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Department of Sociology


The Digital Verification Corps is a collaboration between student groups at Universities around the world with Amnesty international, designed to provide fact-finders and verification for digital accounts of human rights abuses.

Witnesses of human rights violations are increasingly using smartphones to record what they see, and then share those incidents on social media to raise awareness across the globe. As this data becomes publicly available, it becomes crucial to improve and speed up the process through which human rights fact-finders gather, verify and present evidence.

The Digital Verification Corps (DVC) stepped into this breach, as Dr Ella McPherson puts it: “human rights organisations were facing a data deluge, and so the DVC was born.”

Student members in the DVC are trained by Amnesty International, and then they work together to discover and verify digital evidence of human rights violations, guided by human rights investigators. They use tools such as TweetDeck and Google Earth pro to find, identify and geo-locate images and videos in order to confirm their validity.

Aurelie Skrobik, co-student lead on the Cambridge DVC, said: “I think that students often feel as though they don't have the adequate expertise to contribute to a human rights investigation and the DVC just proves that once you reduce those barriers whether those are technological barriers like in this case or understanding this technology, then you can really include a wide diversity of students into this project.”

Another co-student lead, Ray Adams Row Farr (3rd year HSPS), added “It’s a great opportunity, especially as a student, to get involved in the community where you’re immediately impacting and contributing to human rights work. It feels quite rare in the field, as an undergraduate, to turn up with a bunch of people in a room and start making a difference straightaway and using tools that you can use for the rest of your life.”

Since 2017, Cambridge DVC has worked with Amnesty International on a wide range of cases, from the documentation of Coalition air strikes in Raqqa, Syria to the use of tear gas against protestors around the world, including in the United States during Black Lives Matters protests this past summer.

The online tools used by the Cambridge DVC include The Whistle's “Human Rights Digital Toolkit”, a decision tree, designed in collaboration with the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that helps investigators establish how best to evaluate digital evidence. Last month, Jamie Hancock, intern at The Whistle and 3rd year HSPS student, launched "The Social Life of Data", an interactive game in which players can follow a piece of human rights data as it moves across the internet from a social media post to a news article to a human rights report.

Hence in addition to contributing to documenting human rights abuses, the Cambridge DVC is keen to share their method, skills and tools with the wider community. The broader goal of the project is not just to train people in open source investigation techniques, but also to encourage us to question the underlying assumptions of these techniques and how we decide on facts ourselves.

The Cambridge University Press Technology-Enabled Learning Prize celebrates the development of new learning technologies and the innovative employment of existing technologies to improve students' learning outcomes. “We're delighted to have won the prize” Dr Ella McPherson says. “The students have done a tremendous amount of work and everything that the DVC has achieved is down to them. The aim is to use the reward of the prize to further the reach of the DVC, and to build a network of people working together with digital tools and data for more just world.”

About Amnesty DVC

Amnesty DVC includes teams of volunteers at universities across the world, including Berkeley, Cambridge, Iberoamericana (Mexico), Essex, Hong Kong, Pretoria and Toronto.

In 2019, the Amnesty DVC partnership was named International Collaboration of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards, specifically its work verifying claims that the US-led Coalition engaged in indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Ray Adams Row Farr and Dylan Rogers are the Student Leads for Cambridge's DVC in 2020-21, and Dr Ella McPherson is Faculty Lead. 

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