What’s Next for the Benetech Human Rights Program?

By Benetech, posted on

By Enrique Piraces, Vice President, Human Rights Program

I write to let you know that after much thought and consideration, I’m leaving my position as the vice president of the Benetech Human Rights Program. I’m excited for the next chapter in my career and eager to see the work that the Human Rights team will continue to do.

During my tenure at Benetech, we developed and executed a new strategy and roadmap for the Human Rights Program—one that we believe puts Benetech in the right place to continue to support the global human rights movement with open, secure tools for data collection and information management.

Let me explain what led us towards this new direction.

More than a decade ago, Benetech established its Human Rights Program anchored by two initiatives: the Martus Project—one of the first secure, open source, cloud-based data services for the sector; and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), a leader in data-driven and scientific analysis of human rights violations (HRDAG spun off in 2013 into an independent organization). With Martus, Benetech pioneered the idea of making strong security accessible to human rights actors. Since the human rights field has dramatically changed over the past decade, Benetech strove to understand it and embrace those changes.

First, it is far less monolithic. No longer are grassroots activists and large human rights organizations the only players: rather, journalists, citizen reporters, activists, researchers, and civil society practitioners are now forefront stakeholders. Second, those human rights actors are using new technologies that are advancing at a tremendous pace. And third, the challenges they are facing are no longer limited exclusively to conflict-driven violations and physical abuse, but also include issues such as gender identity, environmental rights, as well as access, privacy, and security in the digital age. All these shifts present tremendous opportunities to advance the human rights landscape.

That is why, when I joined Benetech as vice president of the Human Rights Program, we established that in order to seize the new opportunities that lie ahead and to continue to uphold our commitments to our stakeholders, the Benetech Human Rights Program needed to evolve and adapt to the new conditions of our field.

We set out to learn how we could better serve our users and partners, and to that end formed strategic relationships with peers and other significant players in the field. We engaged in public dialogue with the likes of Human Rights Watch and WITNESS, as well as with activist-practitioners, philanthropists, technologists, and policymakers at events such as the Tenth Anniversary of the Martus Project; panel discussions about the future of human rights technology and about the role of Silicon Valley in that future; and workshops on secure information management and data collection.

Informed by these conversations and our own internal review, we launched a new strategy centered on four principles:

1. Serving the Growing Communities Involved in Data Collection and Management

If the Human Rights Program is to be a top-tier partner to the global human rights movement, then we must address the needs of the many stakeholders and sectors that now engage with vulnerable populations. To better support this new direction, we re-crafted the Program’s vision and mission.

Our Program’s revised vision is:

Effective, secure, and open technology

And our revised mission is:

To advance the global human rights movement by providing and supporting effective, secure, and open information management and data collection technology for rights defenders, fieldworkers, researchers, and journalists.

2. Focusing on Broader Challenges

Martus originated as a human rights bulletin system for documenting information about abuse and violations. Human rights actors today, however, collect, analyze, and produce data and knowledge about a broader array of issues concerning vulnerable populations. Martus therefore needed to evolve to address broader problems.

To do so, and to extend the reach and benefit of open, strong encryption to those who rely on secure data collection and management, we have built the next generation of Martus—version 4.5 and version 5 of Martus Desktop—with a strong emphasis on improved usability and user experience. In our latest release, Martus 5.1, we implemented improved user interface and data visualization tools. We have also created and deployed Mobile Martus—an Android-based app designed to bring secure data collection, storage, and backup closer to the field—and have incorporated it into our trainings for human rights groups.

Moreover, we engaged more broadly with regional and national human rights groups to bolster their capacity to conduct evidence-based human rights documentation. We find that our field team can be an asset to these groups and also that we can learn about their needs in order to advance the human right technology space.

3. Developing Composite Solutions that Address Composite Problems

Technologies like Martus show that it is possible to create the right tools for information collection by or about vulnerable populations. But the diversity and complexity of the challenges that the human rights technology space now encompasses require us to expand the solutions we offer beyond Martus.

To that end, our team has defined a product roadmap that builds upon and beyond Martus. We believe that it puts Benetech in a better position to tackle the complex information challenges of the human rights field. In addition to the next major releases of Martus Desktop and Mobile Martus, we are envisioning:

  • “Powered-by-Martus”: open source tools that would have the Martus engine at their core, but will look and feel like specialized applications in a suite of Martus solutions or build-ons to the current Martus client. These will help facilitate Martus’ strong security and distributed backup to be used by other applications, increasing the usability of and access to open source, end-to-end encryption.
  • secureApp Generator: an open source platform that enables any organization to create its own custom mobile and desktop applications for secure data collection, using Martus’ strong, open encryption. This platform will serve as a public system for the creation of secure, multilingual, and open source apps for distributed information collection by or about vulnerable populations.
  • Secure, Open Apps for Human Rights: web and mobile prototypes for the collection, annotation, analysis, and preservation of multi-format (text, audio, video, etc.) evidence and testimonials gathered by human rights actors, which store information as structured, protected, and shareable data that can be queried and analyzed for advocacy and legal purposes. These prototypes will be built to be interoperable yet independent, and to meet the critical requirements of human rights actors regarding security, privacy, and connectivity.
4. Developing Strategic Partnerships

To impact the field of human rights defense and build tools that meet the needs of more than a single group or sector, we must closely engage with organizations that have global reach and extensive networks of local partnerships in a variety of regions facing severe human rights issues. Over the past two years, we have therefore established partnerships with organizations such as Access, Amnesty International, the engine room, The Guardian Project, Internews, and New Media Advocacy Project.

For example, our team was an active part of the last two annual RightsCon conferences in San Francisco and Manila, presenting at multiple sessions, co-creating the demo room, and participating at the Responsible Data Forum on Human Rights Documentation. We also co-organized, with Access, a workshop on digital security for LGBTI activists in the African region, and engaged with global leaders from government, civil society, academia, and private enterprise at the third edition of the Stockholm Internet Forum.

It has been a busy two years and I am happy to say that our team has made progress towards establishing a strong global footprint within the human rights movement. I will continue to be part of the Benetech family and advocate for secure and open source technology, like Martus, as a building block for the human rights and journalistic fields. I hope you continue to follow and support the important work of the Benetech Human Rights Program too.