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New mobile apps are shaping Iran's civil society

New mobile apps are shaping Iran's civil society
From Al Jazeera - April 17, 2018

Apopular uprising took hold of Iran in the final week of 2017, with thousands taking to the streets to protest against the dire economic situation in the country.

Using smartphone apps such as Telegram and Instagram, demonstrators quickly spread their message, and within days, protests erupted in dozens of cities across the country.

In the government crackdown that followed, more than 25 people were killed and hundreds arrested.

The spread of protests once again showed the power of technology and social media, highlighted by repeated efforts by the government to block access to the mobile apps used by the protesters.

After realising the potential of these apps, many in Iran - a country with about 48 million smartphones - are looking at ways to leverage technology in their pursuit of civil liberties.

One of the latest apps isHafez, which literally translates as 'to protect'. Named after the famous Persian poet whose words frequently targeted religious hypocrisy, the app offers users a collection of human rights related information.

Foremost, it is a virtual rolodex of human rights lawyers in Iran, whichallows users to access legal information regarding human rights.

However, Hafez is more than just a list of telephone numbers, Keyvan Rafiee, an Iranian human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

"Users receive daily human rights news; [it] allows them to send news of human rights violations securely; [it] disseminates important legal information to users if they are arrested, and provides the contact information for attorneys who can assist," said Rafiee, the founderof Human Rights Activists Iran (HRAI).

Rafiee, who has been arrested for his activism six times, said having a record of human rights violations is instrumental for protesters in Iran.

"Monitoring violations that take place on a daily basis can improve human rights conditions, since independent organisations are not permitted to work in Iran," Rafiee said.

Hafez is just one of several apps Iranians are using to promote civil liberties and human rights.

"The technology is a tool, not an end result," said Firouzeh Mahmoudi, founder of United4Iran, an organisation focussed on promoting civil society.

"For us, the main question was how to engage with the vast majority of Iranians who do not go out on the street for every protest," she said. "We saw this niche that was not being filled; building Iran's civic tech sector."

One of its most prominent projects is the Iran Prison Atlas,a compendium of judges, prisons and, most importantly, political prisoners currently held by the Iranian government.

The database has played an important role in creating an overview of the number of political prisoners and has been used by the United Nations Human Rights Councilas a source in their evaluations of the human rights situation in the country.

"The atlas also helps when people get out of Iran," Mahmoudi told Al Jazeera. "When they apply for asylum, our documentation is a good way to prove they are not making up the story, since we have a record of it.

"We share and compare lists with a large number of people we work with, because what we do not want to have is false positives," she said.

"A lot of time when people leave prison they are quiet about it, and we do not want a situation where the government says our information is not accurate'."

Although technologies like the prison atlas allow for more transparency, working on it also comes with inherent risk in a country that regularly cracks down on dissent or activism.

To ensure the safety of the people working on and using the applications, Mahmoudi says there is a certain degree of anonymity.

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