Posted 18 March, 2016 by Tom Walker

Human Rights Documentation research diary #2

Welcome to the second of our ‘research diaries’ – where we talk about themes and questions that we come across as we interview people working on human rights documentation as part of our project with Amnesty International and Benetech. (The first one is here.)

For this project, we’re particularly interested in how human rights organisations find out what types of might be useful for their work, and – if they decide to start using them – what their next steps are.

We’ve been asking these questions to interviewees from various different contexts and countries. What have we found?

Where do human rights organisations find out what types of data they might be able to use?

The interviewees said that they (or the human rights organisations they worked with) most often started thinking about using new data sources after seeing an example of where that data was being used in another context. For example, we heard that some Egyptian organisations have been using Syrian organisations as examples when thinking about what technology tools to adopt, while Safecity was inspired to start in India after coming across the Egyptian platform HarassMap.

But does this mean that new approaches that have something to offer should always to be publicised more widely? Patrick Ball cautioned that this can also bring problems, highlighting that organisations that copy approaches from elsewhere without understanding bias in a particular new data stream, risk undermining the quality of their work.

As we mentioned in the first post, interviewees have suggested that a lot of human rights organisations are mainly trying to collect, manage and process the data that they already have more efficiently and securely, rather than focusing on new sources of information. Given that adopting new methods takes time and resources, when is it worth spending the effort? We’re interested to hear what you think: let us know by email or on the next community call, due to take place on April 6th.

What do some organisations do once they’ve decided to try using a new data stream?

The vast majority of interviewees said that in their experience, human rights organisations thinking of bringing a new type of data into their work usually started by looking for a person who they knew, and asking them for advice on what to do next. Friedhelm Weinberg of HURIDOCS described the way that he has seen organisations look for information:

“Some are more methodological and reach out in a very structured way – but probably the largest group is people who feel a need, start talking to other people and develop their needs in an iterative process which sometimes goes really well and sometimes doesn’t. Oftentimes it leads to reinvention of the wheel.”

Not many said that they (or people they knew) would begin by looking for a resource or set of guidelines. When they did look for these kinds of resources online, some people said it was difficult to know where to find information that was suitable for human rights organisations.

“If you google for data management, you get the professional data management, mostly for enterprises. But we are talking about small-scale organisations.”

Relatively few of the interviewees thus far have mentioned using information or resources that had been designed to help human rights documentation – instead pulling together information from a combination of independent googling and tips from contacts. (Interestingly, the main exception to this was in the area of digital security.) In a few cases, interviewees have suggested that many smaller human rights organisations are not necessarily aware of those resources and guidelines that are available – partly because they don’t often have the opportunity to travel outside the region and partly because there are limited numbers of resources in .  

Wael Eskandar, a consultant who works with human rights organisations in Egypt, suggested that the awareness-raising that has been done around digital security in the country might be a good model to follow, highlighting that access to in-person support had been the key factor that made the difference there. 

So, do we need to create better resources…or just better access to networks? Let us know what you think.

Keep in touch

Keep an eye on this blog for the next post, and news of the next community call, due to take place on April 6th. Please tell us if there are topics you’d like to talk about, research or projects you’d like to share, or things that we’re missing.

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