How cooperation between scientists, IT specialists and human rights defenders\lawyers can create new evidences for the protection of the victims?
In the era of social media and the ubiquity of smart phones with high quality cameras in most urban areas around the world, video filmed by eyewitnesses to war crimes and human rights abuse is widely available online. Faced with a proliferation of such content, especially when combined with video from other sources like CCTV, practitioners are increasingly finding themselves overwhelmed by the quantity of visual evidence available to them. While this evidence can provide a great deal of information about potential human rights abuses, the fact that it is generally unstructured and from a diversity of sources makes it hard to work with. There are numerous technical challenges associated with this evidence, ranging from the need to geolocate and synchronize it when technical metadata is unavailable to how to present it to fact-finders in a comprehensible way. Lawyers and human rights advocates don’t always have the tools and skill sets necessary to make sense of these complex data sets. There is a small cohort of computer scientists, architects, and data visualization experts who have been working on these challenges for the past few years. By joining forces, however, these two communities can analyze large visual datasets. By geolocating and synchronizing them, it is possible to find multiple perspectives on an event over time and space. These videos can then be, verified by human analysis and used to reconstruct an event and to better understand what happened before and after the event in question, so that it can be placed in a broader context. Without these tools and methods, human right advocates must manually search through hundreds or even thousands of hours of video to find what they are looking for, and may miss connections that come from the difficulty of manually geolocating and synchronizing videos filmed at the same time and place. This severely limits their effectiveness.
Please describe your cooperation with the Ukrainian lawyers and its outcomes.
The lawyers asked us to address a very specific problem-set focused on the deaths of three protesters. We focused our analysis on the evidence (video, audio, spatial, medical) related to these three cases. The intent of the work was to assess whether we could establish the area from which the lethal rounds were fired and based on the evidence available to us we have been able to identify these areas. The size of the area we have identified is what could be established from the available data. While it was not possible to determine the exact location or identity of the individual shooter, we can say with a high degree of certainty that the lethal rounds were fired from within the identified areas.
We also worked closely with the attorneys to understand the precise legal question that needed to be examined - specifically, our work sought to address a terrorism charge and not a murder charge. Thus, while evidence available to us was not sufficient to pinpoint a single shooter it was still useful to the attorneys to establish an area in space that can be evaluated in relation to video footage that captures a group of individuals firing upon protesters.
How research and analysis of big amount of video records can help to investigate grave human rights violation and bring perpetrators to justice?
Because the video available a case like the Maidan killings is multi-perspectival, it can be used to tell the story of an event from multiple points of view rather than a single authoritative one. In this way, investigators can develop an understand of a situation from many different points of view. This enables them to evaluate the credibility and veracity of particular accounts of what happened and can in some cases lead to entirely new ways of understanding an event. Perhaps the most important outcome of the analysis of large volumes of video is that it makes possible both a spatial (3D) and temporal (4D) reconstruction of an event.
As we note in our Journal of Human Rights Practice article, in the Maidan case, “we are able to reconstruct interactions between protesters and police officers, determining relationships among various groups over time and space, as well as the most likely places from which fatal shots were fired. When combined with other available information, eyewitness accounts, and expert testimony, these reconstructions can provide evidence that attorneys and fact-finders can use to determine where lethal shots were fired from and whether or not particular killings were legally justified. Video reconstructions can also help corroborate or refute other evidence or be used to provide context that might help in the sentencing phase of a trial (for example, whether perpetrators had faced threats before killing protesters, or whether perpetrators had sought to intimidate other protesters in the period leading up to the killings).”
Can you describe the most challenging aspect during your research?
Working between Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and Kiev was challenging at times. We worked closely with the Ukrainian legal team to access all data used in the case as well as to verify site conditions and measurements. It is important to note that while we produced this work in Brooklyn, New York and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we were only able to do so through close coordination with our local partners so that conditions on the ground in Kiev could be verified. It is also important to note, that we did not collect any of the evidence ourselves - all evidence was vetted and provided by the attorneys.
Another challenge of the project was the computational power required to deal with the massive 3-dimensional dimensional data set. Because we were working with very high resolution data, we needed to overcome technical challenges that allowed us to work at this level of spatial precision.
One of the similar platforms that you’ve created was used by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to provide visual evidence to judges. How powerful the new technologies can be in the national and international systems of justice?
In this case, these tools were used to synthesize disparate data sets into a singular and coherent analysis and visualization. The sheer complexity of conflict events and the data produced to document them (whether video, audio, social media or otherwise) can be overwhelming and one of the primary contributions of new technologies is the ability to efficiently organize and present this information into clear reports. In this case, the ability to mobilize multiple types of data into a single analysis to understand a set of specific events was critical. As a general matter, the analysis that can be done is only as good as the information and data available. In this case, the events of February 20th 2014, there was a large and diverse amount of data available to analyse.
It is also important to point out that while the events analyzed were certainly complex, the specific questions being addressed in our report are very specific and finite.
Did you have any previous experience of work with Ukraine? Do you see how your approach can be used to investigate other human rights abuses and war crimes in Ukraine?
No, none of us had worked on Ukraine in the past. We see ourselves as methodologists, not experts in the affairs of any specific country or region. We develop new tools and approaches to help make use of complex unstructured data sets in human rights case work. We hope that our tools and methods can be used anywhere in the world where there is a lot of video that depicts human rights violations or war crimes, especially in the context of right to life, freedom of assembly, and police brutality cases.