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Esra'a al Safei and the Wisdom of Crowds

You might say that Bahraini Esra'a al Safei was destined to be a catalyst for change.

The one and only image of Esra'a al Safei online.

The one and only image of Esra'a al Safei online.

Esra'a has gained fame through lecturing at TEDxAmsterdam and won The BOB’s prize (Best Online Blog) in 2012, yet you won't find a single picture of her on the internet. The Bahraini government's crack down on individual voices (let alone dissidents) who open new avenues for dialogue and knowledge exchange poses a risk too high for her to identify herself. But, growing up in this environment has inspired her to work for change.

CrowdVoiceMigrant Rights (for workers in the Middle East), Alliance for Kurdish RightsMideast Tunes (“Music for Social Change”), and AHWAA (for LGBTQ issues in the Middle East) are some of the web platforms she has been working on in recent years. This work is powered by the group Mideast Youth, the online home of these platforms (and more). They aim to:

…amplify diverse and progressive voices advocating for change throughout the Middle East and North Africa using digital media. We place a specific focus on access to information, free speech and minority rights… At their core, all of our diverse projects are about taking the powerful voice of an individual and connecting it to a network that ensures it is heard by the world. By focusing on creating tools and building communities, Mideast Youth contributes to a system of empowerment that can fight oppression no matter what form it takes.

Crowdvoice is a platform to give access to the complexity of stories behind events. It builds on the idea that the mainstream media can not give a complete picture of current events, and that this project can help get around simplified explanations. Recent events and protests in the MENA, including recently Egypt and Syria, were fully covered on the platform. They also post in-depth information from around the world, including the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Burma, protests in Sudan, and updates from Native American reservations.

The platform also allows users to curate their own pages with MyCrowdVoice, an installable extension.

Some of the projects on mideastyouth.com (screenshot published with permission from mideastyouth)

Some of the projects on mideastyouth.com (screenshot published with permission from mideastyouth)

Rising Voices had the opportunity to ask Esra'a some questions:

Your work is often seen as controversial as you work with religious and ethnic minorities. What inspired you to begin this activism work?

Being in Bahrain, I have always witnessed migrant rights violations. There wasn't a single incident that compelled me to take immediate action, but more of a series of observations which over time, can be quite traumatizing if you're unable to do anything to address and improve the situation. I have also always been interested in ethnic and religious rights because I'm a strong believer in the link between diversity and progress within our societies.

Esra'a, what’s the level of use of the internet in Bahrain? Is it difficult for people to get connected?

Some reports claim that over 77% of the national population have access to the internet in Bahrain. Year over year the internet is becoming increasingly accessible, especially with the growth of smartphone usage. And young people are getting more access in schools.

Your platform Mideast Youth hosts many projects – are these censored in Bahrain?
CrowdVoice has been censored since 2011, but it's actually accessible via HTTPS – either way we encourage people to visit it using tools like Tor or VPNs.
How did the 2011 protests affect Mideast Youth?
We were temporarily censored in several countries, Yemen being the first one to block access to CrowdVoice in particular. Since CrowdVoice was launched in 2010, it had already been present before the 2011 protests, so we found an influx of people using it to organize and distribute a wide range of videos and information regarding these movements.

With Crowdvoice, users can track protests by crowdsourcing information. What did you want to achieve with this platform? How does the flow of information build?

CrowdVoice.org is an open source platform which tracks voices of protest by curating and contextualizing valuable data, such as eyewitness videos, photos, and reports as a means to facilitate awareness regarding current social justice movements worldwide.

Despite what is happening today around the world, little hard research exists for journalists and academics in terms of archives of first-hand reports. CrowdVoice addresses this by curating various content pulled from across the web on a dedicated page. Content is initially housed in a moderation queue, where it awaits crowdsourced verification.

As a second step, the platform visually communicates social and political issues through hard facts, statistics, interactive infographics, and timelines, which are organized by tags, specific topics, and relevant citations…

[This] directs users to an archive of relevant footage and reports. Infographics and interactive timelines are an imperative step in providing a frame of reference to the hundreds of under-reported stories pouring in from across the world, and are crucial to putting together nuanced, comprehensive reports reflecting both hard facts and the human face of the issues.

A video on how CrowdVoice works:

One of your latest projects is Mideast Tunes. Do you really think music can be a way forward for change?

Absolutely.

Is it a ‘normal’ music public library?

No, as we focus on alternative and independent musicians from the Middle East and North Africa. We also put an emphasis on bands who use music to promote social justice. There are a lot of bands within the site who have had to escape their countries of origin purely because of their music. It's a very powerful form of advocacy which is often overlooked.

There's an amazing underground and independent music scene that is growing in the region. A lot of the content is extremely thought-provoking. It's important for people to listen to these songs, but it's even more important for people to be able to easily find them.

That's why we wanted to build this go-to resource for independent artists and musician activists in the region, so we can promote this showcase for others to easily sift through and be influenced by their artistic and social innovation.

Which is the agreement between the platform and musicians?

Mideast Tunes to date is completely free, so if the bands sign up, the only agreement is permission for us to be able to offer these tracks on our web and mobile apps. Users can't download, but there are links for some of these artists’ tracks on iTunes or CDBaby and other services.

We always encourage our users to support the bands of their choice as a token of appreciation to what they do. The site really helps the artists in terms of promotions. We also have partnerships with services like Shazam which allows these artists to be discoverable…

What are the next steps for you and your team?

We just want to stay focused and keep building. Lack of sufficient funding makes this hard, but we have [created] some really solid products and believe that in the future we will be able to monetize some of them by customizing these tools for other companies, for example.

It's important for us to be financially sustainable, but it's also incredibly hard, so we are learning as we move forward. We're not letting this obstacle stop us from continuing to create tools that we think we and others need. We also have big plans for all our projects and apps – we are rolling out updates and new features on a monthly basis.

You can follow Esra'a's work on Twitter @mideastyouth, and the various projects at @crowdvoice, @mideastunes, @migrantrights, and @kurdishrights.

1 comment

  • […] Esra'a al Safei and the Wisdom of Crowds – Crowdvoice, a user-powered platform tracking voices of protest around the world, works to diversify our understanding of complex events. Rising Voices interviews it's visionary founder about working digitally in Bahrain and her new platform to promote local musicians. […]

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