Spotlight on Software for Social Good: The Complicated Intersection of Tech and Human Rights

By Julianna Wright, posted on

Shabnam Mojtahedi is a lawyer focused on rule of law and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa region. At Benetech, she is leading efforts to apply artificial intelligence to help civil society organizations pursue justice and accountability in Syria and beyond. Before coming to Benetech, she worked with the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), an organization that promotes meaningful transitional justice for Syrian victims of war crimes and human rights violations.

In this illuminating Q&A, Shabnam discusses her current work and shares her perspective on the complicated intersection of technology and human rights.

Shabnam Mojtahedi, Benetech Senior Program Manager, Human Rights, headshot.

Tell me a little bit about your current work at Benetech.

One of the recent phenomena in Syria and around the world has been the amount of content shared online by ordinary people about conflicts that could be used as direct evidence of human rights violations. However, investigators have had difficulty taking advantage of this content due to the sheer quantity of information. To address this challenge, we are building software tools to help human rights defenders analyze data more efficiently.

An example is video de-duplication. Organizations, activists, and civilians are recording what’s happening around them and posting it online. Many of these videos are downloaded, re-uploaded, changed and manipulated in minor ways like resolution and length, resulting in a massive amount of duplicate and near-duplicate videos. By developing AI to match and cluster those videos, Benetech is aiming to help organizations cut down on the time needed to sort through and build relationships between different pieces of documentation, providing a clear path to justice.

What are some of the challenges to achieving justice for victims of human rights violations? How is technology changing that?

The biggest challenge is the lack of political will to pursue justice in almost all circumstances. Justice is a hard won battle fought by victim communities and human rights advocates, and technology will not overcome human imposed hurdles, but it is a critical tool for amplifying the impact of human rights work.

Technology adds to a human rights defender’s tool box, strengthening security, advocacy, and monitoring. Through software, people are better able to store and analyze documentation that can be used as evidence of atrocities. In the digital security space, software can be used to better safeguard people and data in increasingly closing environments where activities are vulnerable to crackdown from government authorities. It also helps advocates tell a more compelling story. By drawing on evidence from emerging data sources, such as satellite imagery, and creating visualizations using statistical analysis, human rights defenders can inspire human action and political pressure. And as AI tools are developed, this can be done faster than ever.

Where else do you see technology making a major impact in the human rights space?

Technology impacts nearly every aspect of our lives. As much as it serves as a tool for advancing human rights, it has also opened new avenues for abuse. The AI software that will make human rights abuse monitoring more efficient will also be used by governments for surveillance. The same social media platforms allowing human rights advocates to share stories are also being used by bad actors for disinformation campaigns. We must monitor and condemn the abuses committed through the use of technology while also creatively leveraging new tools to benefit the human rights community.

Why does the idea of software for social good resonate with you?

Working at SJAC introduced me to the tech for good sector. I immediately saw the gaps when it came to the human rights community applying technology to its work, and I saw huge opportunities and needs in the software for human rights space.

Software has promised so much good. Now, we’ve seen that with the market interests that have driven tech development, a lot of these promises remain unfulfilled. More so, with the rise of disinformation, cyber warfare, rising economic inequality, and data breaches, we are in an era of cynicism and wariness about tech.

What excites me about Benetech’s mission is that working directly with communities is embedded in our approach to developing software solutions. Right now, we are working with partners to examine needs, test tools and incorporate their feedback accordingly. We are also working to define how we measure the impact of this technology in the human rights space. Applying the lessons learned from these past few decades, we can continue to set standards for the responsible development of software for good.

Now is a critical time to be rethinking how we engage with technology – how we leverage the incredible potential that tech offers but do so in a way that is sustainable, ethical, and in collaboration with the communities we serve.

Do you know a person or organization leading the software for social good revolution? Let us know at [email protected], and we may feature them in an upcoming blog post.

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