Professor Yvonne McDermott-Rees receives a funding boost for her project, documenting mass human rights violations through collective intelligence

The support comes in the form of funding from the first wave of Nesta Collective Intelligence Grants, which provide support to organisations with ideas for experiments that look to apply collective intelligence to solve social problems.

What does the experiment involve?

The experiment will use machine learning to classify crowdsourced footage of airstrike images. The goal is to build a database for the preservation, organisation, and secure transfer and use of evidence for war crimes investigations. The experiment will test whether the classification and filtering of digital evidence will help official investigators to place more reliance on it, and whether it enables courts to admit it for consideration. This will shed light on whether a collective intelligence approach to processing this kind of evidence increases the chances of successful war crimes prosecutions.

Why is it relevant?

Technologies like smartphones, social media, and participatory mapping tools enable witnesses to human rights violations to capture and share footage of war crimes in real time. These images create a wealth of potential evidence for legal investigations. But legal practitioners have been hesitant to use open-source and crowd-sourced evidence in court cases due to the sheer volume of the material, the effort related to verifying the content, and the vulnerability of civilian witnesses on the ground. Developing a machine learning tool to locate specific weapons, landmarks, or other characteristics that can identify and verify this digital evidence could help fully realise the potential this material offers.

How might the findings help people better design collective intelligence?

The results of this experiment will help us understand how machine learning can be combined with human intelligence to lessen practitioners' burden in verifying content and identifying evidence that can be used in lawsuits. The findings will have wider applicability to contexts where open source and digital evidence provides an evidence base, such as investigative journalism, crisis response, and academia.

How does this funding help support the project?

“Technological advances have heralded a new era of human rights investigations, where witnesses can capture and share media of human rights violations in real time”, said Professor Yvonne McDermott Rees, whose experiment is a collaboration with two NGOs, GLAN Law and Syrian Archive.

“However, getting that evidence into court processes is challenging, not least because of the huge volumes of content that lawyers have to sift through. Our experiment will ask whether a collective intelligence approach can combine human expertise with machine learning to identify and manage evidence that can be used in accountability processes. We are so grateful to Nesta for funding this cutting-edge research.”