CIVICUS Monitor Workshop: How can we improve research on civic space? Suva, Fiji, 6th December 2017

Fake news. Closed spaces. Security threats. The challenges to effective civic space research are many. The interactive, three-hour Monitor workshop aimed to explore how these obstacles can be overcome and how civic space research can be improved. A critical analysis of current research -, through several exemplary Monitor countries and updates discussed in five working groups (Brazil, Fiji, Spain, Serbia, DRC) - saw workshop participants identify weaknesses, gaps and challenges in current civic space research and suggest how those can be addressed to improve the quality of monitoring and analysis on civic space.

Key Questions

● What groups and power dynamics do we most commonly overlook when researching civic space?

● Are we making enough of an effort to include local voices in our analysis?

● How do we deal with fake news and news generated through social media?

● How can we use innovative tools to gather information on civic space?

● How do we collect and verify information from closed environments?

● How can we ensure security of researchers and informants?

● Is the way we write up civic space research allowing us to reach a general audience?

Session 1: Presentations by civic space researchers working at the regional and international levels

Marianna Belalba & Ine Van Severen (CIVICUS): findings and lessons learnt from the CIVICUS Monitor on a global scale.

The presentation included a brief introduction of the Monitor’s methodology and main features. Marianna and Ine explored some of the Monitor’s successes, including the fact that the Monitor is the first global analysis of civic space, built upon a vibrant research collaboration with 20 regional partners, with a growing user base. In addition, the Monitor has been used as evidence for advocacy actions at the international and national level, and it provides timely and reliable information on civic space.

Some of the lessons learnt related to covering 195 countries with limited resources and therefore the need to decide where to invest most efficiently. The importance of building of a wide and active network was also stressed. Other challenges identified by the team include obtaining information on civic space from small nation islands, and that language barriers impedes access to information. On the other hand, the growing interest in civic space points to the Monitor’s continued relevance.

Anja Bosilkova-Antovska (Balkan Civil Society Development Network – BCSDN): Research on civic space in the Balkans and Turkey.

Anja discussed the main challenges to civic space research in the region: censorship and self-censorship, fake news, limited availability of information, biased media through media polarisation, lack of news on grassroots initiatives or less visible groups and language barriers throughout the region. In addition, due to the above challenges, the presentation highlighted the need for local support, and to cross-check facts and the trustworthiness of sources.

Matel Sow (West Africa Civil Society Institute – WACSI) : challenges research civic space in West Africa

The presentation discussed the challenges in the region: how internet disruption & social media blackouts cause difficulties in accessing information; the language barriers in a very diversified region; lack of knowledge of citizens on their rights (for example on freedom of association) which affects reporting on violations; the need for informant safety due to a fear of repression, the common use of word of mouth in the region, dominance of urban based media outlets and news; state control of media houses, politicised media outlets, raiding of media houses, intimidation and arrests of journalists, self-censorship of journalists, fake news and propaganda and the lack of funding for independent media, which is a barrier to getting information from rural areas.

Session 2: Critical analysis of existing CIVICUS Monitor research

Participants worked in five small groups, to examine the research that has been done in a specific country context (Brazil, Fiji, Spain, Serbia, DRC). Each of the groups reviewed the Monitor updates of that country over the past year and critically assessed:

  • What they liked about the information currently being produced
  • Where the shortcomings or weaknesses lie; and
  • What information is missing.

Outcome of the session:

  • Areas of suggested improvement for the CIVICUS Monitor:
  1. Visualisation of the Monitor site via mobile phones: images do not display well; CIVICUS should perhaps consider developing an app for mobile phones.
  2. Search functionality should be improved to allow for search by country, theme and category. In addition, the category searches are too broad (for example: search on updates on freedom of expression of the past year in a particular country – now you have to go through all the separate updates).
  3. The rating colours are not very visible for people with colour impediments (in particular for people who are red-green colour blind).
  4. Lack of a feature to see rating changes over time and currently not possible to download the data.
  5. Lack of a system that allows for alerts to be sent to Monitor users.
  6. Some countries are really difficult to see on the map, for example Fiji is not visible.
  7. Language: automatic translation does not function well.
  • Information that should be included on the Monitor site:
  1. Short explanation of the ratings category on the country page;
  2. Definitions of terms and acronyms in some of the reports and the category menus (for example “CSO”, “HRD” or “Civic Pulse”).
  3. Contact information for the research partner and local partner on the country page
  4. More information about CIVICUS, including how the information will be used (which could increase the willingness to give information).
  5. More information about the sources used in the reports.
  6. Scores: the site only shows the overall score/category of a country, not for the separate freedoms.

• Regarding the content - updates:

  1. Expand perspectives in the updates – other perspectives are missing in the updates. More attention to filtering out fake news
  2. More in depth analysis on the development of civic space over time in countries (two or three cases per update, but what does it mean on the longer term?)
  3. More information necessary regarding the kind of events that lead to for example a repressed category (which could be used for advocacy)
  4. More need for local sources and voices, including exploring stories by local people, taking into account the lack of internet connectivity of a part of the population.
  5. Regarding sources: media stories are often used as a source, although journalists are not always independent; in Fiji for example there are a lot of pro-government journalists and media outlets who focus mainly on good news.
  6. Need for more information and local voices from areas where most violations happen
  7. Use of social media is not always professional or credible
  8. Need for the clustering of information (clustering of related cases)
  9. More background information on what led to events

Session 3: Presentation on innovative tools

Derek Caelin, Innovation Specialist, Innovation for Change, Counterpart International: Gathering information in restrictive spaces: data-sets and tools

The presentation showed examples of:

Big datasets – datasets with a lot of information, broad scope:

  1. ACLED https://www.acleddata.com/ (by Minerva) – Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project: Data on political violence and protests in over 60 countries in Africa and Asia. The project covers all African countries from 1997 to the present, and South-East Asia in real-time. The information is updated every two weeks and is verified. The information includes battles, riots, killing of civilians and protests by a range of actors: rebels, government, militias, protesters, civilians. In also includes reported fatalities and changes in territorial control. The main weaknesses are related to relying on news and local monitors.
  2. GDELT project: https://www.gdeltproject.org/( monitors news (broadcast, print, web) in every country in over 100 languages, and identifies people, locations, organisations, counts, themes, sources, emotions, quotes, images and events (including thematic grouping for conflict, violence, unrest). The information is updated every 15 minutes. The main challenge is that it is machine detected, so could include fake news.
  3. Crimson Hexagon & NodeXL: https://www.crimsonhexagon.com/; https://www.smrfoundation.org/nodexl/explore relationships between people. Full access to twitter and social media as a datasource/ Node: network analysis. It has global scope. Limitations: reliance on public posts; weaknesses related to social media (fake news, verification, limitation to people with access to social media) and is expensive: business – non-profit version for 5,000 USD.
  4. Examples of crowdsource datasets: Ushahidi and Crowdmap. Crowdmapping - where tech companies provide tools for collecting data and visualise data - collects reports from several sources in a single place. Examples of projects: monitoring of government hospitals in Basra; attacks on journalists in Iraq; Harassmap; Safecity. Limitations: need for the verification of reports; need to train communities; weaknesses related to relying on info from people.

Tools for data collection:

  1. SMS/ IVR: audience with mobile phone; short surveys; IVR (interactive voice response) – relatively cheap and can reach illiterate audiences.
  2. In-person.
  3. Online surveys (Google forms).
  4. Tools that replace paper and secures the data – example KoBo Toolbox: in conflict zones, connects without internet – syncs when re-connection happens.

Raphael Mimoun, Whistler app (Build a Movement)

Raphael Mimoun presented the main features of the Whistler app, which was developed based on the identified needs of HRDs: easy and fast documentation for evidence; collection of data on human rights abuses in real time (including photo, geolocation etc) reporting; alerts. It includes a) a panic button for emergency situations: informs family, network, fellow activists, lawyer, and includes the geolocation. It also erases information on the incident for security reasons; b) TrainingHub – documentation and training from observations c) Ability to link with data collection tools d) Functions online and offline.

Where to from here?

The CIVICUS Monitor team will take the list of suggested improvements and additions to the Monitor platform and build those, where possible, into our plans for the future development of the site. We will also further explore how tools like Whilster and Gdelt could be integrated into our work. Thanks to everyone who came to the workshop and shared their expertise and please keep in touch: monitor@civicus.org; @civicusalliance; #CIVICUSMonitor.

The CIVICUS Monitor Team

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