Technology Tools in Human Rights
This is a scoping study on how human rights defenders (HRDs) are using technology tools to communicate, analyse and manage information, identify new incidents and archive data. It aims to help understand the realities of tool use and identify HRDs’ needs as they stand.
The content of this site as drawn from a series of sixteen interviews conducted between February and April 2016, funded by the Oak Foundation, with extra information from interviews as part of another ongoing Engine Room project in partnership with Amnesty International and Benetech. Download the report (4.3Mb pdf). This entry was last updated in July 2018.
We spoke to people who interact with technology in the human rights sphere in a range of different countries and contexts. They included three main groups:
Human rights defenders (HRDs) whose primary role is grassroots human rights defence and activism;
Intermediaries who support HRDs to use technology more effectively;
And tools developers who create and design technology tools for HRDs.
The aim of this piece is to get a better understanding of how human rights defenders are using technology in their documentation work - not to make explicit tools recommendations, but rather to help understand realities and needs as they currently stand.
Communication: to share their findings more broadly, such as through videos, press releases, and to connect online with groups working on similar issues.
Analysis: to identify patterns that otherwise would have been less visible – such as repeated attacks in certain areas – and presenting this data on maps, charts or interactive online features.
Information management: to catalogue, store, and manage information about incidents and events related to human rights cases, as well as sharing it with others working on similar issues.
Identifying new incidents: using digital tools and digital data to discover, verify or corroborate violations - for example, by scanning social media or online video networks, or mobile messaging platforms.
Historical archiving: to scan paper documents, classify and tag them, make them machine-readable, encrypt them and make backups in case they get lost.
While the human rights defenders we spoke to worked throughout the world (from regions including South and South-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East), tool developers were generally based in Europe or the US. Many tool developers described putting considerable effort and through into building tools specifically for HRDs, including user testing and, in some cases, co-creation with partner organisations. However, the HRDs we spoke to (many of whom fitted the profile of the tools’ intended users) found it hard to identify a tool that was right for them, and chose the tools that they did use in a relatively ad-hoc manner.
Interestingly, there was some overlap between information management and communication tools, and some cases where tools were used for purposes other than the one for which they were designed. For example, an activist collective who supports parents whose children are missing in Mexico, used Gmail to archive information by sharing a common Gmail account.
Human rights defenders said that simplicity, familiarity and ease of use were by far the most important criteria when choosing tools. Many used paper forms as their primary form of information capture. Software tools like Word and Excel were mentioned more than any others, while Google Drive and Dropbox were often mentioned as tools for sharing information and managing documents online. Many HRDs knew of the potential security risks associated with using tools like Google Drive (given Google’s collaboration with the US government), but chose to use it regardless.
One HRD we spoke to described her job as “thinking two steps ahead when entering data into the system” - having to think about what people’s needs might be in the future, who might come and need this data, and according to that, adjusting the way in which data is put into a database system. Indeed, a running theme through many of the interviews with HRDs was that database software tools are (with a couple of exceptions) not meeting their needs - somewhat counter-intuitively, sometimes because it is too complicated, and sometimes because it is lacking features that they need.
Several intermediaries who work with human rights defenders said that from their experience, HRDs were more interested in understanding new methods, such as how to store and manage video, than in what specific tool options were available. Many mentioned a desire for training on documentation methodologies to also include more information digital technology tools within the training - for example, on ways to use a mobile phone for documentation.
For tools developers, there seems to be clear paths for future work, many of which centred upon effective communication rather than necessarily developing new functionalities. There seems to be a growing need for intermediaries to help contextualise the technology needs for HRDs to developers, and vice versa, communicate the limitations and functionalities of the tools, to HRDs. A lack of technical capacity among HRDs was identified by interviewees from all parties, which has multiple side-effects, such as leaving organisations reliant upon external parties for tech support, or unable to quickly troubleshoot their own problems.
Taking a longer term perspective, the most common issues and worries raised were around data storage and management of growing amounts of digital data, and of sustainability, in terms of specific tools, support, and integration into organisations, as outlined below. It was generally agreed that integrating a new tool without ongoing support was setting it up to fail, and that behaviour change in organisations - for example, in integrating and using a new tool - takes a long time.
Tools and Applications
Below is a summary of tools built specifically for human rights defenders but as mentioned elsewhere, many people we spoke to mentioned that they use non-specific tools for information management, like Dropbox or Google Drive.
|Project name||OpenEvsys||Martus||CaseBox||Palantir (Gotham & Metropolis)|
|Project owner||HURIDOCS||Developed by Benetech, however, Martus will no longer be supported after 2018||HURIDOCS/Ketse||Palantir Technologies|
|Location||Geneva, Switzerland||N/a||Geneva, Switzerland||CA, US|
|Primary aim||Database application||Information management + collection||Information management||Information management|
|Customisation?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, by Palantir|
|Hosting?||Through HURIDOCS (for a fee) or self-hosted||Self-hosted||Through HURIDOCS or self-hosted||Needs to use cloud technology|
|Open source||Yes: source code||Yes: source code||Yes: source code||No|
|Languages||Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, English, Estonian, French, Georgian, German, Hungarian, Italian, Khmer, Russian, Serbian, Spanish and Turkish.||Arabic, English, Chinese, French, Khmer, Burmese, Farsi, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese, Nepali, Armenian.||Arabic, English, French and Russian.||"All languages including Elvish"|
|Training options||Provided by HURIDOCS||No||Provided by HURIDOCS||No|
|Security considerations||Audited code||Audited code||Audited code||From CIA-funded start up|
Below follows a table of some mobile applications developed specifically for the purpose of helping human rights defenders gather or preserve digital data. This list is not exhaustive.
|Project name||MediCapt||eyeWitness to Atrocities||CameraV||Video Vault||Umbrella|
|Project owner||Physicians for Human Rights||International Bar Association||Guardian Project and WITNESS||RightsLab/Enrique Piraces||Security First|
|Location||NY, US||London, UK||NY, US||NY, US||UK|
|Primary aim||Information gathering||Verifiable photo and video capture||Verifiable photo and video capture||Video preservation||Info on security|
|Can the tool be used offline?||Yes, but needs internet to submit.||Yes, but needs internet to submit data.||Yes, but needs internet to submit data.||No||Yes|
|Open source||Unclear||No||Yes: source code||Unsure||open source|
|Languages||English only||English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, and Portuguese (Brazilian)||English, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), French, Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese (Portugal), Sinhala, Turkish||English||English|
|Security considerations||Data is encrypted||Not open source; has quick dispose function||Data is encrypted||Currently in beta||Optional password|
Pros and cons
Opinions varied as to the usefulness of technology tools in facilitating documentation of human rights violations. Interviewees identified many more problems than success stories. Overall, there was consensus that in theory, technology could facilitate documentation work - especially in situations where paper documentation was simply getting overwhelming in quantity, a problem which will only increase with time.
Despite an initial attraction to technology tools as potential solutions to problems faced by human rights defenders, the practical outcomes that we heard definitely aren’t all rosy: almost of all the intermediaries we spoke to had numerous examples of serious problems that HRDs they worked with had faced due to their choice, or use, of technology tools in their human rights documentation work.
It is also worth noting that the majority of tools mentioned are primarily available in English, with limited functionality in other language scripts, even major world languages like the Arabic script, or Cyrillic. Naturally, this limits their usefulness for those who do not work primarily in the Latin script.
Overall, there seemed to be a growing cynicism around tools, especially by people who had tried using a certain tool and found it to be unsuitable, and by those who were working in very different contexts to the one in which the tool was developed. Reconciling those very different realities will be crucial to providing useful tools in the future. Below is a non-exhaustive selection of the most commonly mentioned advantages and problems.
Organisations who invested time and effort into setting up well-structured information management systems noted that the ability to pull up cases quickly and efficiently benefited their work. For example, for the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, rather than manually going through 60 case files with lots of documents - which involved requesting copies of case documents from different offices - they anticipate that having the system digitised will make analysing the cases much easier. They hope that being able to see similar cases at a glance will help them to push for law and policy change, supporting their longer-term goal of not just prosecuting individual cases, but identifying and lobbying for a change in laws and policies to address the problem systematically.
The most successful examples of technology tool uptake involved partnerships between organisations from different sectors, such as Umbrella. The way these collaborations were framed were particular in that they weren’t explicitly described as “capacity building” partnerships, but rather just as partnerships to make sure that the tools development was anchored within different organisations’ needs, and that tools users had opportunities to help shape the development from the very beginning. Though these partnerships started focused on a technology tool or problem, they made collaborating on other issues easier, too.
Veronica Vidal, who works on women’s rights with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), mentioned that using technology to document violations has really strengthened their work because it has enabled organisations within their network to collaborate and pool their resources in a much easier way than previously.
Digitising documents is helping human rights defenders share information with other stakeholders, too: in Bangladesh, engaging with digital case management is a relatively recent decision, and Ishita Dutta from the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust says this will make sharing data with researchers easier to do, theoretically allowing for more coordinated advocacy efforts among different stakeholders. In Burma, the data gathered through the National Documentation Network’s Martus database was shared with international advocacy groups and individual researchers so that they can help spread word of the human rights situation in Burma. On the other side, though, one intermediary we spoke to mentioned that HRDs he supports often want to share “subsets” of information with others, and find this difficult to do in terms of technical permissions.
Managing large amounts of data
For organisations who had previously been using paper-based documentation or database systems, having well-structured digital databases enabled them to actually use that information in a much more efficient way. For example, the Alkarama Foundation, based in Geneva, entered data they held about victims and violations in the Arab World into a modified open-source Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, which allowed them to pull out long lists of violations in a particular country, and enabled them to provide better evidence proving that they were serious, repeated issues, and keep track of how the cases were moving forward.
Valeria Umaña, who works with groups in Nicaragua, said that for the people she works with, “the more technology they have, the more danger they can be in”. She gave the example of one member of their community wanting to share a video documenting a violation, who had heard that he could send the video through Facebook; but instead of sending it to the intended recipient, he found another page with a similar name, and sent it to them instead by mistake.
We also heard that conflicting or confusing advice between those who are deep into the digital security world, and perhaps removed from the realities of human rights defenders work, has sometimes put people and their information in danger. For instance, one interviewee highlighted a case of an NGO they work with who was encouraged to change to a free software operating system, which then wasn’t interoperable with their printer - so in order to print documents they started to put documents on USB sticks and print them out at local internet cafes. Before too long, they realised that the USB sticks had been misplaced, which resulted in a worse security breach than was initially anticipated.
Being realistic about the overall security situation of the people using the tools is key to coming up with an actionable plan for dealing with threats and risk, and this requires a solid knowledge of context in addition to understanding of digital security.
Storing data can be expensive, especially in the case of high-resolution images, or video, as Friedhelm Weinberg of HURIDOCS identified: storing lots of data, cataloguing it and making it searchable over a long (perhaps indefinite) period of time, is an ongoing problem. Though a number of tech tools make it easier for video to be captured or found, a few interviewees identified that the issue of storage was still a growing problem for them, both in terms of prohibitively high costs, but also a technical solution that can be easily accessible by anyone within the organisation - and ideally, with offline access, too.
Ludmila Polshikova of the Russian Justice Initiative also mentioned that many of the photos she receives are large in size: 4 to 9MB per photo. To store and work with them, she or members of her team, have to compress the photos and compile them into one document, which can be a time-consuming process.
“People like to stick with what they know,” Kody Leonard of the ISC Project.
Multiple intermediaries and HRDs highlighted the challenges associated with getting a new tool to be used; as Kody Leonard of the ISC Project mentioned, “people like to stick with what they know”. Without clear incentives for engaging with a new tool, people identified that it can be difficult to get a new tool to be used. Mourad Dhina admitted that a “good amount of lobbying had to be done internally” to convince people within the organisation that they needed better tools, and Janvier Hakizimana mentioned that it can often be hard to get buy-in from management to spend time and resources on getting used to a new tool. One strategy for combatting this, cited by Indira Cornelio was focusing reasoning for the new tool to be protecting the safety of the people they are trying to help, rather than defenders’ own safety.
Contextualise vs adapt
Interviewees generally acknowledged that some tools needed to be specifically designed for a particular situation because human rights defenders are operating in such a wide range of different contexts. However, intermediaries and developers disagreed on whether it was more effective to customise existing tools, or develop new tools for a particular purpose. One HRD we spoke to said that tools which came with lots of “bells and whistles” can inspire organisations with ideas, but practically speaking can also “a challenge” to narrow it down to actual needs. Another mentioned that a tool they use, CaseBox, is “constantly changing to satisfy requirements of other users” which leaves them with lots of new features they do not need, and consequently “lowers motivation among employees” to learn how to use it. Others mentioned that building custom tools from scratch, suited to particular situations, was perhaps a better route to go down due to the big contextual differences in the field.
Digital security concerns
Less than a third of organisations we spoke with were using tools which were managed or produced by for-profit entities, and the majority of those were not specifically aimed at human rights defenders, for example, Google Drive, or Dropbox. Through desk research, though, we came across one technology tool aimed at human rights organisations and non-profit entities which is built by Palantir, a company that has received major funding from the CIA, which offers database analysis and technology services through their “Philanthropy Engineering” branch.
For human rights defenders working in politically restrictive or sensitive areas, a decision here must be made on whether it is appropriate to share data with companies that have such tight links to the CIA or the US government, despite the seemingly attractive (and well-resourced) technology support. If an organisation chooses to work with a company like Palantir, it is reasonable to assume that US Intelligence agencies have access to whatever data is being collected - might that put the people you work (or the people they work with) with at risk, either now or at some point in the future?
“In some places, even owning a smartphone that can film is problematic,” says Wendy Betts, director of eyeWitness to Atrocities.
In some contexts, using technology to document human rights violations was identified as a potential risk: Wendy Betts, director of eyeWitness to Atrocities, said: “In some places, even owning a smartphone that can film is problematic.” Video was identified as especially problematic within Zimbabwe. One Zimbabwean activist said: “Zimbabwe is a country that has a higher level of paranoia and pointing your phone at a group of people like you’re taking video can be seen as an aggressive act”.
When developing and choosing the tool, effective communication between those building the tool and those using the tool seems to make a huge difference to its success. When people with very high levels of tech capacity but low understandings of the realities of human rights defenders work are brought in to advise on their tech use, interviewees who worked with HRDs cited occasions of a “culture clash” between people with very high levels of technical literacy, and activists or HRDs with lower levels.
To help address this issue, both intermediaries and developers we spoke to emphasised the need to prioritise understanding the issues involved on a human level prior to tech development. Understanding the sensitivity of the issue at hand can seen in everything from the tools implementation, training styles, and the design choices made in the tool itself. For example, Mourad Dhina, Executive Director of Swiss organisation Alkarama, stated that his organisation had changed the language initially used to register a violation in a database from “create victim” to the more appropriate “register victim”.
A problem that a number of interviewees identified was ongoing support for the application or tool that they chose. For example, for one land rights organisation who invested a lot in using a tool to help them document land rights violations, finding out that the tool is now going unsupported due to a lack of funds essentially means that they’ve wasted time and resources.
Another interviewee told us about a three day training which took place in April 2016, organised by the UN Office of High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) in Uganda on the database which was developed for Ugandan Human Rights organisations. During the training, participants realised there were some technical hitches in the database. But instead of addressing these, OHCHR told them that there was no plan for continuity or updating the software as user needs and technologies evolve, thus seriously undermining the long-term usability of the database.
Planning for ongoing support seems to pay off, too: Ludmila Polshikova, who works with the Russian Justice Initiative, mentioned that having an ongoing support contract with HURIDOCS has been very valuable, and means that whenever they have a problem with CaseBox, they can contact HURIDOCS directly for support.
In Zimbabwe, until Martus was active, a lack of regular internet access in remote areas means that using tools like Martus, which would ideally synchronise with a main server, is difficult. After piloting Martus, one organisation ended up reverting back to their usual setup of using Excel and then manipulating the data in other software programs. In this case and others, the need to be conscious of connectivity in areas where the tool will be used was highlighted multiple times. In Nicaragua, Valeria Umaña said: “for people in the countryside, the more apps they have, the more problems they can have because they often don’t know how to use them” - so, they try to focus on the minimum technology necessary, rather than training on more complex tools or applications, sometimes relying on non-internet technologies, such as community radio.
“For people in the countryside, the more apps they have, the more problems they can have because they often don’t know how to use them,” says Valeria Umaña in Nicaragua.
Rory Byrne mentioned that the fact that digital technologies might not have worked in the past for human rights organisations can negatively affect their willingness to try a new tool in the future. Strategies like one-off trainings, or tools that are difficult to use, have left people feeling “burned” by the waste of resources and time that was put into them, and Rory identified that among trainers + tools developers he knows, the attitude of one-off trainings was beginning to be challenged in favour of more long-term, sustained support.
Choosing a tool
Though this isn’t specific to human rights defenders, choosing tools seems to happen in a relatively ad hoc way. Indira Cornelio, from Mexico, said that sometimes a tool will get adopted simply because a director hears about it and pushes for it within the organisation, rather than because it is necessarily the best-suited tool, and others mentioned a tendency within organisations or communities to use the most popular tool rather than the most appropriate one.
For newcomers to the field, there seem to be few visible differences between tools with similar aims; for example, Martus was compared to OpenEvsys and Casebox, with non-expert interviewees unable to distinguish what differentiated the various tools. Some organisations are also looking outside of tools labelled explicitly as being “for” human rights purposes, to find tools that they can repurpose for their needs, such as IMB’s I2 or Sentinel Visualizer.
Understanding the technical or data skills of the team + members involved can affect how implementation of a tool actually plays out. For example, for the team at the Migrant Forum in Asia, which coordinates an online database that its partners contribute to, their ideal scenario is that eventually their members would enter data directly into their online reporting database themselves; but in reality, not all of them have the time or the necessary technical expertise.
Or, understanding that your community might use new technologies without being wholly aware of the consequences; one interviewee raised the example of people sharing videos on social media in solidarity, without realising that people in the video might not want their image to be so widely shared.
“Many of the human rights organisations that I work with do not have a local ICT champion who can orchestrate their systems and processes and be at the same time well-versed with the field,” Ahmad Gharbeia (Arab Digital Expression Foundation).
Veronica Vidal highlighted the issue of staff turnover: if a database is built by one person and then they leave without completing good documentation on what they’ve done, it might then become very difficult to update the structure or add new features without a lot of time investment. Ahmad Gharbeia, who works with the Arab Digital Expression Foundation, mentioned that many of the human rights organisations that he works with “do not have a local ICT champion who can orchestrate their systems and processes and be at the same time well-versed with the field”.
Many of the people we spoke to were involved in some way in training human rights defenders to use technology tools. In some of these cases, this training included work-arounds to ensure the safety of people involved: for example, in Nicaragua, they actively train people on taking photos of situations without even including the faces of people involved to avoid any unwanted or accidental information disclosure.
Providing updates to technology tools - specifically, mobile applications and software – can be a double-edged sword. On one side, they’re necessary to respond to security changes, and to provide new features as per request. But on the other, pushing out updates to users with low bandwidth can be problematic; so, staggering the updates and/or making them as small in size as possible is preferable.
Though a tool might initially seem to suit all of the identified needs, it’s worth thinking about long-term control over the platform, or the data that is made available through it; especially when it comes to commercial social network platforms. For example, as Natasha Msonza highlighted: using Whatsapp as a communication tool to share incidences of violations works well, but doesn’t allow any measure of control. Anybody in the group can see other people’s numbers, and can add a user groups without consent - and there’s no way to delete messages from someone else’s phone. In the case of sensitive information shared in Zimbabwe, this lack of control has had serious consequences for human rights defenders.
Similarly, those who use commercial tools or social media platforms to gather information on violations from their network, like the Bangladesh Centre for Human Rights, are largely reliant on Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithms showing them relevant information from their community. Changes in those algorithms could have huge effects on the spread of information around human rights violations, and not only is there basically no way of knowing if and how those changes are happening, but the human rights community has effectively zero control in reversing them.
This study is intended as a scoping study rather than to provide concrete recommendations. That said, there are a few common threads that were brought up through the interviews and our desk research:
Stay critical, and be responsible: the opportunities granted by digital technology tools are great, but so are the risks. Try to keep aware of those risks - join communities like the Responsible Data Forum to have a way to keep up to date with current responsible data news and trends, and think about the holistic security impact of using certain tools.
Get second opinions: before committing to a certain tool, or to working with a certain set of developers, try to speak to others with expert knowledge of the field. The investment in time beforehand is worth it, if only to be sure that you’re making the right decision.
Be realistic: no technology tool is going to “solve” social issues or problems, and getting people to change their behaviour is difficult. Be clear on why you’re using a certain tool, and what the incentives are for the people around you.
Think long term: though a certain tool might seem like the easiest option now, what about in 2 years or 5 years time? What will you want to do with the data, and who owns it? Ask up front about the sustainability issues raised above.
For tool developers
Communicate clearly about your tool: there are a few different database and information management tools out there aimed at HRDs, very few people who we spoke to who didn’t explicitly work on one of the tools could identify the major differences between them.
Work with partner organisations from the beginning: though “co-creation” is becoming somewhat of a buzzword in these spaces, the principle behind it remains. Find and work with groups who are the “target user” for the tool, and value their contribution not just as an opportunity for feedback, but as equal partners on the tool.
Reality check your assumptions often: this might be through the above contribution of partner organisations, but could also happen by testing out iterations with target users, or by sending developers working on the tool to see the reality of the tool being used.
Be humble and collaborative: sometimes the tool you work on might not suit the needs of the people you are speaking to. Rather than trying to adapt your tool and convince them that they can use it, be prepared to recommend tools from “competitors” - and try to see it as contributing to the greater field.