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Human Rights Documentation in the Age of Digital Data

In May 2016, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), along with 12 other organizations, gathered in Berlin to create a guide that would help human rights defenders navigate responsible data collection in the digital age. The project was a result of collaboration between Amnesty International, Benetech, and The Engine Room. The groups worked for four consecutive days by exchanging ideas and consolidating expertise to bridge the divide between technology and human rights documentation. As technological tools become more widespread and efficient, human rights defenders are now able to capitalize on these developments to protect their sources and expand the scope of their work.

The final product, DatNav: How to navigate digital data for human rights research, will help human rights organizations faced with limited resources better understand how to get started and assess the value of different types of data collection methods. From online videos of rights violations to eyewitness accounts disseminated on social media, human rights defenders have access to more relevant data today than ever before. When used responsibly, this data can help human rights professionals in the courtroom, when working with governments and journalists, and in documenting historical record.

Acquiring and storing digital data is also becoming increasingly affordable. As costs continue to decrease and new platforms are developed, opportunities for harnessing these data sources for human rights work increase. But integrating data collection and management into the day to day work of human rights research and documentation can be challenging, even overwhelming, for individuals and organisations. SJAC is continuously looking for ways to better secure its data archive and explore new channels for data management given the large volume of data that has emerged from the Syrian conflict.

Documenting human rights violations in Syria has proven challenging, particularly in highly insecure areas of the country. The DatNav guide helps outline how Syrian human rights organizations can incorporate different digital tools to broaden their work efficiently, reliably, and securely. From tracing the routes of refugees to recording the number of deaths by torture to documenting the names of enforced disappearances, knowing how to navigate digital data can enhance the work already being done in Syria. And applying digital tools correctly can also help bring justice to victims of the atrocities. For example, to address the enormous displacement challenge in Syria, a post-conflict restitution mechanism is needed to provide compensation to those whose homes were destroyed. Satellite imagery can help prove before a court or reparations commission that destroyed homes were standing prior to a particular air strike. Data from satellite images, however, can be difficult to interpret. The guide, therefore, contextualizes the use of satellites for those unsure whether to pursue this option.

Research for the guide included interviews, community consultations, and surveys to understand whether digital data was being integrated into human rights work. Despite the wide availability of digital data, in the vast majority of cases, organizations were not taking advantage of these new sources of data. Mainly, human rights researchers appeared to be overwhelmed by the possibilities.

The guide assumes readers already know the basics of human rights research but wish to expand their knowledge of how to use digital data and online media for documentation purposes. This is a broad introduction that will set human rights defenders on the path to asking the right questions and seeking solutions. The guide aims to inspire critical thinking, rather than be prescriptive about what specific software, devices, or platforms should be used, since these tools evolve constantly.

For more information or to provide feedback, please email SJAC at [email protected]. To find out more about the DatNav project, please email the Engine Room at [email protected].