This is a profile of Jessica Chemali, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.
Jessica Chemali has spent years researching and writing about topics ranging from artificial intelligence and machine learning to neuroscience and anesthesia. Until 2013, Chemali was studying for her Ph.D. in the United States, planning for a career in academia and research. But when her student visa was unexpectedly canceled that year, she felt a vulnerability she had never experienced before. Since remote learning wasn’t as popular or accessible as it is today, she struggled to convince her professors to allow her to complete her Master’s degree after moving to Lebanon. Her fellow students rallied to record their classes for her and to proctor her exams remotely. She completed her Master’s degree in machine learning, but her entire life and career paths were upended.
“You have turning points in your life that involve asking yourself how you align your values with your work,” Chemali says. “And this is when I decided I wanted to be involved in civil society in my home country, and the idea of advocacy, and of making change happen.”
I decided I wanted to be involved in civil society in my home country, and the idea of advocacy, and of making change happen.
Jessica Chemali, Mozilla Fellow
When she applied to Mozilla’s Tech and Society Fellowship program, which embeds technologists in civil society organizations worldwide, Chemali knew she wanted to use technology to help people make more rational political decisions in her home country of Lebanon. “My interest has always been in understanding human behavior and cognition,” she says. Part of Chemali’s current work means identifying the factors that make it challenging for voters to assess politicians’ records and decide for whom to vote, but her longer-term goals include challenging dysfunctional public institutions, the lack of rule of law, and deep societal divisions.
Chemali and her colleagues at her host organization, The Legal Agenda, know that the most significant barrier to making informed choices is the lack of access to credible information about politicians and policies. A law guaranteeing the public’s right to access official information was passed in 2017, but the lack of compliance and enforcement has weakened its impact.
The Legal Agenda has spent years painstakingly gathering and analyzing documents related to the parliament. Now, Chemali’s Mozilla Tech and Society Fellowship has allowed her and The Legal Agenda to conceptualize a new, interactive, data-driven parliamentary observatory site, which is currently in production and will be the first of its kind in Lebanon. The forthcoming site will include draft bills parliament members have submitted, attendance records, legislative agendas, and other crucial information that helps voters, journalists, researchers and activists evaluate elected officials. Chemali and her colleagues also hope the forthcoming site will help expose parliament’s inner-workings, which have historically been opaque.
Chemali and her team published the material they’d compiled for the members of parliament who were running for office ahead of Lebanon’s last national elections in May 2022. The information received widespread media attention, and some politicians who felt they had exemplary records even promoted it. Other politicians were less enthusiastic given that it surfaced evidence of contradictions between their public statements and parliamentary votes, or their dismal attendance or legislative initiative records.
Although public access to parliamentary bills is protected under the 2017 law, Chemali still worries that those in power might try to curtail or cut it completely in the future. Currently, bills are not automatically published, and it remains difficult to acquire them. She hopes the positive media attention the project received during the last elections might prevent them from revoking access to the bills, for fear of public outcry. “Giving people this information also gives them the power of argument and relevance to pressure those in charge,” Chemali says. “It’s this idea of using the internet as a mechanism for accountability.” Chemali and her colleagues intend the full-scale parliamentary observatory site they’ll unveil in the coming months to act as a nearly real-time watchdog.
The year before Chemali joined The Legal Agenda, in October 2019, there were huge protests across the country as people grew frustrated and angry over the government’s failures to control a series of wildfires, clamp down on sectarian and political violence, and address the worsening economy. When the government defaulted on Lebanon’s foreign currency (Eurobond) in March 2020, it plunged the country into economic freefall, which coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only five months later, in August 2020, the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut killed 218 and injured 7,000. “We don’t know when the end is… we only know that it can get worse,” says Chemali of the tragedies of the past several years.
Amid the chaos that has recently roiled Lebanon, Chemali still sees the potential for people to benefit from what she calls “the good sides of the internet.” Lebanon is scheduled to have another round of elections in 2026. Chemali is hopeful that exposing parliament’s work from now until then could make these next elections look quite different from past ones. She emphasizes that the parliamentary observatory website won’t just offer new information to voters, but will provide critical analysis along with evidence so that people can deliberate rationally on parliament’s work. “You can imagine that in the future, when people want to report on what individual members of parliament are doing, they will have all that data right there for them,” she says. “We’re exposing an institution that doesn’t want people to know what it’s doing — putting the light on it for the first time.”