Internal Seminar: Jay D. Aronson on the Magic of Math in Human Rights

Internal Seminar: Jay D. Aronson on the Magic of Math in Human Rights

On 19 June 2017, Jay Aronson, the founder and director of the United States-based Centre for Human Rights Science (CHRS), presented his work on transitional justice and technology at the CSVR Cape Town office, sharing the organization's work in integrating technology into the analysis of human rights violations in the aftermath of conflict and disaster. Aronson demonstrated how CHRS merged human rights, justice, and technology to develop software that can convert media, such as videos and audio, into evidence that can be used in courts to aid the prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes and grave violations of human rights. He further explained, "what I do is create collaborations between human rights practitioners with focus on science, mostly around statistics and computer science."

During the seminar, Aronson demonstrated how the use of the program Event Labelling through Analytic Media Processing (E-LAMP) during the current conflict in Syria represented a unique form of conflict documentation in real time by Syrians themselves. He highlighted that there was a constant stream of video footage being uploaded on public platforms from conflict zones and nearly one million hours of video recordings were providing multiple perspectives on the conflict.  This is where E-LAMP, the collaborative program, featured to scan through materials (like YouTube video and Instagram uploads) to recognise and group specific sounds and images based on classification filters. An example of the successful use of this system is the video footage gathered during the Ukraine (Bosnian-Serb) conflict, where points of shooting, conflict and the celebratory 'looting' of Muslim towns was presented as evidence in the proceeding court cases. E-LAMP has provided a platform in which simulations of scenarios under investigation can be recreated providing multi-perspective insights and information pertinent to prosecution and prevention.

"None of this is magic, it's all math, algorithms, some geometry – it seems like a black box but its math and assumptions," said Aronson referring to E-LAMP and big data analysis. And while the innovative software cannot tell the entire narrative it has the potential to provide counter-narratives in a context of mainstream media and single-story reporting. Referring to this Aronson asked whether phones had democratised documentation or perpetuated inequalities in accessing justice. This question posed by Aronson is especially significant because whose truth gets more prominence – often mirroring the socioeconomic and political inequalities that exist – remains a challenge in the field of transitional justice. Other challenges and opportunities included technology in advocacy, as Aronson pointed out that "one thing that technology can't do is create political will and if there's no will to prevent [conflict], technology isn't necessarily going to have an impact". He noted that the potential of the E-LAMP technology was not limited to war contexts alone, and that it could be used to document social injustices and crimes, such as labour violations, police brutality, and riots.

Aronson concluded his thought-provoking seminar by discussing the potential that human capital presented in the documentation of the lived experiences of people. This could be done through innovative use of technology to create historical records of events that have transpired, as well as to address human rights violations from a grassroots level. The advent of social media and technology advancements thus presented the prospects of supporting individuals on-the-ground as part of human rights monitoring processes – working collaboratively to ensure increases in political will to address violations and greater positive impact.

Tasneem Kalla
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