Applying Technology to Human Rights Fact-Finding Problems: How Can We Best Realize Its Promise?
Human Rights Clinic student Surya Gopalan LLM ’15 reflects on his experience engaging with technology and human rights experts in the Philippines
As a student of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, I recently attended a series of workshops and conferences in Manila, the Philippines, with the Clinic’s Director, Professor Sarah Knuckey. We traveled to Manila to learn from the world’s leading experts using technology to advance human rights, and to share and workshop our clinic projects, including our project on improving investigations of civilian harm in armed conflict.
At the Responsible Data Forum, a small, collaborative tool-building workshop with technology and human rights experts, and RightsCon, an international conference bringing together hundreds of experts on human rights and technology, I met scores of advocates and experts from around the world, discussed technology-based solutions to human rights problems, debated ethical issues raised by the use of new technology, and consulted a diverse range of experts on some of our clinic projects. We address these kinds of issues in our clinic classes, and the workshops allowed me to dive deeper in my own thinking about those issues, as well as appreciate the practical ways in which experienced human rights workers respond in their project designs to common critiques of human rights work.
New technologies offer many opportunities to improve human rights fact-finding practices. For example, they can generate scale in reporting, accelerate fact-finding and advocacy, provide for easier storage and analysis of data, and more effectively enable participation by impacted communities in mitigating human rights abuses. At the same time, using technology is not without risk. It can undermine the privacy and security of human rights defenders and victim communities and, if not appropriately verified, may be prone to data manipulation. Properly accounting for these challenges is an essential step in selecting tools and designing a sensitive and effective human rights documentation project.
As part of Columbia’s Human Rights Clinic, I have been working with two other students – Balqees Mihirig LLM ’15 and Bassam Khawaja JD ’15 – and Professor Knuckey on a project aimed at improving on-site first responder investigations of civilian harm caused by airstrikes. In Manila, we workshopped our planned project with experts from many fields and countries, learned of similar projects in other contexts, and sought to incorporate proven methods into our project design. During the week, we also shared with other participants our experiences in the Human Rights Clinic of using technology to improve community participation as well as effective recording of human rights violations, and shared with technology experts the kinds of obstacles human rights advocates often face.
During the week, we participated in numerous small expert workshops, including to devise methods to analyze when and how a human rights documentation project in a “low-tech” environment might benefit from the application of “high-tech” tools, and to develop a valuable framework to incorporate meaningful community participation into each stage of a human rights documentation project: from problem identification, to project design, data collection and analysis, and output evaluation.
We also learned about several exciting existing and soon to be released technologies. For example, I learned more about Medicapt: a pilot project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that employs a smart phone application to facilitate the better collection and transmission of evidence of sexual violence. I learned more about Martus: a secure tool with offline capabilities enabling the creation of customizable databases for data collection, and CaseBox, a secure, cloud-based collaboration platform. I also learned about the Umbrella App: an offline mobile tool equipping human rights defenders with easy-to-access information on how to work safely, including how to securely make a call, encrypt data, or deal with an arrest or evacuation.
I left Manila with a more sophisticated understanding of the promise and pitfalls of applying technology to human rights work, and learned concrete ways in which particular technologies might responsibly be incorporated into our own clinic projects. It was inspiring to learn about the truly enterprising and important human rights work carried out by human rights advocates from around the world, particularly those bravely working in repressive and dangerous environments. Just as I hope to carry the insights I gained at these conferences into my future work in law and human rights, I hope future clinic students are able to benefit from the new relationships and tools I brought back from Manila.