Apps to Assist Activists - App Week


By Molly Freeman

A march against GMOs in Vancouver. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, activists made headlines when they rallied in hundreds of cities around the world to participate in ‘March Against Monsanto’ demonstrations. These protests are a reaction to the worldwide debate about genetically modified organisms and GMO labeling of food.

Even though the Senate voted down an amendment to a new farm bill that would require labeling foods containing GMOs, states such as Vermont and Connecticut already have such laws on the books. But for consumers who don’t reside in those states, Buycott is a smartphone app that can tell users whether their groceries contain GMOs.

According to the website, “Buycott is a tool that lets you organize your consumer spending to help causes that you care for, and to oppose those that you don’t.” The app allows users to join campaigns to either support or protest certain companies. Some of the campaigns include Say No to Monsanto, Environmental Toxins to Avoid, and Support the Cooperative Economy.

However, Buycott isn’t the first smartphone app available to aid activists. In 2011, Sam Carlisle and Sam Gaus were participating in the student protests against higher tuition prices in the UK when they created Sukey.

“The student movement was getting quite a lot of aggression from the police in terms of tactics,” Carlisle tells BTR. “So a group of us who were a student occupation decided that we would come up with a technical means of basically preventing police from carrying out enforced containment.”

Carlisle explains that the app aims to help activists avoid police kettling, or the enforced containment of protesters, by talking to other demonstrators, receiving text messages, and combing social media to establish a map of areas where kettling could occur.

Last year, Carlisle visited New York City and worked with the organizers of Occupy Wall Street to deploy a version of Sukey for protests in the city.

“It transitioned throughout the day as to what kind of information was available in terms of a map view,” Carlisle explains. Some of the information relayed through Sukey included the location of pickets, what events were happening, news updates, and police movements.

In the new version of the app, Carlisle says they want to do a better job in fostering a collaborative effort between demonstrators and supporters all around the world by interfacing through Sukey.

“So what we’re inviting people to do is join an online tactical support team who’d be responsible for verifying, digesting, and structuring the information that was being submitted by people that were on the ground,” Carlisle explains. The information will then be fed back to the protesters through tweets and maps in order to show road closures and alternative routes to help them avoid unnecessary detention or injury.

Another application that helps activists deal with authority figures is OpenWatch, which allows users to create video and audio recordings that are uploaded to the company’s servers. OpenWatch aims to hold authority figures such as police, TSA agents, and security guards accountable for their actions.

Rich Jones, CEO of OpenWatch, tells BTR he is a firm believer in Julian Assange’s concept of scientific journalism, which in practice uses primary sources and data as a part of every journalistic story.

“In this digital age all of the ingredients for a story and an investigation should be available along with the primary analysis so that readers can fact check everything that goes on,” Jones says.

Although it might seem like a legal issue to record video or audio surveillance of police officers without their knowledge, Jones references Glik v. Cunniffe where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit established that videotaping an official in a public area is protected under the First and Fourth Amendments.

Jones says OpenWatch is attempting to create a bridge in open source journalism between citizen media and global news.

OpenWatch is trying to give everyone “the ability to collaborate and to ask questions and demand answers and accountability in ways that no other media companies have ever really attempted before,” Jones explains.

Although we are a few years past Apple’s “there’s an app for that” craze, the catchphrase remains true. From Buycott, Sukey, and OpenWatch to many other smartphone applications, there is an app to meet any activists’ needs. Additionally, there are SMS messaging services that groups like 99 Pickets use to update subscribers about protests in the New York City area. With all these apps and their various uses, the smartphone is becoming the most important accessory for the normally anti-materialist niche of modern activists.