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Q&A with Elizabeth Eagen on Human Rights and Technology

Submitted by on March 24, 2011 – 10:22 pmOne Comment

2267 small eeagenphotoWe continue our series of conversations with program officers at Open Society Foundations this month with Elizabeth Eagen of the Information Program and Human Rights and Governance Grants Program. Our last conversation was with Victoria Wigodzky, former program officer at the Latin America Program for human rights and citizen security.

Información Civica: Hi Elizabeth, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Last month we were both in New York City for the board meeting of the Information Program of Open Society Foundations. It was the first time I heard you present the strategy for the Human Rights Data Initiative, a project that you have been working on with the Information Program and the Human Rights and Governance Grants Program. How did the initiative come into being and what does it hope to accomplish?

Elizabeth Eagen: Hi David, it’s my pleasure. The Human Rights Data Initiative is a joint initiative of the Information Program’s Civic Communication Initiative and the Human Rights and Governance Grants Program (HRGGP), established to address the growing need among Open Society Foundations grantees and the human rights sector at large for serious examination of information flow, analysis, preservation, and data openness. It came into being after a period of co-granting, research and evaluation between the two programs, as we realized that more and more tools were emerging in the digital space, and the opportunity for organizations to get and use big datasets was growing. At first we saw a major gap in funding: many traditional human rights and governance NGOs weren’t able to take advantage of new tools, because the infrastructure of the organizations wasn’t prepared to take them on. As we looked deeper, though, we came across some important questions about the nature of human rights data and its role in policymaking. There have been some recent deep shifts in both information technology and global institutional arrangements around gathering and measuring human rights. With access to big data sets and instantaneous message communication on the one hand, and a trend in policymaking toward performance indicators and development goals, we really needed some way to support organizations concentrating on the investigatory and documentation side of human rights work to address new challenges and channels for advocacy. We developed a strategy around three themes that we see as building on each other:

  1. rebuilding information infrastructure, to enable more powerful and safer ways for organizations to manage their data;
  2. extending the uses of human rights information, to develop data-supported outputs to enhance and extend narrative reporting and increase the chance to share and build collaboratively;
  3. supporting evidence-based policymaking initiatives, by developing new and very cautious practices around using quantitative and, rarely, statistical analysis for advocacy, as well as supporting projects that seek to challenge misleading but widely accepted public policy narratives, and to encourage policymakers toward empiricism in the policy process.

Obviously that last one is a complicated task. But it really encompasses what we hope to accomplish: a somewhat daunting task to help organizations upgrade their systems, so that they are free to engage with technology and data in a way that complements, rather than distracts, from the really quite complex methodology human rights and governance organizations already have in place to protect and monitor human rights.

IC: Last year I read Paul Gordon Lauren’s The Evolution of International Human Rights and was truly blown away by how far the human rights movement has come in the past 250 years. From the anti-slavery movement in the late 18th century to women’s suffrage of the 20th century to the International Criminal Court, which is less than 10 years old, it seems that what encompasses each of these struggles is a desire to move from a culture of impunity to a culture of accountability. What are the major, contemporary human rights issues that you work on? And what is an example of how human rights data has lead to greater accountability?

EE: The human rights and governance program tries to identify and support the human rights movement at a country level (and sometimes a multi-country level) and is focused on civil and political liberties. This means that we work with a lot of organizations covering a broad swathe of human rights, many of which maintain a country-wide presence, and then work with some groups or projects that seek to drill down into a core issue. Right now, for example, we’ve developed specific strategies for working with women’s rights, and on prisons. We also do a great deal of funding in accountability work. We fund organizations on freedom of information, LGBTQ rights, issues of conscripts in the military, domestic violence – it’s not really so much a question of what major human rights issues that I’m working on, because as a funder, I try to support the movement in the given country where I work (for HRGGP, that is Russia, Georgia, and Armenia). We also do a lot of work with organizations taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which is a long and complicated litigation process, that has sought to lead to greater accountability; once a case is won at the court, there is a domestic implementation that has to take place – that can be monetary, but also can be about changing a practice or law. The question of human rights data and accountability is interesting, because it implies a measurement of direct correlation; but a lot of human rights work is about raising public knowledge of a problem. So if the human rights data is the interview with the victim of torture that led to the conviction of a police officer, that’s one kind of accountability. But I am interested as well in other aspects to what human rights data can do. Without leaving aside the fact that one victim of torture is one too many, I think it’s amazing to look at how human rights actors have an impact on many other parts of policymaking, and how they can also be preventative: a strong human rights voice is a check on aggressive and destructive power, and an engine of civil society. You can go out on the street and protest, for example, because someone’s fought for your civil liberty to do that years ago, and will monitor your rights while you do it now.


The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France

IC: That makes a lot of sense. I think that there is an impression that the primary task of human rights organizations is to document abuses of human rights, especially by the government. But, in fact, the real goal is to prevent those abuses from happening in the first place, isn’t it?

Last year I had the opportunity to visit the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), one of Argentina’s oldest and most active human rights organizations. They house a vast paper archive of documents relating to human rights abuses that date back to the Dirty War of the military dictatorship. Today, of course, that information is entered into computer databases, and it is backed up off-site in case anything were to happen to their offices or computers. CELS still publishes a human rights report at the end of every year, but increasingly they are now using blogs to follow the progress of human rights court cases and related advocacy campaigns. How have new technologies changed the communication and advocacy strategies of human rights organizations? What are some of the positive and negative consequences in the use of digital media by human rights organizations?

EE: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I don’t know if many organizations would see it that way. Perhaps one hope is that the presence of a strong human rights watchdog community might prevent a government from committing gross human rights violations, but I’d say rather that the primary task of human rights organizations is to protect human rights and help establish those levers of civil society which make human rights a long-term priority of the state and the people – which could happen at any point along a time continuum.

In addition to the security and preservation examples you mention, the most obvious way to me that technologies can affect the communication and advocacy strategies of human rights organizations is in the areas of design, presentation, and audience. With digital media, human rights organizations can capitalize on their information as well as lengthen its life cycle and make it available for remixing in different ways. But I also see that new technology brings the capacity for human rights organizations to take hold of and interact with a potential waterfall of different public policy information. The investigatory tradition of human rights work really lends itself to deep dives into the data around a given situation, and human rights organizations have begun to advocate with non-traditional targets, such as international financial institutions and development aid organizations, and should be supported to do so more systematically. That means developing the relevant data analysis and aggregation skills so that they can enter into these debates from a position of confidence, developing arguments based on credible data from multiple fields, and also, learning when to reject the simplistic request for numbers and statistics and to maintain the focus on the core story of human rights. Interestingly, I see many human rights organizations taking advantage of digital media tools to shape their communications with domestic audiences, where their long-term relationship is both the foundation of systemic change and the safety net for human rights defenders. Groups have had success and failure in each of those opportunities – integrating digital media, like other tools, has its pitfalls as well as successes.

IC: One of the points that Patrick Ball made during his presentation at Open Society Foundations last month is that statistics can easily be abstracted from important context. What are ways that human rights organizations can use statistics effectively without losing sight of the context and their objectives?

EE: Patrick’s presentation is definitely worth listening to for the whole of his argument. Broadly, I think that human rights organizations can use statistics effectively where they see the opportunity to apply them in context – where an explanation of the human rights situation is enriched by or contradicts an understanding of the meaning of statistics – but it’s almost never going to be the primary mover of a project or a human rights argument. Using statistics comes down to a difficult and important set of decisions to make for the organization’s advocacy strategy, and comes down to the individual data that an organization may possess. I’m much more interested in looking at the way data, including numbers and narrative information, and not statistics, can be used.

IC: What are your plans for the rest of this year? What are you most excited about right now?

EE: I’m excited right now about the experimentation with data collection and data mashups that many organizations are looking in to – I think we’re going to see a wealth of experimentation, and learn more about best practices and in footnoting and fact-checking data that is used across new advocacy techniques and in building development and human rights arguments. I’m also curious to know more about how organizations are managing demand for the data: now that we’re seeing organizations having more access to more data, how will they try to use it?

IC: What are your recommendations for human rights organizations that would like to use technology more effectively, but don’t know where to start?

EE: It does depend on the technology and the organization. In the context of a data project I think when organizations decide to use technology, they need to take a close look at the capacity they have in knowledge management in their own NGOs. But much of technology is being designed now for experimentation – blogs and other social media tools for example – and that hands-on action has a quick learning curve. For things like larger data projects, visualization projects, and analysis projects, organizations can draw on existing years of experience in planning and imagining what might be an effective advocacy hook – those same key questions of every organization: why would someone look at this? Who is my audience? What is the most expressive piece of information? Are there alternative narratives I’m hoping to counteract? What are the standards I’m upholding and comparing? And organizations need to spend a bit of time thinking through how to manage a technology project, and how to ask the best questions of the programmers they want to engage with. The exciting thing now is that yes, there are some technology projects that can’t be done without an outside programmer, but there’s also a growing number of programmers who are interested to specialize in the kind of creative problem solving and brainstorming a human rights NGO might need. These technologists want to go beyond just fulfilling a technology contract; and more than likely, there are people inside an organization with the interest to pursue that conversation. Creative technologists can solve problems of data collection early on, and it’s good to include them in the planning process as early as possible. We have seen some pretty interesting projects emerge from hybrid interests: problem-solving technologists who have creative discussion with human rights organizations, where all parties are committed to the conversation.

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