Issues in Mapping Sexual Violence and Hate Crimes


Last year, I published an article discussing the challenges to Documenting Rape in Africa which continue to hamper effective prevention efforts across the continent and internationally. In this general review, informed heavily by Caroline Muthoni Muriithi the Sexual Violence and Trafficking program officer at Equality Now in Nairobi, constraints on effective programming such as lack of reliable data on actual occurrences due to a complexity of social factors that inhibit reporting  were identified. This discussion is not new, what is however are the many innovative and dynamic applications to track sexual violence and hate-motivated crimes through social media and collaborative mapping such as the Women Under Siege project, HarassMap, and Bachao. These and other efforts have increasingly been utilized by advocates seeking to strengthen the base of evidence available to practitioners. Which can be particularly useful in countries or regions where weak or ineffective public institutions lack quality assurance in data informatics. However, recent discussion on this site and iRevolution on the public availability and ownership of such data particularly in situations of limited statehood raise important questions for ongoing efforts to document these abuses.

As an example, the Being LGBT in Asia project is a crowdsourced instance that seeks to map the ‘Successes and Barriers to LGBT Rights in Asia’. This Ushahidi-based map tracks a wide diversity of social trends and population indicators across regional outlets, intended to provide an understanding of the challenges faced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people in Asia. This joint analysis is being undertaken by grassroots LGBT organizations and community leaders in the region, together with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), utilizing a participatory approach to the documentation of legal, social and environmental challenges faced by LGBT persons across civil society institutions.  In the context of such a project, who can be said to “own” this data and what potential conflicts of interest could arise between the international organizations providing technical assistance for the project and agents on the ground mired in the daily battles of this work?

Another map called the Geography of Hate, developed by Dr. Monica Stephens at Humboldt State University, drew data on 150,000 tweets sourced by the DOLLY project out of the University of Kentucky. Heat maps of hate speech were generated after researchers hand-filtered tweets categorizing them as positive, neutral or negative based on a pre-defined rubric. Negative messages were mapped to the county level to protect privacy and actual tweet locations, which highlights an interesting gray area of security concern. By blinding this data, one has effectively “protected” perpetrators of these crimes, an issue also identified in the proposal found here on Praxis’s Mapping Sexual Assault proposal site. This is an area of legal and policy research that is currently being prioritized across gender, public health, judicial and development fields.

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) has produced a comparative mapping on the status of sexual and gender minority rights globally. The map covers a range of social, legal and institutional indicators and its dataset provides researchers and advocates with a critical resource while also linking out to timely analysis of current trends across sectors. Such information can be one tool for lobbyist and development workers advocating for change, but organizations and digital activists also need to be careful when publicizing socially mined data that has the potential to be utilized by repressive governments to further human rights violations.

More notable examples of this happening can be found from lessons learned in the Arab Spring also touched upon by Brendan in his post on issues around the use and publication of Crisis Data in the context of South Sudan .  Privacy concerns, which is an echo of security risk concerns faced by Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs) operating in disaster settings more generally.  A post last November on Anahi Ayala Iaccuci’s Diary of  a Crisis Mapper blog covers this issue drawing on lessons learned in the context of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in the Philippines.

These experiences raise important issues on the implications on activists working to document sensitive human rights abuses that are sexual in nature or motivated by hate. Who defines a particular form of speech as hateful and what standards are used to support this valuation? Further, what can be done to ensure that data is not captured and then withheld from agents operating on behalf of survivors? As covered by Lillian Pierson in her upcoming post on Monitoring & Evaluation for Digital Humanitarian Response – a Novel Approach, there must be explicit efforts to address the unintended consequences in humanitarian crisis mapping and response to complex human rights and security issues.

In the interest of furthering informed critical dialogue and open debate on mapping sexual violence and hate crimes: interested readers and practitioners are encouraged to submit for the recent LGBTI in Africa: Call for Articles issued by the Pan-African social justice press, Pambazuka News, due February, 21st 2014.