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Influx interview-gillian caldwell-witness

January 26, 2006

In 1992, Peter Gabriel founded WITNESS, with the purpose of empowering people with technology to record human rights abuses. Fourteen years later, there’s been a rapid advance in the affordability and accessibility of technology. Influx caught up with Gillian Caldwell executive director of WITNESS, while she was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to ask her about the changing role and challenges of technology and the mission of WITNESS.

1. How is changing technology making a difference to WITNESS?

Recent advances and technology are bringing us ever closer to Peter Gabriel’s original founding vision at WITNESS to give cameras to the world so that anyone who had suffered human rights abuse could have their story heard. Today’s handheld devices are one-stop shop, enabling users to shoot photographs, video, access the web, make phone calls, and send emails. We are currently in the planning stages of developing a web based portal to which anyone around the world can upload video of human rights abuse, and couple that imagery with ideas as to how to use it to create change and a community of people who want to get engaged.

2. What is the biggest challenge that you face with technology?

There are a couple of key challenges. One is that the digital divide that our human rights partners around the world face is not going away; many still face limited internet connectivity, poor hardware, and high costs for internet use. Another is that technology innovations are moving forward rapidly, constantly challenging us to adapt to make better use of what is available.

3. How do you get your message and the message of your filmmakers out to a broader audience- what tools do you use?

Our videos are intended to educate and activate our audiences. In most cases, creating change is more effectively accomplished by getting our short videos before the right eyes rather than focusing on broad based-distribution in advocacy. Each outreach campaign is customized according to the goals of the campaign, and we distribute video as evidence in courts, for screenings before key decision-makers, for education and mobilization at a local level, in the media, and on the internet.

4. What do you feel about the recent efforts to use the fictional narrative of movies to bring attention to critical global issues- Syriana and Lord of War as examples?

I think socially relevant feature films are an extremely important vehicle for expanding awareness and engagement in the issues. Jeff Skoll, co-founder of Ebay, has launched an interesting company to produce and help distribute socially relevant and commercially viable media. Syriana was one of his first investments.

Gillian’s blog about her experiences at Davos can be found here.

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