Friday, June 10, 2011

Human Rights at the Benetech Board Meeting

The centerpiece of our Benetech board of directors meeting this week was the Benetech Human Rights Program. Each of our quarterly meetings tends to focus on big strategic issues facing Benetech. Last quarter Betsy Beaumon presented the future of our Literacy program including Bookshare. Next quarter will be our new projects meeting, where we talk about the pipeline of new ideas for Benetech social enterprises. But this week, human rights was front and center.

Patrick Ball giving a powerpoint presentation, the slide on the screen behind him entitled There's a Lot to DoPatrick Ball, our Chief Scientist and VP of the Human Rights Program, spent a couple of hours with our board talking about the big strategic questions for the HRP. He talked about the opportunities and challenges he sees ahead, especially as technology tools continue to be adopted by more of the human rights community, from cell phones to Facebook.

Our human rights program has many important moving parts:
  • Improving the science of human rights statistics
  • Doing major projects to help a country figure out what happened in the last ten or twenty years of civil wars
  • Helping both academics and prosecutors get data usable for their needs
  • Building technology tools like Martus for capturing human rights violations data
  • Talking to high tech companies about how their policies help and/or hurt the cause of human rights
  • Training new scientists in our methods (increasingly our alums are taking on major projects for other major human rights programs)
  • Talking to journalists and documentary film makers about how to protect their data in the field
  • Training human rights groups all over the world on how to collect and secure their data for maximum impact on improving human rights
All of this is of course through the lens of serving the human rights movement: Benetech's HRP is all about helping human rights groups achieve their goals of defending and advancing respect for human rights. If the groups we're working with don't succeed, then we don't succeed.

Selection bias was one of Patrick's core scientific topics: the tendency of humans to believe that the information they get represents the big picture. One hypothetical example of this issue that came up in the meeting was SMS traffic after a large earthquake and tsunami. You might think that the amount of traffic corresponds to the places that would have the most damage. But, it might well have been that the places with the greatest damage had no power for the phone system, or people were too busy with the aftermath of the disaster, compared to more mildly affected cities with power and relatively little damage (but people texting like crazy to say they are ok). How do we help decision-makers and the press get a better handle on what we know and don't know, and prevent people from leaping to the wrong conclusions (and by extension, taking the wrong actions)?

We're lucky at Benetech to have very smart and engaged board. And, I think our board felt good about investing the time to engage in such an intellectually stimulating topic of immense importance.

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