As the use of open source data in human rights research proliferates, new methods and increased availability of data are raising responsible data challenges.
In advance of the Responsible Data Forum on Open Source Investigation for Human Rights, to be held in partnership with Meedan at the Stockholm Internet Forum on Tuesday, May 16, we compiled a list of resources that can help human rights researchers respond to responsible data challenges when using open source data.
Digital data and human rights research
Over the past few years, the use of open source data for human rights investigations has grown around the world. Large human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have spearheaded this trend through projects such as Amnesty’s reporting on the 2015 Boko Haram attack on Baga (Nigeria) with satellite imagery, which received international media coverage. More recently, both local and international human rights organisations, as well as international media, have analysed the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun (Syria) with user-generated data (content created by users of a system that is publicly available on that system). The possibilities for finding and acquiring data to assist in documenting human rights violations are ever-growing, but the most ethical way of dealing with this secondary data is not always clear.
At the same time, many smaller organisations in countries such as Syria, Ukraine, and South Africa are also using digital methods to collect and verify user-generated data, while citizen journalism is gaining in popularity as initiatives such as Bellingcat produce stellar evidence-based reports.
Responsible data challenges
But as the demand and possibilities for open source investigation in human rights continue to grow, we need to consider responsible data issues around data collection, data verification, legal challenges and vicarious trauma (trauma suffered by human rights workers after exposure to traumatic eyewitness media).
See the resources below for more:
- WITNESS’ ‘Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video’ (in English, Arabic, and Spanish) helps activists ensure that video documentation can be used for advocacy and evidence through ethical application. Examples of such archives are the Syrian Archive, the Chechen Archive, and the Violations Documentation Center Syria.
- WITNESS also created an ethical framework and checklist on how to use video as evidence (in English, Spanish, Russian, and Ukrainian). The guidelines cover the principles of human rights documentation, as well as tips for minimising risk.
- The Tow Center has published a global study of user-generated content, which includes chapters on the ethics of public news gathering, and the responsibility towards uploaders of content.
- Facing a growing number of restricted access to APIs, many researchers are choosing to extract data from websites through data scraping. It is important to revisit the ethical challenges of web scraping. More information on the ethics of web scraping can be found here.
- Consider reviewing First Draft News’ resources on the ethics and law of eyewitness media before publishing potentially copyrighted material.
- Satellite and drone imagery is a common source in human rights investigations, but its use can be legally restricted. You can find an overview of national drone regulations here.
- The Verification Handbook is a comprehensive guide on the possibilities and challenges of content verification.
- The Tow Center’s study on user-generated content includes a chapter on responsibility to the audience.
- The number of tools that can help researchers to verify sources are countless; this toolbox, created by the Citizen Evidence Lab and available in ten languages, is great starting point for anyone interested in learning about content verification.
- First Draft News has produced a guide on visual verification of photos and videos.
- Verifying potentially traumatic user-generated content can have an impact upon the mental health of humanitarian staff working ‘on the digital frontline’. First Draft News produced a guide on journalism and vicarious trauma.
- The Tow Center’s guide on user-generated content includes chapters on responsibility to audience and responsibility to staff.
- Eyewitness Media Hub conducted an in-depth study into the impact of viewing traumatic eyewitness media upon the mental health of staff.
- The Verification Handbook includes a number of tips for coping with traumatic imagery.
- Hacks, Leaks and Breaches: Issue #8 of Limn, edited by E. Gabriella Coleman and Christopher M. Kelty – with a lot of fantastic articles and essays.
- Responsible Data concerns with open source intelligence, by Evanna Hu on the Responsible Data blog
- Social media intelligence, the wayward child of open source intelligence, by Millie Graham Wood, Legal Officer at Privacy International
- Responsible Data leaks and whistleblowing, by Alix Dunn and Ruth Miller
This compilation is non-exhaustive, but we hope it can spark a conversation around responsible data challenges for open source investigations in human rights. The outcome of this Responsible Data Forum will be a series of responsible data considerations and challenges for human rights advocates and researchers who work on open source investigations.
Sign up to the Responsible Data mailing list to be kept up to date on further developments on this topic.