It’s fair to say that I never expected to be writing a blogpost like this! Just over a week ago I learned that NearForm had been invited by IBM to take part in the Call for Code Geneva hosted by the United Nations Human Rights Office. Before anyone else had a chance, I excitedly offered to represent the company and I am so glad that I did.
The 2-day event brought together four teams working on four separate challenges. Unlike a standard hackathon, the teams were not in competition with each other; and instead of writing code, the focus was on building out the concepts and high-level architectures.
I was on Team 4 with three brilliant people including IBM Fellow Chris Ferris. We all clicked immediately and had very complementary skills and backgrounds. Our team’s top-level challenge was around Accountability and Centrality of Protection for Affected Populations. We decided to focus on providing feedback mechanisms for people affected by humanitarian crises.
The most critical aspect of the entire exercise was the involvement of UN subject matter experts Elsa Le Pennec, Patrick Rooney and Adam Fysh, all of whom were incredibly gracious with their time and guidance. There is always the danger of full-on Dunning–Kruger when a group of technology people get together to work on something completely outside of their domain. Having the UN experts explain what they did, why they did it, what they didn’t need and what they did need, ensured we didn’t go off on wild goose chases creating whiz-bang technical solutions to the wrong problems, that would never be used in the real world by the UN.
We were extremely cognizant of the potential for people to put themselves in danger by reporting abuse in a way that could be traced back to them by the wrong people. Our breakthrough came when we took a step back and we came up with the idea of “stories”. Rather than focusing directly on human rights abuse, what if instead, we enabled people to tell their stories? People, like the Rohingya, who may never have had their stories heard by a wide audience. People who may not have a high degree of literacy. People who have been disenfranchised or displaced and don’t have a voice. People in countries where the UN isn't even allowed to operate.
Eventually, our high-level spec became:
The devil, of course, is in the detail and we are very aware that aspects of this like “how can I trust that the man is not listening and can’t track me down?” and “what could bad actors do here?” need to be carefully considered.
We hope we have created a concept that will be of value both to people affected by humanitarian crises and to the UN Human Rights Office. I found myself deeply affected by the entire experience and I must congratulate Call for Code creator David Clark, IBM, the UNHCR, and all the other organisations for coming together in such a powerful and transformative way. I hope that I and NearForm can contribute even more in the future.
Conor O’Neill is Head of Product in NearForm. He is responsible for all productization activities and works closely with NearForm’s Open Source and R&D teams to evolve the web platform.