Sunday, October 30, 2011

Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference

This blog first appeared in the Huffington Post.

This week marked a first-ever gathering of human rights activists with Silicon Valley technology developers. The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference hosted a series of discussions about how technology is used to expand and sometimes undermine essential freedoms around the world. Organized by the nonprofit group Access and sponsored by Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, Mozilla and other major tech companies, the conference brought together business leaders, policy makers and online activists, especially from the Arabic-speaking world.

This morning we saw live video of democracy protesters in Yemen who have been following the discussions via streaming video. The event helped create an extended dialog between participants of the Arab Spring and the developers of technology tools that activists have used to circumvent government censorship. We discussed strategies for holding companies accountable for human rights and encouraging the creation of products that respect the needs of their users.

The conference offered stark reminders of the pressures on human rights activists and the complicity of companies who yield to authoritarian regimes. The event kicked off with talks by two activists who may go to prison as a result of their online activities; Alaa Abd El-Fatah, an Egyptian blogger and software developer and Thai journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Premchaiporn was charged after comments allegedly insulting the Thai royal family appeared on a website she edited. El-Fatah, who will face a military tribunal, noted that 12,000 Egyptian civilians are now being held in military prisons for participating in the revolution. El-Fatah said that rate limits on Twitter, real name policies on Facebook and the drive to monetize every online transaction, limits the usefulness of technology for activists.

Maria Al-Masani, founder of the Yemen Rights Monitor human rights group, told conference participants how her fellow activists have effectively used common applications to circumvent censorship. She recalled that when Yemen decided to ban Al-Jazeera, activists there bridged the gap by recording videos on their phones, posting the footage to YouTube and Facebook, linking content directly to the Al-Jazeera stream and then tweeting the story.

Despite the effectiveness of these tools, Bob Boorstin, the Director of Public Policy at Google, told participants that forty democratic and authoritarian regimes around the world are actively blocking free speech and companies are not doing enough to promote human rights. Google itself, he said, does not have a spotless record. "You've got to be ready to lose some money in order to protect human rights," said Boorstin to applause. "And not a lot of companies are ready for that."

El-Fatah noted that Vodafone offered no resistance to the Egyptian's government's request for a kill switch that shut down cell phone services during that country's Arab Spring. El-Fatah said companies should be pressured to resist having their products used to suppress dissent and think carefully about the rights of ordinary users. "We choose how to reveal who I am, on what terms and in what basis," said El-Fatah. "When you restrict me from doing this, you violate my human rights."

In the closing session, Lebanese activist Imad Bazzi noted that he had just gotten an email saying that two of his friends had just been killed in Syria. A stark reminder of the gravity of the risks that human rights activists take: that the stakes are not just freedom of speech, but freedom from being killed for your beliefs.

Benetech is a Silicon Valley nonprofit that has been writing software for the human rights movement for a decade. We talk about values-based approaches to helping activists. Patrick Ball, Benetech's chief scientist, spoke at the conference about the importance of coding human rights tools that meet the immediate needs of activists on the ground. He urged participants to remember that the reason the world pays attention to human rights activists that they speak truth to power. This has significant implications for database developers who must create tools that do not distort the information being captured or mislead decision makers with flawed analytics. Ball added that cryptographic protections to secure or authenticate information must be built into technological infrastructures.

"My colleagues and I at Benetech spend a lot of time working with people on the ground to figure out what's the strategic use of their information, and that is what the assessment needs to be about," said Ball. "It is not about the technology, it is not about platforms. It's about what are you trying to accomplish. How do we tell the truth? It is the vision of the mission goal that leads to successful projects, rather than just saying, 'I got a cool tool.'"

Ball added that activists need to create detailed narratives that help them get their work done efficiently in familiar formats. He said the databases that he will create in the next few years will look much less like a traditional database and more like a mash up between a wiki, a blog and Facebook.

I had the honor of giving the final talk to the conference to conclude its first day. I first got the idea for developing software for human rights when reading about the massacre of the 500 villagers in the village of El Mozote at the hands of a U.S.-trained battalion of the Salvadoran army. The incident made me wonder if technology could be developed to help prevent such atrocities, and that idea led to the creation of the open source Martus software for tracking and reporting on abuses.

I reminded participants that free speech alone is not enough to secure human rights. Human rights defenders process information and document violations, but these accounts get lost and computers are sometimes seized by authorities. Martus is used by organizations around the world to protect sensitive information and shield the identity of victims or witnesses who provide testimony on human rights abuses. We need the persistence of human rights groups to secure accountability for violators.

My closing comments were designed to get more techies involved in helping defend the defenders of human rights:
I hope this is an inspiration about what our skills as technologists can do. If we can get this right, we will make human rights defenders stronger in their desperately unequal battle against perpetrators of large-scale human rights abuse.
Thanks to Ann Harrison for help with this post!

Correction noted: In the first version of this post, I incorrectly said that Alaa Abd El-Fatah had lost two friends in Syria, instead of Imad Bazzi.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Eliminating Blinding Trachoma

As I mentioned in my previous two blogs about my Africa trip of last July, I had the pleasure of meeting many interesting people and learning about numerous exciting, cool projects during that three week long visit to Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. In Ghana, I greatly enjoyed meeting Peter Ackland, CEO of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. Peter is spearheading the wonderful campaign Vision 2020 “The Right to Sight”: a global initiative seeking to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020. We sat under a tree and talked particularly about the race to eliminate trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness and one of Vision 2020’s five priority diseases.

I think social entrepreneurship is all about looking at root causes and addressing them: elimination of a disease is a pretty good approach to addressing the root cause instead of just treating symptoms. And that's Peter's goal as part of this effort.

Trachoma starts with a relatively benign infection of the eye with the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis, which leads to inflammation of the tissue lining the eyelids (this is one of the causes of conjunctivitis, or “pink eye”). The condition is highly communicable and easily spreads via contact with dirty clothes, hands and flies that are attracted to people’s eyes. In its advanced stage, called trichiasis, repeated re-infection causes scarring of the eyelid, which then turns inward, scraping the cornea with every blink. The combination of repeat cornea trauma and secondary infections is excruciatingly painful and causes diminished vision and, eventually, blindness.

Trachoma has been around for thousands of years, but as the result of development and targeted interventions, it is now limited to an estimated 57 countries, often affecting poor, rural communities that lack the tools for basic hygiene, clean water and adequate sanitation. Today, an estimated 750,000 people are blind and at least 1 million suffer low vision due to trachoma. More than 4 million experience trichiasis, steadily and painfully progressing towards blindness, and hundreds of millions need treatment or are at risk of being infected. In addition to the human cost of the disease, its economic burden on the lives of individuals, families and communities is enormous. Kenya and Tanzania, among others, are considered “high burden countries,” defined as having more than 5 million people living in trachoma-confirmed and suspected areas.

The good news is that trachoma can effectively be eliminated. In 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Peter’s International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness launched the VISION 2020 campaign, which has mobilized a community of partner organizations that have been working together towards the 2020 goal. They implement the WHO-endorsed SAFE (Surgery – Antibiotics – Facial Cleanliness – Environmental Improvements) strategy that’s been proven highly successful at eliminating trachoma in vulnerable populations, and they continually improve upon it by smart innovation.

At Benetech, we apply innovative technology to create new realities for people with blindness and other print disabilities. Of course, we are huge fans of prevention and applaud the efforts to get trachoma under control so that millions of people can be spared the painful and disabling path towards low vision and blindness. Controlling trachoma also has important auxiliary benefits to public health, such as improved sanitation and per­sonal hygiene.

There’s great progress to report on: the first countries (among which is Ghana) have reached or are reaching their intervention goals and the total trachoma burden is shrinking. There are also significant challenges ahead and much more to do: reaching the 2020 milestone will depend on country leadership, international coordination, logistical and planning support, and adequate financing. But how heartening it is that the elimination of blinding trachoma – a disease that’s been recorded since Egyptian times – is now well within sight.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Benetech’s Daniel Guzmán Publishes Account of Landmark Guatemalan Human Rights Case

Benetech’s Human Rights Program supports critical human rights cases around the world helping to end impunity and bring justice to communities torn apart by violence. Benetech statistician Daniel Guzmán has just published his account of one legal case which set a historic precedent for human rights in Guatemala. Guzmán’s article, entitled Speaking Stats to Justice: Expert Testimony in a Guatemalan Human Rights Trial Based on Statistical Sampling, appears in the most recent issue of CHANCE, a quarterly journal published by the American Statistical Association. The story illustrates the crucial role that scientists can play in analyzing large collections of human rights data and presenting findings that can help hold perpetrators accountable for terrible crimes.

The article describes Guzmán’s presentation of key evidence in the trial of two former Guatemalan National Police agents accused of forcibly disappearing 26-year-old student and union leader Edgar Fernando García. A husband and father, García disappeared in 1984 after being detained by police on his way to work one morning. His family never stopped looking for him.

The Guatemalan Attorney General’s office summoned Guzmán to present evidence based on his analysis of random samples drawn from the millions of documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive. Discovered by chance in 2005 in an explosives storehouse in Guatemala City, the archive contains what archivists estimate to be 8 kilometers or approximately 80 million sheets, of paper. Many of the police documents contained in the archive were created during the country’s internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, during which an estimated tens of thousands of Guatemalans disappeared.

Benetech’s Human Rights Program was asked to help analyze the documents in this vast archive. We have been working in partnership with the archive staff who have been using Benetech’s Martus software to secure the data. Guzmán and his colleagues at Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group spent four years intensely analyzing the documents. In October 2010, Guzmán stood before three judges to defend his statistical findings, which supported the prosecutor’s case against the police officers. Statistical data are very seldom used as evidence in court cases in Guatemala, and defense attorneys were attempting to discredit his testimony.

One week after Guzmán presented his statistical evidence, the judges found the two former police officers guilty of forced disappearance and sentenced each to 40 years in prison. Analysis of the archive documents by Guzmán and his colleagues also provided critical information used to support the arrest in June 2011 of Hector Bol de la Cruz, the former chief of the Guatemalan National Police who is accused of complicity in García’s disappearance.

The arrest of a commanding officer accused of involvement in the many disappearances that took place during Guatemala’s 36 years of armed internal conflict is a big step towards justice in that country. The statistical evidence that Guzmán presented in the García case set a precedent for this type of analysis in court and we are proud of him. Guzmán’s groundbreaking testimony will help judges trust the validity of the archive documents and accept statistical evidence in future human rights cases. I urge you to read Guzmán’s compelling account of how he helped build the case against the former police officers, the trial, the verdict, and its long term implications for justice in Guatemala.