ADRD at IFF: Learning Who Will Use the Datasets, and How

A persona created to represent a user of the Arab Digital Rights Datasets at IFF in March, 2017.
A persona created to represent a user of the Arab Digital Rights Datasets at IFF in March, 2017.

In early March, I and the Datasets’ legal adviser, Nani Jansen, led a session on the datasets at the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF), a weeklong gathering in Valencia, Spain, of digital rights advocates from all over the world. We used the session — Data Exploration Hackathon: Visualizing the Relationship between Rule of Law and Digital Rights in MENA and Beyond — to introduce phase 3 of the project and explore who might use this data and exactly how.

Among the very dedicated attendees of the session—who spent three hours with us in Taller 6, the smallest, stuffiest room at the otherwise muy cómodo Las Naves—were lawyers, journalists, advocacy directors and activists, human rights researchers and academics, as well as program officers from international agencies and donors.

This was the first public presentation of the Datasets since the previous year at IFF. We began by introducing the history of the project and how the methodology and categorization of laws has developed over the past several months, leading up to the current data collection phase, during which 13 legal and human rights researchers are identifying laws, regulations, draft laws, caselaw, and specific articles of interest related to digital rights in the legal frameworks of the 22 countries of the Arab League. We’ll be posting more about these processes here soon.

We spent the rest of the session in breakout groups gathering input on who our stakeholders are and what they want from such a dataset, by developing user personas and user stories. These outputs, commonly used by software and website developers to get a sense of who their users are, will ultimately help us develop the technical specifications for the technological interpretation of the dataset, which we expect to include both a simple website where users can conduct simple queries and perhaps a plan for an API.

For instance, one user persona/story went like this:

Basma, an independent activist, blogger is in her late twenties. Her first experiences in activism started in college. Basma writes about social and political issues on her blog and she has a dedicated following. She changes jobs frequently and has a small income from ads on her blog. Her political activities are a financial burden for he and she cannot afford unexpected expenses, such as fines or legal costs. Basma visits the Datasets frequently so she can stay up to date on laws that apply to her blog. She also finds data that she can use in her blogposts.

Another imagined Samya:

A freelance outreach coordinator on Internet freedom issues for international audience. She lives in France and once, when trying to communicate with her parents in Morocco, she realized that she couldn’t speak to them over VOIP. This promoted her to do background research on the issue, which she also does for outreach initiatives and campaigns she advises. She also needs to assess legal threats posed by her work and to her clients and their partners. She often needs to write situation assessments and other reports quickly, but must be sure that the information she’s citing is accurate, so as not to compromise her credibility or that of her clients. Also, if she can’t find the laws she needs, she must be able to explain why–so it’s crucial that she be able to assess how complete the Datasets are and how frequently they are updated.

Several journalist personas were also created, as follows:

I’m a professional, female, Arabic journalist working int he region and am a member of my national journalists’ syndicate. I need to know what are the current provisions of the laws so I can provide expert input into a government consultation/public hearing.

I’m a foreign freelance journalist (female, mid-20s) on a tight budget. I’m covering a story in Tunisia and I need to know the laws on defamation, freedom of expression, social media, etc., so that I can keep myself and my fixer safe.

I’m an experienced English-speaking journalist based in New York. I need to know which countries criminalize posting “false news” online, so that I can write an article about the dangers. If I can’t verify my information beyond a shadow of a doubt, my editor won’t run the story. Plus, I need examples of individuals who have been prosecuted under these laws. Oh, and I’m on a very tight deadline.

Another group developed a persona for a researcher, approaching the Datasets from an academic’s perspective:

Leila, a researcher investigating the state of digital rights across the MENA region, wants to conduct comparative research and longitudinal research, and to be able to correlate her findings with external themes. Specifically, she wants to know how the political changes of 2011 changed government attitudes towards the right to privacy in MENA countries, looking at the period from 2006 to 2016.

Finally, the last group imagined a policy analyst at a foreign ministry, an advocate/funder at an international media development organization, and a technologist/digital security expert. Here are there stories:

James, a technologist/digital security trainer needs an up-to-date reference source of locally verified information to pass on to his co-trainers in the field, so that they can do a pre-training assessment of the legality/risks/usefulness of various tools and practices, which will help them prioritize which topics to cover in the limited time they have.

Hannan, who develops partnerships with local organizations, wants an interactive, customizable index or map or database that will help her detect trends and even upload locally collected data to model/manipulate programmatic interventions. The data should be splice-able at national, regional, and global levels.

Giselle is a policy analyst at a foreign ministry that invests millions of dollars each year into internet freedom initiatives. She needs a queryable database of cyber-related laws so that she can look at trends and comparative data that can inform her critiques of flawed legislation and draft model language.

Many of these personas actually represented many of the people in the room. While this deviated somewhat from the typical aim of the user persona and user stories exercise, which is meant to get entrepreneurs, developers and technologists, away from building for what they think people need. But it’s hard to argue that these ideas don’t reflect the spectrum of needs we’re hoping that the Datasets serve.

At the same time, there are some perspectives that weren’t represented, such as that of lawyers—particularly human rights defenders—and activists, who we also think might find the Datasets useful for developing arguments in court or identifying problem areas for targeted policy reform. It was also suggested that we host a similar workshop (or series) back in Lebanon with only participants from the region, or only one kind of stakeholder, researchers, for example. This, it was suggested, would help us drill down even more into how this data can better benefit the primary communities it’s meant to serve.

Another hack that was suggested was to develop personas not as a subset of the stakeholder groups (journalists, activists, lawyers, etc.) but according to how they would use the data and/or their specific decision-making processes and workflows.

We’re planning to do that. But first, we’ll run a similar exercise at RightsCon next week, on Friday at noon, in the Demo Room. If you’re in Brussels, we’d love to see you there.



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