By Grant Tudor. This post originally appeared on Forbes.
Forty years ago, an oil company set up shop in the Amazon Basin. In the absence of government oversight, the company’s drilling released hydrocarbons and heavy metals into the area’s rivers—the hunting and fishing grounds for the region’s indigenous federations. For four decades, the Peruvian government spurned investigations into the hundreds of spills; contamination worsened with little meaningful recourse.
This spring, the government declared the area a state of environmental emergency. Responding to years of community monitoring and reporting, the government is enforcing laws that will hold the company accountable for cleaning up the contamination.
Using just a GPS device and a camera, the region’s indigenous groups used a simple monitoring system to send contamination data directly to the government. “That’s an example of where technology tools, effectively harnessed, can make an enormous difference,” explained Emily Jacobi, a 2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and founder of Digital Democracy, an organization working to defend human rights with needs-based technologies.
“Governments claim ignorance about what’s really happening,” Emily explained to me. So they helped to design the community-to-government feedback system that makes evidence—and marginalized voices—harder to ignore. Each village with which they work elects an environmental monitor; the monitor uses the GPS device and camera (see picture below) to document oil spills and contamination, and shares that information with the authorities.
That work is part of a new initiative of the organization called Remote Access, an effort to improve how remote populations gather, manage, and share information about environmental and human rights abuses. With partners on the ground, Digital Democracy is conceiving of and testing adaptable technologies, from monitors and maps to hacked computers and cameras. While the technologies may be bare bones, their impact is far-reaching. With cheap and easy-to-replace devices in hand, neglected groups are challenging the power dynamics of remote populations and governing institutions.
In Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan communities are integrating analog and digital maps to visualize land data. By reclaiming maps—a historically imperial tool wielded first by colonizers and later by the Mexican government—the communities are able to better defend their land rights in areas where official land tenure is ambiguous. In the Peruvian Amazon, the indigenous federations are developing a hacked version of Rasberry Pi (a $35 computer) to shrink the time it takes to provide the government with actionable information on the oil spills from months down to days—wielding pressure in real-time.
The initiative is helping to fix badly broken accountability loops between government and citizens in places far from watchful eyes. Yet the novelty of the solutions isn’t in the technologies themselves; there’s little breakthrough in a hacked computer. It’s in whose hands the technologies are placed, and for what purpose. The organization is focusing our attention on people and the most appropriate technologies to support them.
The hero of their story, then, is not the GPS monitor, but the community using it. It’s a philosophy that “has important human rights implications,” Emily said. “Too often in the tech-for-good space we see the challenge of people developing solutions in search of a problem. It should be the other way around.”