08/02/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

People's Intelligence: Networked Reporting and Verification by the People

As an analyst at the International Criminal Court, I have seen first hand how difficult it can be for victims to document and verify atrocities like genocide, war crimes and other human rights violations. I've always thought, if only we had more resources, or the victims knew how to report crime consistently, or how to answer the basic questions about incidents more systematically: when and where did an incident happen, who did what, why and how? What if we could interact with a network of people and organizations in the countries we monitored to try verifying some of the information independently? The reality could not be more different.

Π (or People's Intelligence) will make use of SMS or Speak to Tweet technologies to establish a conversation with victims and witnesses of mass atrocities, providing them with guidance and actionable information that will facilitate early warnings and targeted assistance. It supports analysis and allows networking between affected communities, relevant organizations and experts through the use of ubiquitous technologies. The idea has been brewing for a long time, and the recent Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention by Humanity United and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided the opportunity to test the concept.

Instead of trying to make sense of the people's information without their assistance, we should establish conversations and rely on their knowledge. They are the real experts, after all. Hence, the solution I envisioned was to converse with them by asking them to send more relevant information and reply to them with actionable information, such as where to get help or relief. Current technologies make this possible.

Problems of the most horrific magnitude could be resolved if we could directly engage with those who are afflicted. People have repeatedly demonstrated an interest in documenting their predicaments using all available communication channels - like during the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, or more recently during the Arab spring.

The first part of the idea, which answered one of the challenge's questions, sounds simple enough. When a person sends information about an incident, and a computer making use of syntactic and semantic analysis techniques cannot answer the 5W1H questions with some degree of accuracy, the computer asks the person to provide additional information following a predetermined format. For example, if a person texts "I witnessed a massacre" without additional details, the computer will text back:

In order to help you, reply to this message and document #Where followed by location #When followed by date #What followed by a description of the incident, #Victim followed by the number of victims #How followed by the implement(s) used #Who followed by a description of the perpetrator(s), #Witness followed by a description of the immediacy to the fact(s).

Example of SMS:

#Where Victoria embankment London UK #When 21-05-2012 #What a man stabbed a woman #Victim 1 woman #How a knife #Who the man was young and dark haired #Witness I have seen it

When the victim replies, the computer can determine which are the nearest relevant relief or emergency providers that could be of assistance to the sender and respond with their contact details. Simultaneously, the computer also informs these organizations of the occurrence of an incident in their area of operations.

Those without SMS capabilities can use the Speak to Tweet technology: they will simply call a free-toll number and be guided through the 5W1H questions, and their answers will automatically be rendered into text.

The second part of the idea was to verify and corroborate the information with records of other incidents from independent sources. If that attempt doesn't yield results, the computer sends a SMS to trusted people and organizations in the vicinity of the incident, making use of geofencing technologies. For example:

A non-verified incident occurred. Attempt to verify and provide missing information. #Where Victoria embankment London UK #When 21-05-2012 #What followed by a description of the incident #Victim followed by the number of victims #How followed by the implement(s) used #Who followed by a description of the perpetrator(s) #Witness followed by a description of the immediacy to the fact(s)

People's Intelligence has potential applications beyond human rights violations - it could be used during humanitarian and environmental crises, elections or conflict monitoring.

The people's safety should be at the forefront of our preoccupations. I hope that existing organizations embrace it responsibly with the people they serve. As for the people, this idea is yours.

This challenge was run on the collaborative platform OpenIDEO. You can read the full concept note on their website.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Humanity United and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in recognition of the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, click here