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?
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.
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