Nobody Puts Data in a Corner

Posted May 13, 2013 by Alix Dunn

Last week, someone asked me for case studies about the use of mobile phones for citizen media. I knew exactly where to go for that information, but when I looked, I found the sites offline. I later learned that these projects had been shut down, without notice, and that, despite the fact that these were funded, produced, and promoted to support collaboration and learning within a community of practice, there was no plan to protect public access to the knowledge they created.

This isn’t the first time that useful materials created by NGOs have disappeared from the internet, and it probably won’t be the last. I have heard stories of website developers hijacking content, open government data suddenly going offline, and projects that simply lose their funding and turn everything off. Has a resource you relied on ever disappeared into the ether?

The problem

As human rights defenders, we rely on shared knowledge. We rely on open, public data from governments and other institutions to inform and support our campaigns. We rely on guides and tools created by practitioners to make our work more effective. We rely on content created by our peers outlining important case studies that we can reflect on and learn from. And over the years, we have contributed to the creation of this information. Every resource out there is a product of many, many conversations.

Yet despite the importance of this knowledge to our work, we are not taking the necessary steps to ensure that this content is preserved and archived or that our right to access it is protected. Currently, most of the information that we rely on is hosted on one website, managed by one organization, which makes many of the references we rely on daily vulnerable to sudden vanishing.

One person or organization should not have the power to erase information we use from the internet or to bar access to it, especially when it has been conceived, funded, and produced as a public good. As a community of human rights defenders, we need to design a better solution for how to protect and preserve our information.

Possible solutions

1. Draft a License Addendum or Public Pledge

Many of the guide, manuals, case studies, website content, and software being produced by or in collaboration with human rights groups are already being licensed under open standards, such as Creative Commons, or released as open source. Could we create a kind of license addendum, embeddable public pledge, or even a contract clause (binding all parties) to commit to keeping content web-accessible in the event of a shutdown without notice? What would this look like? How enforceable would it be?

2. Establish a Public Archive

Is there a space online where we can all agree to backup and archive our content for the sake of preservation? The SaferMobile documents have been preserved on GitHub. Is this a tool that we could all commit to (pun intended)? The Digital Public Library of America just launched to much fanfare. Is it possible that we could work with them to carve out a space for these documents—as well as do some much needed cataloguing? Or is there another library or librarian who’s ready to take on this task? What other tools and spaces are available for this kind of content preservation?

3. Create an Organizational Buddy System

Small organizations are vulnerable to big change (if they lose funding, they may lose their web hosting not to mention the core staff that maintains it). If small organizations had the opportunity to buddy with a larger organizations, there could be a plan for preserving and protecting access to the content if the small organization folds.

So where do we go from here?

As human rights defenders, we believe in transparency, collaboration, open data, and shared knowledge. If we can identify standards or best practices by which we all preserve and protect access to our content, not only will we avoid duplicating effort, but we may also open up opportunities for more coordination and collaboration between organizations, and ultimately, more effective human rights work.

Can other open-knowledge models, such as open educational resources, be a model for human rights defenders? What is your vision for how to keep our shared knowledge available and easily accessible online?

This post was written collaboratively by:
Kristin Antin, New Tactics for Human Rights, Online Community Builder
Jessica Dheere, Social Media Exchange, Content Director
Alix Dunn, the engine room
Becky Hurwitz, MIT Center for Civic Media, Codesign Facilitator and Community Organizer
Comments
  • Rebekah Heacock says: May 14th, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks, Kristin and all, for spearheading this. The Berkman Center is working on a project called Internet Robustness that may have some relevance: the goal is to develop technology that will ensure that content put online is available indefinitely at a permanent URL, regardless of whether the original website moves or goes down. Their list of resources may be helpful.

  • Mary Joyce says: May 14th, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    If one of the sites you are talking about is MobileActive, Phil Howard and I would love to host it as a sub-domain on digital-activism.org. Can any of you help set that up?

  • Becky Hurwitz says: May 15th, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Mary – yes, the resources that originally sparked this conversation among us were MobileActive and Mobile Media Toolkit. Discussion of these 2, however, quickly led us to larger discussions about commitments within the field and reliance on one another making resources available ongoing.

    None of us has any of the content from MA.org, unfortunately. Maybe others do?

  • Kristin Antin says: May 15th, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Melissa Ulbricht saved a number of her MobileActive case studies and articles as part of her professional portfolio – http://melissaulbricht.com/mobile-media-toolkit/

  • Melissa Ulbricht says: May 22nd, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you Becky, Alix, Kristin, and Jessica. A very important topic. And timely. Just this morning I received a Facebook message from a colleague in India working to create a technical guide for how to create good quality audio. She thought of MMTK but found it down. This should not be the case, as this is exactly the reason the content was created in the first place.

    Another idea to add to the possible solutions list. What if a change could be made at the funding level? That is, write into any sort of funding agreement a contract clause to commit to keeping content web-accessible. If content comes down, future funding (or remaining funds owed to an organization or project) could be jeopardized. Maybe attacking the problem at its conception and not after it goes live could help? Get the big funders on board!

    Yes – I saved some clips for a professional portfolio of writing samples. I didn’t save everything unfortunately, but you’re welcome to access it at the site above.

  • Fil says: June 5th, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    The different CMS used to publish well-designed websites are usually all very bad at one thing: replication. This seems to be the biggest hurdle to data perennity. Outputting everything in open formats and plain files, instead of complex relational databases would help a lot.

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