Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The First Global Martus Users Group Meeting

Guest Beneblog by Vijaya Tripathi

The first ever Martus users group meeting took place earlier this month in Chiang Mai, the capital of Northern Thailand. Martus is Benetech's free and open source software package designed for human rights activists to collect stories and data about human rights abuses. For me personally, the meeting was a rare experience. I have led Martus outreach and training for the past 4 years and worked with human rights defenders all over the world, but because of the project-specific nature of our work, I interact with each of our partners separately. This global Martus meeting brought together individuals who use Martus to address different human rights documentation and security needs in widely varied projects, to share their successes and challenges with the software. It was surreal and incredibly exciting to see these inspiring people, my colleagues and friends, assembled in one place to launch the next generation of Martus.

Our mandate, broadly speaking, was to engage in “blue-sky dreaming” and learn from our shared experiences to make Martus a more robust tool. And, support from the Open Society Foundation made this event possible!

This is a truly unique moment in Martus’ history. Since we began developing Martus 10 years ago, we’ve been able to enhance it only incrementally as project specific funding allowed. While we’ve been able to add substantial new features here and there, we’ve never been in a position to make comprehensive enhancements. It’s hard to contain my excitement at the prospect of modernizing Martus to meet some of the critical needs partners express to me on a regular basis.

With generous support for new technology developments from the MacArthur Foundation, we now have the ability to assess and prioritize needs, enhance existing features, build new functionality and develop client and server infrastructure. When Benetech first began designing Martus, we began by incorporating input from human rights partners on the frontline. All of us at Benetech felt that it was absolutely essential to once again rely on our user community as we plan how to utilize these limited resources most effectively.

Not everyone was able to come to Chiang Mai, of course. We gathered input from other current and past users via online surveys and phone interviews, and we’re still gathering feedback. So if you are reading this and have feedback on how Martus can serve you better, please let us know at

The meeting wasn’t only about technical improvements, though attendees were incredibly enthusiastic and detailed in discussing changes that would have greatest impact in their day-to-day and long-term project goals. When we planned the meeting in fall 2011, we hoped that the gathering would catalyze the development of the Martus community – that is, initiate connections between users so that they can serve as resources for one another. We’ve started chewing on the idea of secure user forums and other virtual watering holes to support the global network of users. In the meantime, we’re going to continue the conversations begun at the meeting.

Another exciting direction from the meeting is that Martus stakeholders are mirroring our desire to make Martus outreach and training more scalable. The Benetech Human Rights Program (HRP) team is small - and the Martus outreach and training team is no different. As demand for Martus and training grows, we have realized that we need to take steps to prevent Benetech’s small team from becoming a bottleneck for implementation. Meeting participants suggested that we invest in more accessible training and documentation – from video tutorials to more dynamic manuals – and facilitate users connecting to one another to meet capacity needs. We also discussed targeted, intensive trainings-of-trainers with partner organizations that specifically want to have in-house Martus instructors, with the goal of creating a loosely interconnected global web of trainers.

From a technical perspective, the most exciting theme of the event was the idea of creating a Martus “ecosystem” of tools. Currently, you can manually enter data into Martus, or import data after formatting it into XML. What if we made it easier to send data to Martus directly from a wide range of other tools, like your mobile device? What if you could quickly and easily import data from other formats, like a Word document, PDF file or photograph? What if you could just as easily get data out of Martus in a similarly wide range of formats? How would that change the flow of data into Martus and allow our partners to secure and manage more data than ever before? We tossed these ideas back and forth from our various perspectives as users, trainers, technologists, funders, capacity-builders and program staff. We agreed that creating a true ecosystem would radically change the relevance of Martus to its users’ broader information management reality.

On the heels of this cool idea came another, more challenging proposal from Patrick Ball, the head of our human rights program here at Benetech, – what if we put ownership of developing parts of this ecosystem into the hands of our broader community of stakeholders? This was a newer idea for folks in the room, but I think once the surprise wore off, people really accepted the challenge. The more people working to develop Martus, the faster and more sustainably we’ll be able to make these changes a reality.

It takes vision to recognize the importance of creating a space for users to draw from their experiences and inform our development of Martus – I want to extend again my heartfelt thanks to the Open Society Foundation for supporting us to create such a space. By doing so, we’ve launched a new phase in the Martus project: the development of a truly interconnected Martus community, in which users work not only with Benetech, but also with each other.

We held the meeting in Chiang Mai because it’s where our longtime partner the Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma) is headquartered. I’ve been journeying to Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand to meet with ND-Burma and its member organizations for three years, and I found it personally rewarding to see other users meeting and learning from ND-Burma’s experiences in their day-to-day environment.

As someone who has worked with nearly every person in the room, I found the connections people made amongst themselves especially rewarding to watch. I’m sure that these connections will flourish outside of the meeting – and the best part is that these connections will no longer rely on Benetech as the middleman. That’s what this process is about – de-centralizing ownership of the Martus project, spreading that role among all of Martus’ stakeholders. We built it to be a tool that truly puts power and responsibility in the hands of its users, and we’re finally beginning to change the Martus project’s operations to match that model.

I followed up the Chiang Mai gathering with other meetings with Thailand-based Martus users, and just touched down in New York. I head out again soon to meet with potential Martus users in Southern Africa – in other words, I’m returning to focus on specific projects. It feels good to be dealing with present day realities again, but I believe it’s essential for us to continue to step back and think about the future on a regular basis. I look forward to planning the next generation of Martus, and to continue to gather input from folks in the field!

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