Multimedia Monitoring: interactive evidence in the Niger Delta

This summer, the Transparency Policy Project has been working with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative and Revenue Watch Institute to map out how NGOs in the extractives and natural resource governance fields employ technology as part of their transparency strategies. Findings from this effort identified some 60 groups worldwide who are active in holding governments and corporations accountable for their actions in the agriculture, fisheries, forestry, mining, oil & gas, and water sectors and nearly 40 more technology-oriented organizations whose work complements these transparency strategies. The primary finding from our survey is that these organizations focus their transparency efforts and technological tools to achieve one of two aims: 1) disclose and improve the governance of these resources and 2) track and illuminate the impacts on people and land of the extractives and NRG industries.

An ambitious example of the second strategy, which we are calling “Impact Transparency,” is Amnesty International’s (AI) Eyes on Nigeria, which invites visitors to “see with your own eyes what is happening in Nigeria.” It employs interactive evidence to mobilize advocates on behalf of the people in the Niger Delta whose quality of life suffers from extreme conflicts including forced evictions, police brutality and environmental damage from the petroleum industry. But what exactly is interactive evidence and how does it motivate the public to act?

Eyes on NigeriaThe interactive evidence presented by AI comes in the form of medium and high-resolution satellite imagery, geolocated field photographs, personal testimony from those affected by these community conflicts, videos, and accounts of human rights violations, all accessed via an interactive mapping interface. The site’s investigation into the environmental and human rights impacts of the extractives industry focuses on gas flares – a byproduct of the petroleum industry produced when oil is pumped out of the ground and the excess gas is burned as waste. Often these large towers of fire burn for years and are located near villages, exposing residents to continuous light, heat, fumes and noise from the flares. Eyes on Nigeria identified 75 continuous gas flares in the Niger Delta through a longitudinal analysis of satellite imagery carried out by AAAS. Sensors on NASA satellites also allowed AAAS to measure the presence and temperatures of the fires, determining that areas within a 1km radius of a flare experience higher ambient temperatures, on average, by an extra 9.2˚C/16.6˚F in an already tropical climate. What is notable about the geospatial analysis presented through Eyes on Nigeria is that the impact of the petroleum industry on land and air is linked directly to its detrimental outcomes on quality of life for residents of the Niger Delta. Icons for the flares appear on a map, and these are joined by photographs and ground reports from those approximate locations depicting children playing near oil spills, flares illuminating villages at night, and pipelines crisscrossing agricultural fields.

Eyes on Nigeria is ultimately a call to action and once visitors to the site have explored the evidence, they are urged to join AI’s Demand Dignity Campaign, which pressures multinational oil corporations and the government of Nigeria to be accountable for the environmental damage and risks to human health caused by the petroleum industry. Amnesty provides users a simple interface to join their name to a petition that AI will deliver to oil companies and Nigerian government officials. This approach to Impact Transparency illuminates a clear theory of change: i) present multiple pieces of evidence that track and monitor impacts, ii) invite users to explore this evidence according to their motivations and concerns, iii) contextualize the situation in space and time, and iv) mobilize those users to “add their voice” to an existing campaign.

To fully capture the scope of this effort,  we need to test and evaluate the above theory of change for impact by assessing, for example, the number of people mobilized through this tool and the response by multinational oil companies and  government officials to the evidence gathered. But what if AI does not reach its goal of mobilizing 3 million activists worldwide and the targeted institutions are reluctant to acknowledge their impact on human rights and reform their practices? Amnesty’s investment in rigorous data collection may pay off dividends further down the line as the scientific data and personal testimonies can be archived and re-purposed for other, future evidence-based projects. After all, AI is known for its tenacity and longevity. It will be worth keeping an eye on how the organization’s Science for Human Rights program evolves as it deploys new monitoring tools and technologies to expose and visualize the enormous risks posed by the extractives industry to human rights, such as what we currently see in the Niger Delta.

Francisca Rojas, Postdoctoral Fellow — Transparency Policy Project

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