Open-source Web sites allowed witnesses to chronicle political violence in Kenya, earthquake devastation in Haiti, and election problems in India.
Now a local company, NiJel, hopes to use the same techniques to record, and map, fallout from Arizona's controversial new immigration policy, Senate Bill 1070. The company's newly created Web site, www.immigrantharassment.com, hopes to record everything from hate group activity targeting immigrants to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's raids -- using crowdsourced reports compiled through text message, e-mail, phone, and even Twitter.
JD Godchaux, NiJel's cofounder and executive director, said the site is now operational and that his company hopes to launch a publicity drive to get the word out.
"We really don't know whether the reports will come in a flood or a trickle," he told New Times. "Obviously, I'm hoping it will be a trickle, because that would mean we're not seeing as much harassment we think."
Witnesses are urged to text information to 602-824-8255 (TALK) or tweet using the hashtag #MHRSAZ. They can also log into the Web site and fill out a report there -- or upload video or photographs.
NiJel's co-founders and chief technology officer met while studying as graduate students at ASU. (Godchaux has a master's in public administration; his co-founder, Nancy Jones, has a master's in urban and environmental planning and currently lives in Baltimore.)
Godchaux says he was interested in using mapping on issues of social justice, partly inspired by the Ushahidi program, which was used to great effect in Kenya following the election-related violence there in 2008. But it took an intern, Layal Rabat, to suggest the company might put the system to use on Sheriff Joe Arpaio's "crime sweeps."
That mandate quickly expanded.
"During the run-up to the signing of SB 1070, we thought, 'We could do much more than just sweeps.' We saw hate group activity, intimidation, harassment -- all those things included in the system along with raids and sweeps," Godchaux explains.
The purpose of the site is threefold, he says.
"I want to show the rest of the country that a lot of people in Arizona care, and care enough to develop something like this," he says. "Two, I want to give people subjected to this an outlet -- a way to report what's happening to them."
Finally, he says, "I do want to show people in the state how big a problem this is -- and I want to know how big a problem this is. If we can capture the sheer volume of things happening to people, it's a way to show people across the world what people are being subjected to in Arizona."
All reports and comments will be screened by staff and/or volunteers, although Godchaux notes that the idea is to assess each report's credibility rather than outright censor unconfirmed reports.
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They're ready for potential hijinks, he said, but not too worried about them.
"This system has been deployed over two hundred times in situations that are -- if not equally contentious -- more contentious than this one," he says.
More contentious than the immigration debate in Arizona? Only time will tell on that one. Sadly, we may be able to give these locations a run for their money ...