Repression is the Mother of Invention: Civil Society Groups Embrace Technological Innovation

Activists and innovators are joining forces to improve watchdog capabilities in Eurasia.
Over 100 innovators, activists and journalists are expected to convene in Prague on May 18 for Unlock 2017, a two-day event to promote civic innovation across Eurasia. Participants will assess the possibilities offered by new technologies to conduct investigative work into official policies and practices. The gathering is being organized by the Prague Civil Society Centre.
Authoritarian-minded governments in many states in Eurasia have taken steps in recent years to smother civil rights. The broad crackdown has succeeded in silencing many civil society activists. Those who remain active are finding it necessary to develop new investigatory methods, as well as new means of disseminating information.
The Prague gathering will help highlight how activists, with the help of tech experts, are finding new ways of doing an old job. For example, computer experts and online players are using gamification to help make sensitive issues such as human rights more accessible to young people in Eurasia. Meanwhile, those running investigations – into corruption, conflict or illegal activity – have developed tools to analyze large data sets and satellite imagery, as well as utilize social media, to help hold authorities accountable for their actions.
One area of particular potential is “drone activism,” in which journalists or campaigners capture aerial footage of hard-to-reach or unexplored areas. Across the region, a number of initiatives have used drone investigations to expose environmental abuses and public corruption.
The Prague Civil Society Centre held a workshop for activists and journalists in Kyrgyzstan last year, in partnership with independent media outlet Kloop.kg. The workshop aimed to share information on how activists are using drones to run investigations and how they can collaborate with local media to present their work.
One of the attendees, Oleg Pushak, an activist from Ukraine, used drones to document “luxury and very well-guarded mansions” of officials accused of corruption. He has also investigated illegal amber mining and deforestation using drone footage. His work was recently featured on the BBC, and colleagues from his organization, ВГО Автомайдан, often appear on Ukrainian TV channels to discuss their findings and investigations.
In Kyrgyzstan, environmental activists flew a drone over the 60-square-kilometer Bishkek municipal dump, exposing the vast collection of waste. The footage also highlighted the dump’s proximity to the Kyrgyz capital, and how roughly a thousand people work at the site every day. The video became a central element in a campaign to pressure local authorities into cleaning up the site.
While the potential for drone activism is great, it does raise legal and ethical questions. While the filming of private property may be legal in some countries, issues of privacy and whether such footage is in the public interest have to be weighed. As with most new technology, the laws governing the use of drones is, in many places, inadequate and differs from country to country, requiring research and planning.

Editor's note: 
Filip Noubel is a freelance writer and an innovation advisor for the Prague Civil Society Center.
Filip Noubel is a freelance writer and an innovation advisor for the Prague Civil Society Center.