change communications and conflict resolution?

People at tea places, in buses, markets and homes were all sharing audio and video recordings through microSD cards in phones. Common material included political speeches, news recordings of major events, recorded radio shows and pop music (android devices allow you to record radio with one click), football highlights and videos of local traditional music and dance.

Since then Transformedia has worked with partners to disseminate our media outreach content on microSD cards as well as through more traditional means, and the anecdotal evidence so far is that microSD can help film and audio clips spread quickly through urban and semi-urban networks. But how to really track user engagement with content?

Continue reading “How to track engagement with micro-SD memory cards?”

Motorbike Cinema “Cineboda” Tests, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan, Part IV, Technical Lessons and Recommendations

An evaluation of the peacebuilding impact of the exercise was outside the scope of this activity. This test was simply intended to subject the Cine-boda concept to a real-world situation. Some findings and lessons are outlined below:

a. Screen
The screen was satisfactory and could easily entertain 200+ persons. Good tension was achieved in the first two showings using the bungee attachments provided. This provided a good cinematic experience. The screen was poorly set up in the third showing, which used the Velcro attachments provided. This was primarily because the team had not been trained in using the Velcro. Lessons include:

• Provide larger screen.
• Screen risks becoming creased. Consider spandex based screen for version 2.
• The Velcro attachment system can produce the necessary tension but will rip paint off surfaces on removal, limiting its application.
• Training for team in various methods of erecting screen is important.
• Develop a fold out frame from Cineboda for rear projection to avoid the need for a surface to attach screen.
• Need pegs and more holes in bottom of screen.

b. Power
The battery unit successfully charged from the motorbike alternator, the solar panels and the A.C power.

• Solar charging: Solar system successful and drew about 11watts of charging power continuously. 6 hours of sunshine fully charged system after 2 hours of screenings.
• Motorbike charging: 12v charging system from motorbike provided up to 40watts of charging power to battery system when driving and about 9 on tickover.
• Charge still showed 90% after two hour screening.
• Screenings do not need engine running.
• Battery capacity is generous and could be reduced.
• Battery is large and heavy and could be reduced in size and weight.
• Next generation Cineboda should run both speaker and projector from single battery source.

c) Audiences of 100-250 people
Audiences were small because the activities took place within compounds and were not advertised outside of the immediate community. However, lessons include:

• System reaches audiences who do not have access to power.
• System can easily reach audiences of 250
• System can get to hard to reach communities off-road.
• Sound volume sufficient for outdoors and amidst background noise

d) Microphone to facilitate showings and discussion

• Microphone worked well.
• Bluetooth microphone would be an improvement because it would lower barriers to audience engagement in discussion (they would not need to stand and come to the front to speak)

Continue reading “Motorbike Cinema “Cineboda” Tests, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan, Part IV, Technical Lessons and Recommendations”

Motorbike Cinema “Cineboda” Tests, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan, Part III, Test Screenings

To test the mobile motorbike cinema unit, we drove out from Aweil an hour or so north on poor roads to Wanyjok, where we spent a couple of days showing participatory films. The films were jointly created by Dinka and Misseriya participants, facilitated by the amazing folk at BuildPeace. This is how we got on.

Simon and Deng Deng set up the first screenings, using the solar powered light (included and in post featured image above).

We also screened selected clips from inside the February Dinka-Misseriya peace conference as well as a number of other films (including the South Sudan Theatre Organisation’s Citizen Theatre film).

The first night at the Abyei Community Development Foundation was a good run through, but since the venue had a generator and a TV (which kicked in half way through) it was not a good example of our target location.

However, the kit really came alive on the second night when we drove it through floodwater to a women’s training center just outside town. This place, like the overwhelming majority of Northern Bahr al Ghazal, does not have any access to electricity.

The response was fantastic.

Continue reading “Motorbike Cinema “Cineboda” Tests, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan, Part III, Test Screenings”