Citizen’s Crowdsourcing News and Laws in Syria, Latvia, and Arkansas

Rami Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights

 New Orleans   Recently I have been working closely with the volunteers and board of KABF 88.3 FM, the 100,000 watt noncommercial, community radio, “Voice of the People,” in Arkansas.  Just as the programming is delivered by a huge crew of volunteer djs, we developed the notion that we could create unique news and public affairs programming the same way using volunteer, “citizen journalists” with smartphones or small tape recorders to begin to hear voices that were not been heeded and in so doing create unique community news.  With first meetings of interested citizen journalists scheduled for coming weeks, I’m on the watch for evidence that such a crazy idea could actually work.   Not surprisingly, it isn’t too hard to find!

Rami Abdul Rahman is a Syrian transplanted for his and his family’s safety to Coventry, England, a quiet former industrial town 30 minutes away from the nearest Arabian restaurant, but since the Syrian civil war broke out Rahman has created something fairly amazing called, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.  The Observatory has gotten rave reviews from everyone from Amnesty International to the United Nations as being the source for the most accurate reports of war dead, body counts, and civilian casualties, including information of how people died, and has done so in a fairly amazing way.  Rahman recruited four friends who were still on the ground in Syria who help him sort through information received by a network of 270 activists volunteers who supply the information and become the arms and legs for the Observatory in the field by visiting hospitals and conflict sites when possible.  The 270 were organized by Rahman and his friends by shifting through old contacts in political organizations where he had been active in the past while in Syria and assemble a Skype contact group to vet and verify the information.   Admittedly this singular avocation has become an enduring obsession for Rahman who maintains constant contact with his network using two cellphones and an ever present laptop.  He is supported by two dress shops that provide a small income and small contributions.   Rahman makes the KABF citizen journalism project seem easy.

Another story from Latvia in the New York Times gives a sense of where this new found crowd-sourcing of collective civic engagement might lead.  Twenty-four year old Kristofs Blass a local internet entrepreneur created a petitioning tool called ManaBalss.lv.  All of that has become pretty standard fare in the West for MoveOn or Avaaz.org.  In Latvia though, citizens can initiate petitions that, if legal on their face, propose a solution, and include a plan of action, can potentially be enacted into parliamentary laws.  It’s not easy, but it is very transparent and straightforward.  If an initiative gets 10,000 petition signatures by hand or on the internet, that are verified in the same way that banking information is validated, then the Parliament is mandatorily required to debate and take action on the measure.  So far 500 initiatives have been proposed with only 7 having reached the threshold of ending up in Parliament.  Two such citizen initiatives have been enacted into law, while two more are still under consideration.  One that made it requires a listing of Latvians with “offshore bank accounts,” which seems like a good idea.

This is a brave new world with different prospects for collective action, and we all need to start learning how to live in it.

Podcast of this blog.

 

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LeadNow in Canada

leadnowNew Orleans I had a fascinating and encouraging conversation recently with Jamie Biggar, the Vancouver-based executive director of what could be an exciting new political force for progressive issues and change in Canada:  LeadNow or probably more accurately www.leadnow.ca since the internet is going to be the main membership access to this weapon d’ jour.  Part of the excitement of the conversation that morning was the fact that LeadNow website was just debuting on line, almost as we talked, so my biggest challenge was paying close attention to Jamie on the while becoming the #4 follower on their Twitter account, the 300th and something Facebook fan, and recognizing some Canadian friends on the early scrolling comments.  Talk about ground floor!

LeadNow hopes to cover the ground originally broken in the USA by MoveOn, who invented the basic internet campaigning form when they “caught lightening in a bottle,” as ACORN Canada’s Josh Stuart accurately calls it, while Avaaz.org internationally and other formations in Australia and elsewhere have built from the ground up.  Jamie argued that LeadNow in Canada would be different in some fundamental ways if everything worked as they hoped importantly by linking the “air war” of internet campaigning more closely with the “ground war” by forging close working relationships with organizations and possibly creating “chapters” on the local level.  LeadNow is also trying to figure out how they might help build bridges on campaigns to create change past the partisan deadlocks of the multi-party parliamentary system.  Good luck with that!   The third defining objective they hope will be a more robust “voting” or membership input and direction system, which is more my bet, but they are right that this is an important evolutionary step forward for these kinds of organizations.

All of that is in the future as LeadNow pilots what works and where they can find traction and build their base moving forward.  Putting projects like LeadNow on the runway and getting them up in the air where they can pick up speed and support is a huge undertaking in itself.  I think one of the reasons these kinds of new social change formations are so very important is because they are self-sustaining organizations, relying on the members to fuel the tanks with their donations and therefore not accountable to donors or outside interests.

Jamie and his partners have a good track record with other efforts in the past with environmental issues, students, and others.  Getting ready to brave the frozen north in a couple of days as I prepare for another visit with organizers and others in Canada, I can’t describe how important it is for LeadNow to succeed.

My vote:  support now, LeadNow!

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