Last week saw the winners announced in Prague for a “New Media for Social Change Program”, introduced this year into the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. As you might know, the festival, now in its 13th year, has become the largest human rights film festival in Europe, and its organizer, People in Need, a Czech non-profit, non-governmental organization, has done an amazing job in expanding the program to include discussions, photo exhibitions, a human rights award, concerts, and now this new media competition.

As the organizers explain,

With this new competitive category, New Media for Social Change, One World is presenting projects whose innovative use of modern communication technologies enables important information to be shared and facilitates active public involvement in societal events. Our goal is to draw attention to the significance of the new media, which has fundamentally changed the way in which people obtain, share and use information. Today, access to technology opens the way for more effective reporting of human rights breaches and is, for example, playing an ever greater role in checking up on national and local politicians or improving awareness of socially excluded groups.

I was a member of the jury taxed with picking the winners from a short-listed group, and it wasn’t easy. In the end, we chose the Help Map – Russian Fires Project, which used the Ushahidi mapping platform to create a map of the fires that broke out across parts of Russia last year and helped coordinate assistance efforts. I asked around, and it seems the project—coupled with an active LiveJournal community rallying for the same purpose—really had an impact.

As Alexej Sidorenko said after accepting the award along with Glafira Parinos, various bloggers sprung into action after seeing that the Russian government couldn’t cope with the catastrophe. They had a platform set up after just a few days and then sent out a call for help, immediately receiving offers from over 100 people to assist in collecting and organizing all the incoming data on the fires. But some in the group thought that wasn’t enough and set up an “off-line” coordination center that, for two weeks, offered direct help to those in need. (This was the first “deployment” of Ushahidi in Russia, but more have since sprung up, i.e. to map cases of police brutality and illegal casinos.)

Alexei’s final comment to the audience was: “What digital technologies give us is that even if we aren’t in one place, we can still help.”

However, as I’ve written on the blog for the competition, it was a bit disappointing that they weren’t more shining examples from Central and Eastern Europe, especially since
everyone knows how many talented programmers and developers there are across this region, as well as creative people in general:

However, given our experience in organizing a Social Innovation Camp a few years ago–the first one in Central and Eastern Europe–it’s tough to find many “digital activists” or whatever you want to call them. I mean people that may or may not be affiliated with traditional NGOs, but have just decided on their own to launch Internet projects that address some social need–without necessarily having grant money to get them started.

My feeling (and I might be wrong) is that in many places–even recently in the Middle East–individuals or groups of individuals have been the driving force behind various advocacy or social change-related projects, but that here, in Central and Eastern Europe, it’s more organization-driven. Maybe the online innovators are working more in the for-profit business and don’t want to spend their free time on social projects.

Anyone have any thoughts on that?

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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