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Story-telling app and website help communities improve their ‘backyards’

  • The TIMBY reporting platform applies the wide range of knowledge and experience of journalists, scientists, technologists, designers and security experts.
  • Originally developed in Liberia to curb some of the impacts of illegal logging, the design and function of the TIMBY platform has been customized to fit the needs of the people facing conservation issues other locations.
  • TIMBY has been used across the globe to address a wide array of issues, including environmental conservation in Chile, women’s health in Kenya, and information dissemination in Liberia.

At the center of several conflict-prone issues around the world, TIMBY (This is my Backyard) has been working to help local communities hold parties or individuals accountable for their actions.

Founded by filmmaker Anjali Nayar as a result of her work with a team of activists from the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) in Liberia, TIMBY has developed into a platform for changing the narrative of conflict stories in several regions across the globe.

The platform includes easy-to-use, organized and safe tools for reporting, investigating and storytelling. With automated GPS location recording and the ability to record video, take pictures or upload audio recordings, the platform enables users to report on illegal activities in their communities. Reports can be shared publicly, providing more people with the information and power to hold policy-makers responsible for stopping the conflict.

A video of the Jogbhan Clan chief is recorded using the TIMBY phone application in Grand Bassa, Liberia. Photo credit: Anjali Nayar.

“There’s an opportunity to not only change the narrative by providing ways for communities to voice their concerns earlier, but also…to stop the takeovers from happening [in the process], before irreparable damage is done,” Nayar said. Nayar said that an issue-based narrative is often relayed in simple terms, such as “community X has lost land to company Y,” but the reality of these processes stretches over months or years, and there are stories to tell from several perspectives.

During Liberia’s 14-year civil war, logging was a source of funding for rebel groups, and the access to quick money it provided became invaluable to people. After 2006 and the passing of the National Forestry Reform Law, loggers needed to be issued a government permit or turn to illegal timber harvesting. Illegal logging reduced many of Liberia’s forests and minimized the home ranges of resident wildlife.

In Liberia, the system was designed to fit the needs of a given community. The TIMBY team started from square one, building the reporting system to withstand the difficulties they faced running a technology-focused project in this undeveloped region. Their evolving design took into account infrastructure and network challenges, as well as limitations in literacy and security concerns.

Members of the Jogbjan Clan gather for a community meeting in Grand Bassa, Liberia. The clan has been documenting deforestation and health issues using the TIMBY platform. Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik.

“This has all been incredibly helpful in our approach for each new place and project we are expanding to,” Nayar said. “We’re constantly iterating to keep the balance between creating functionality that will be universal and also knowing that projects in this space work best when they are highly customized to problem-solve for that particular situation.”

The technology of TIMBY

TIMBY’s technology can help users effectively and safely publicize illegal activities or conflicts occurring in their community; nevertheless, Nayar says it is the policy-maker or stakeholder’s responsibility to then solve the problems.

“The system takes the frustrations out of field-based reporting so that groups working in this space can focus on doing what they do best,” Nayar said.

TIMBY’s mobile app allows the user to collect instant geo-and-time-stamped video, photographs or audio from the field with a push of a button. If a user experiences slow internet, reports can be exported using encrypted zip files for uploading at a later time.

The dashboard then makes these reports easy to find and compare over time with the use of instant searches and filters. Lastly, users can share their reports using the storytelling system, which quickly organizes these reports into narratives.

The TIMBY phone app can be used for quick, on-the-spot reporting with video, audio or images. The app is encrypted for safety, and any media uploaded is geo-and-time-stamped. Photo credit: Joan Poggio.

In addition to simplifying the storytelling process, TIMBY ensures safety to the community members when reporting conflicts.

“Between the civil conflicts in West Africa, the Congo Basin and Sudan (Kordofan), the connection between resources and conflict has never been clearer,” Nayar said. “Reporting on these issues, especially those associated with accountability and corruption, can be incredibly risky and difficult.”

Several TIMBY team members work on encrypting the reporting tools to ensure the safety of users of the technology. They secure the TIMBY system as well as hold workshops and present tutorials on the app to teach users how to remain safe when reporting.

Collaboration between team, community members

TIMBY is a ten-person collaborative group made up of journalists, scientists, designers, security experts and coders. They typically join forces with the activists in the communities working to address a conflict situation.

“Land and environmental issues can be incredibly complex and trying to work in this space to solve these chronic issues requires innovation, but mainly collaboration,” Nayar said.

TIMBY’s involvement in conflict resolution has ranged from being only the technology partner to working directly with the communities on the ground.

The program’s community involvement has expanded from the team’s work in Liberia, which initially focused on reporting on illegal forestry and subsequently on informing the public about an Ebola outbreak. They have also collaborated with communities to reduce maternal mortality and to support women’s claim to land in Kenya and to increase women’s role in politics in the Solomon Islands.

Community members in Liberia gather for a meeting with TIMBY’s representatives. Photo credit: Anjali Nayar.

Chile’s vast lands hold natural value that is now threatened by industrial growth, and the laws protecting these lands are not being fully enforced because the government often favors corporate interests over those of local communities. TIMBY is being used by a collaboration of scientists, NGOs, journalists and local stakeholders to protect biodiversity and promote sustainable development in the Chiloé region of northern Patagonia. The platform’s real-time reporting of geo-and-time-stamped photos and video evidence aims to support activists even in remote areas in protecting their natural resources.

The types of collaborations of TIMBY largely depend on the local communities or groups with which the team is working. Nayar explained that some communities work closely with local or international NGOs to get their stories into the hands of policy-makers, paralegals or journalists.

“In each case, we try to work with the communities or groups to figure out what the limitations are and what the best potential impact could be, and then work to that goal,” Nayar said.

TIMBY is currently available in English, Spanish, French, Swahili, and Indonesian and will be available in Arabic later in 2017. Your community can collaborate with TIMBY by contacting the group and explaining the issue that needs resolving in your own ‘backyard.’