We believe that organisations implementing technology and data projects need to base their decisions in solid, practically focused evidence.
We combine hands-on experience from our direct practical support with in-depth research, so that we can understand where technology and data can make the most difference for activists and social change projects.
Our research projects span a variety of sectors, and as a result, we’re able to draw out shared challenges across sectors.
We believe that research shouldn’t be locked away in PDFs, so we also launched our Library, an online repository of all our public-facing research outputs in an open, accessible and easy-to-read format. All our research is published under a Creative Commons ShareAlike licence, and we’re thrilled to see our peers remix or republish our work.
We want to ensure that rights-focused organisations are making the most of data and technology, while at the same time helping them navigate the novel and significant risks that these new technologies present to their organisation and personnel. For these and for many other reasons, we continually apply our research work to the human rights sector in a variety of ways.
In an effort to support everyone in the human rights field in navigating the complex environment of digital data for human rights, we launched DatNav. In 2016, we partnered with Amnesty International, and Benetech, to help them understand how digital data could be better integrated into the work of human rights researchers.
Tech Tools for Human Rights
We researched how human rights defenders are facing the new possibilities, challenges, and expectations of using technology tools for human rights documentation. With the support of the Oak Foundation, in 2016, we looked into how human rights defenders are working in this fast-paced context, and how the use of technology tools is affecting their work.
Our Responsible Data work advocates for human-rights respecting use of data in the social sector. We believe that to have lasting impact, social change organisations must use data and technology to reach their mission and use it in ways that align with that mission. Responsible data is a framework for doing just that. Through our research, we’ve applied that framework to a variety of sectors to highlight areas for future work and investigation,.
Responsible Data in Agriculture
The agriculture sector is creating increasing amounts of data, but not everyone can access it or has the ability to use it effectively. In 2016, Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) commissioned us to research how power imbalances play an important role in how we think about and use data in the agriculture sector.
Responsible Data Reflection Stories
Launched in 2016, our Reflection Stories on Responsible Data give a structured knowledge base with nine case studies outlining the unforeseen challenges and (sometimes) negative consequences of using technology and data for social change – on subjects ranging from social media verification and opening the wrong data, to recognising uncertainty in statistics.
Responsible Data at Oxfam
In 2015, Oxfam was the first international NGO to develop a Responsible Data policy. Two years on, we looked into how Oxfam’s Responsible Data policy is being translated into practice. We helped Oxfam understand how the concept of responsible data is perceived within the confederation, and how the Responsible Data policy is being implemented in practice – is it changing project-level implementation on a practical level, or rather on an ideological level of raising awareness around these issue?
Responsible Data at Oxfam
Biometrics in Humanitarian Work
Following up on our work with Oxfam and their Responsible Data policies, we examined the uses of biometric technology in the humanitarian aid sector. In our research, we spoke to individuals from a range of organisations to better understand what their best practices are around biometric tech and how they deal with the privacy and security challenges that this tech brings up. We translated these into recommendations for how Oxfam could responsibly engage in work with biometrics, and we published an overview of what we found on how biometrics are being used in the humanitarian sector.
Using Human Rights Data Responsibly
In 2017, with Ariadne and 360Giving, and supported by Digital Impact, we began research on how human rights funders balance gathering data about the activities they fund (and therefore the organisations and individuals doing human rights work) with the responsibility to avoid doing harm. We’re exploring questions like “How do funders share their data with others?” and “What kind of risks do they create for their grantees by gathering data?”
The number of governments and intergovernmental organisations adopting digital technology to identify and verify people is growing at a rapid rate, but there is a lack of research on the real-world effects of digital ID in local contexts. Started in 2018, this project works with in-country researchers to understand the effects of digital ID systems for refugees in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, and of national ID systems for residents in Nigeria, Thailand and Zimbabwe. The research will be used to inform advocacy efforts, stimulate in-country dialogue and broaden the debate by amplifying the perspectives of civil society, especially those not already working on digital rights issues.
The Engine Room has collaborated on several projects in the field of civic tech, in an effort to enable or enhance the engagement and communication of citizens with political systems through technology.
Tool Selection research
Organisations are increasingly making technology tools central to their project strategies, but there is relatively little evidence showing how these technology tools get chosen, and even less to suggest whether some selection processes are more effective than others. Until March 2016, we led a two-year research study investigating how transparency and accountability projects choose technology, and identifying strategies that could make a difference to projects’ success.
Starting in November 2015, we worked with Amnesty International on an exciting new initiative to enable volunteers to support the human rights research process over the Internet. Specifically, we explored microtasking, the process of many people contributing small tasks to complete a bigger project.
Synthesising Making All Voices Count learnings
From 2013-17, the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) programme published about 70 research reports, practice papers and journal articles, investigating tech-enabled projects that aim to amplify citizens’ voices and encourage government to respond to them. This research is valuable, but there is a lot of it. To digest it into actionable findings, we synthesised the research into five key messages, and created a microsite, audio series and a string of blogposts to communicate it.
Tool Selection Research with Alidade
Organisations are increasingly making technology tools central to their project strategies, but there is relatively little evidence showing how these technology tools get chosen, and even less to suggest whether some selection processes are more effective than others. Until March 2017, we led a two-year research study investigating how transparency and accountability projects choose technology, and identifying strategies that could make a difference to projects’ success. We iterated on our tool design, conducting user research and collaborating with great UX designers.
Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps
Messaging apps are the fastest-growing form of digital communication ever, with smartphone ownership rising rapidly around the world and messaging becoming many people’s favourite way to communicate. But what does this mean for humanitarian organisations? Our research report, produced in 2017 in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the messaging apps agency Block Party, conducts an in-depth analysis of the opportunities and risks.
Successful Tool Re-Use in Open Contracting
In 2019, in collaboration with the Open Contracting Partnership and the World Bank Procurement Global team, The Engine Room conducted research into what conditions support (and frustrate) efforts to re-use open contracting tools. The detailed results of our findings, as well as a primer for potential tool re-users and a guidance document for tool authors and support providers, can be downloaded from the links below.
New technologies and data science practices present opportunities for civil society to help guide us to better environmental outcomes. We partnered up with environmental organisations to research the challenges and new uses of data and technology in the field of environmental justice.
Rainforest Technology Primer
In 2016, we published a primer for using technology to monitor and share information on rainforest issues, land rights and indigenous rights. The primer, available in print and online, demonstrates in concrete use cases how technology can help organisations and activists, gives practical advice for next steps, and links out to more detailed guidance elsewhere.
Because of the level of interest we received after its initial launch, we translated the primer and made it available online in our Library, in five languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Bahasa Indonesia).
Quick-start guide to socially responsible investment
We worked with Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) in 2016 to put together a quick-start guide for organisations that don’t know much about how socially responsible investment works, but want to use the data they collect to influence companies’ actions.
The guide, based on interviews with more than 30 people internationally, explains how socially responsible investors find and use information about rainforests, describes how investors can affect companies’ actions, and suggests ways for civil society organisations can collect and use data in a way that reaches more investors, financial analysts and information providers.
The Engine Room works projects that identify and build upon ways that organisations are creating – and iterating – technology platforms to further their work. We want to support these organisations to design in thoughtful, inclusive and secure ways.
Migrant Worker Platforms
In 2017-2018, we worked with the International Migration Initiative at Open Society Foundations to better understand what the responsible data challenges are that arise from the use of technology in migrant workers protection. We contributed to the discussion paper, ‘Transformative Technology for Migrant Workers’, outlining case studies from the sector, best practices and lessons learned from others’ experiences, and key items to think about when building technology platforms for migrant workers’ protection.
Organisational Security in Civil Society
In 2017, we partnered with the Ford Foundation to look at how civil society can strengthen their digital security, what and who is out there to support them, and how they can develop better digital security practices. In our research, we spoke with civil society organisations, funders and digital security providers, to get a full picture of the organisational security ecosystem in which civil society operates. In order to break the report into digestible takeaways, we also produced an email series that highlights conclusions from different topics over the course of six weeks, called the Propeller Series, which you can sign up for at any time.
Legal empowerment is concerned with strengthening the capacity of all people to exercise their rights. It’s about grassroots justice — ensuring that law is not confined to books or courtrooms, but is available and meaningful to ordinary people.
As a field, it intersects with lots of other areas we work in: transparency and accountability, access to information, open government, land rights, digital identification, and more.
Technology in Case Management for Legal Empowerment
In 2018, we researched how organisations in Indonesia, Moldova, Mongolia, Sierra Leone and South Africa are using technology and data to further their work on legal empowerment. Our research aimed to draw out trends and effective practices that could be replicated by programmatic entities within Open Society Justice Initiative, in order to make legal empowerment activities more sustainable and effective.
Technology and Legal Empowerment Around The World
From mid-2018 until early 2019, we worked with the Open Society Justice Initiative to research how legal empowerment actors worldwide are using technology to give people information about the law, connect them with legal advice, and provide them with legal services. We found that there was an opportunity for increased sharing, learning and connection between actors in this space.