Esra'a Al Shafei & CrowdVoice: Amplifying the Unheard

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 27 December 2018

Esra’a Al Shafei came to the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2012 to work on CrowdVoice and CrowdVoice.by. The former is a platform to provide curated and contextualised important - and often overlooked - information on social problems all over the world; the latter is a portal that allows activists and grassroots organisations to curate and promote stories and media related to their causes.

As a Bahraini civil rights activist, she was our first Fellow from the Middle East, giving the Foundation an opportunity to explore the potential of open through a different lens. And the overall theme of her Fellowship - giving prominence to the important voices of dissent in regions where human rights violations are a common occurrence - gave us a new perspective on the realities of life for many people living in conflict zones or under censorship and surveillance.

We caught up with Esra’a to discuss her memories of the Shuttleworth Fellowship and what she has achieved since, while also touching on subjects as broad as the trouble with philanthropy and the personal impact of working in this challenging - sometimes horrifying - space.

Background: Making Connections

Esra’a has always shown a keen interest in politics - her background is in political science - and it was a fascination with the Internet that provoked her interest in technology. Coming from one of the many parts of the world where censorship and surveillance are the norms, that attraction was powerful.

“You were always aching for that thing that connects you to the world,’ she explains. “For me, that thing was the Internet. No other medium was as self-moderated as the web, where you could really create your vision, implement it and have little concern about global censorship.

“Maybe it would be censored in Bahrain - which CrowdVoice still is to this day - but the rest of the world still has access. Sometimes that’s enough for me, for people to see the information for themselves and to be able to use, repurpose it and adapt it.”

As Esra’a began her personal exploration of web design, bulletin boards and Wordpress templates, she found guidance from the various communities around the world.

“The Wordpress community was very helpful,” she continues. “All the answers were out there. I learned from others and what they went through. I was using that, and Drupal and lots of different frameworks - all of them open source but I never knew them as open source.”

DIY approaches to learning often result in a new hobby, skill or general interest. For Esra’a, it resulted in opportunity.

The Early Days of Mideast Youth

Esra’a founded Mideast Youth in 2006 as a way to amplify underrepresented voices in the Middle East through music, short films, animations and podcasts. It was in the early days of MySpace, the word ‘blogging’ was starting to catch on, and Facebook seemed like a reasonably fun and benign place to be. How times change.

“We didn’t have that influx of information we receive today,” recalls Esra’a. “A couple of years later - maybe 2009 - this dramatically changed. Everyone was online and we started getting so much content through many different avenues and channels.

“This was important content, especially in places that historically experienced a lot of surveillance and censorship. Governments were still trying to work that out - technologies and channels to censor and surveil users, and how to trace their data.”

Esra’a and the team at Mideast Youth felt it was a critical moment to develop another tool - CrowdVoice - specifically for assisting their own struggles with human rights, access to information and freedom of expression. The idea was to create a platform that harnessed the power of crowdsourced media to contextualise social movements. Initially starting in the Middle East, interest in CrowdVoice began to arrive in from Indonesia, Russia, India, Pakistan - all over the world.

“It just started expanding,” says Esra’a. “Everybody could see the need for it, so we opened it up internationally. A lot of activists saw the potential of where it could go and how it could grow. But we needed resources.

“At this point, our board chair - Yvette from Witness.org - connected me with the Shuttleworth Foundation. I wrote and just said: ‘Hey, this is my work and it would be great to connect.’

“I didn’t expect anything, and I didn’t really know anything about the Foundation or the Fellowship itself, or how it worked, or the amount of funding that came with it. They seemed interested, I got shortlisted, and got in.”

A New Voice for the Fellowship

Human rights violations was a new space for the Shuttleworth Foundation, and we were keen to see how openness could assist in ensuring the needs of essential voices were met. Esra’a was a bright, determined and capable individual who had risked much, achieved a great deal, but still had the potential to go further if given the right resources.

She also gave us some insight from a region where the Foundation had no connection, and from another perspective, there were new and vital ideas in the technology realm to explore.

“There a lot of cultural and political sensitivities to consider,” says Esra’a. “People don’t understand they are building technology for vulnerable populations. We knew that a lot of the tools we were using were not meant to be used by us.

“Privacy, security and anonymity are three things that were vastly underrated. These three things are not typically built-in when tools are exported to us, and if we didn’t re-imagine such applications, it made no sense to use them in our context. And I think it was interesting for the Foundation to see where something like this could go.”

Boxes ticked and ideas ready to roll, Esra’a began her journey on the Shuttleworth Fellowship programme in September 2012.

Progress & Achievements

Esra’a began her Fellowship working on CrowdVoice, which at the time only had a few features and had just started dipping its toes into crowdsourcing. A big lick of paint duly followed and, by the second year, a new idea was beginning to form: contextualization.

The news is always focussed on the present. You watch it, feel horrified and then turn over to watch The Simpsons or pick up some light reading to banish it from memory. Not only do you forget about that singular event, but you also have no idea what happens next or the stark realities of why it happened at all.

Watching protests or disasters happen across the world is virtually pointless without context. The genius of CrowdVoice was to help us all make sense of the data.

“We wanted to raise awareness and deepen the insight into these forces of change,” says Esra’a. “We had these interviews of activists that have since disappeared, media articles and blog posts and all this information, so we came up with the idea of infographics and timelines to make sure the platform followed the flow across the web of these ongoing conflicts.

“You could also contest it, come in and say: this is another source to consider. We wanted to ensure that the process was an engaging and collaborative experiment.

The platform snowballed, more timelines were added to the mix, and interest grew from some surprising areas. Initially, the platform was built by activists, for activists. But the scope, accuracy and historical value of CrowdVoice were also proving popular with teachers and professors, even becoming part of the curriculum in several universities.

“We have journalists from the Guardian, UN Dispatch, and Al Jazeera all using it - it does a lot of the legwork for anyone that doesn’t have the time. For us, it meant things were getting reported, and it gave them that angle they previously didn’t consider.

“CrowdVoice is there to help people understand these things have been going on for a long time, and the policies, leaders and people that are responsible. It’s so you can understand where to draw connections and how to be a more informed advocate.

“We’re not saying we have all the answers, but there is a ton of information available on the web. All we did is connect them, organise them, enable people to crowdsource and moderate them on their own.”

Realities From the Coal Face

Esra’a made tremendous progress during her Fellowship. Her work has engaged tens of thousands of active users across the globe and has even been used as a tool for evidence gathering by lawyers pursuing justice.

Looking back to 2012, it’s no surprise that the CrowdVoice platform has become such an essential tool, but the increasing necessity of the platform causes a little sadness. Then, the Middle East was still trying to find its feet after the Arab Spring, and there was a faint glimmer of hope that the original promise of a new era of freedom and justice in the region would prevail. Ultimately, it only delivered more chaos.

The rest of the world has hardly fared better. Take a look at CrowdVoice today, and you will see historical, contextualised information on government suppression, state-sponsored violence and conflict zones everywhere from EU nations and Russia across to Africa and the Americas. It also highlights challenges faced by other movements; anti-nuclear projects in Japan, sexual harassment in Egypt, protests against gold mining in Peru, to name but a few.

However, all of this does raise a question. When you are giving a platform to so many minority voices - some of whom are enduring relentless suffering - what impact does that have on you personally?

“Working in this is hard,” admits Esra’a. “Looking at it every day you get desensitized. You see a picture of a bombed and a destroyed building, and you realise you’re feeling nothing or it’s not shocking anymore. That is something we struggle with, so we request our people take breaks every now and again - it takes a mental toll.

“It’s also one thing that prevented us from growing. People get tired of seeing these things and a site like CrowdVoice - which was never going to attract millions of users - is difficult to pitch, because investors don’t want to fund a tool that won’t reach critical mass.

“That became really hard and stalled a lot of our work. But we would rather have 50,000 engaged users who wanted to find out and learn more, and lawyers using it for court cases, and teachers and journalists - people that want to learn, connect and make sense of the world. The fact we are there preserving this data matters, and we have a responsibility to be alert to these things and expose those injustices, right?”

Reflections on the Community

Like many Fellows before and after her, Esra’a found her experience with the Shuttleworth community to be valuable in more ways than one.

“I have a sense of belonging,” she says. “It sounds cliche but to do this in Bahrain is very isolating. To do this anywhere else, I would not have that support network. A lot of the foundations we work with exist to commit something to their investment committee.

“You have a program officer to respond to, auditors to respond to, financial reports to submit. Nobody asks: “How are you?” That’s something the Fellowship provides. The group cares about you as an individual.

“When my Fellowship ended, I thought at first it was going to be another one of those experiences I would just move on from. But I continued getting invites to the in-person gatherings, and the community keeps coming back to get energised and renew a lot of the friendships. We may not agree on every single thing, and there are definitely controversies involved, but as a whole, this group of fellows and team genuinely cares, and that’s what’s makes the Fellowship so meaningful.”

“And you better believe me when I say ‘we,’ not ‘they.’ Because I still feel part of this. I’m not obliged to go to the Gatherings, but it’s where I get energy and inspiration, and I solidify my commitment to open. Openness is an important element for the Foundation, for sure. But it’s more than that - it’s also about open-mindedness.

“Apart from the technicalities you immediately understand why people are Fellows. It’s not just because what they do is open software or hardware, or open this or open that. It’s because they come with an open mind and want to solve what they perceive as a grave injustice - it’s a group of people struggling for real progress, accessibility, social justice. I think that’s a recent transformation of what the Shuttleworth Foundation means.”

It’s a gradual transformation Esra’a has observed - and been part of - since she joined the Shuttleworth community in 2012. Then, she felt the concept of open as driven by the technical definitions used by the software and hardware communities that made up the majority of the Fellowship. But as we have shifted focus to cover different social challenges, each new Fellow has brought a different perspective. Over time, the conversation has expanded.

“The Fellowship was really what made me understand open from a philosophical standpoint,” says Esra’a. “Why open, how open, to who is it open and by whom is it open - these are all questions I had never considered before.

“Now we have people like Anasuya, Astra, Tiffiniy…every single one of them looks at open completely differently. We see it as a movement, but within that, each individual has a different angle. No one has or wants a monopoly on any idea or concept.”

Life as an Alum

From the Foundation’s perspective, it’s clear that our investment in Esra’a as an agent of social change has been an enormous success. Her trajectory has continued to soar, and she has gone on to receive awards, became a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab in 2017, and in the same year was appointed to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees.

Today, her focus is firmly set the suite of tools for the voiceless and marginalised established under the umbrella of Mideast Youth - now called Majal.org - and specifically, on AHWAA. It’s a platform that leverages game mechanics and provides a safe space for anonymous LGBTQ users to engage in high-quality conversations in the Middle East.

“LGBTQ advocacy is frowned upon, if not, illegal in many Arab nations,” says Esra’a. “We want to give this community a safe space to feel supported and a place where they can feel they can talk about the most intimate and scariest experiences without fear of judgement or bullying.

“That’s just one part of where we are now. We also have Mideast Tunes that showcases underground musicians who use music as a tool for social change in the Middle East and North Africa. We have almost 2000 artists, and have curated more than 11,000 tracks - it’s hip-hop, metal, folk - the music things you don’t typically come across in some regions of the world.”

Final Thoughts & the Trouble With Philanthropy

CrowdVoice is still going strong and has built up an active community of 30,000 volunteers who moderate the content on a monthly basis. But what’s impressive about the platform is that it has achieved all of this organically, without any focus on marketing. Is there a message to be found here for other philanthropic funders?

“One thing that is ruining our field right now is everything has to grow and scale so that millions of people use it,” says Esra’a. “That’s the only metric used for success. But the best platforms are small, inviting, encouraging platforms that feel like a community - like how the Shuttleworth Foundation functions, where you are adding a few fellows with meaningful projects every year rather than focus on quantity.

“A lot of funders don’t understand how to build a meaningful product, and you see philanthropists in the US spend millions and millions in return for mere vanity metrics. It’s insane. I don’t need to have a funder tell me if it’s not used in China, my work is not worthwhile. It’s rare to find a funder that understands, appreciates and truly wants to support you without imposing their controversial methodologies and restricting your creativity.”

“In the Foundation they ask different questions. How do you define impact? How many lives can be transformed by this? How does this contribute to a just society? These are the things that really matter, and it’s a shame we don’t focus on the personal impact and the human stories, rather than just these vanity metrics.

“The Foundation enables us, and the team respects our time and commitment. They don’t come and impose their own ideas, they let you define your own expectations. They genuinely believe in you, your expertise, your capabilities, and what you’re capable of long-term. It’s difficult to find another foundation that sticks to its goals and philosophy so much. Truly, there’s nothing else like it - the Shuttleworth Foundation is special.”

Esra’a continues to be a committed, and engaged member of the Fellowship community and her vital work has given new context to many of the prominent and less-prominent global challenges we face. But she has also provided new meaning to our thinking, and her achievements have rewarded our belief that individuals can make a significant change to the world with access to the right resources and networks.

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