Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dr. Karen Ramey Burns

A Guest Reflection by Dr. Patrick Ball, Benetech's Chief Scientist

I am terribly sad to learn today of the untimely death of a friend and mentor, Dr. Karen Ramey Burns. Kar was a forensic anthropologist who specialized in human rights cases, and she was a founder of our Colombian partner organization EQUITAS). Over the last 17 years, Kar and I crossed paths in Haiti, Guatemala, Colombia, and many times at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS. She did amazing work, from dressing pigs in human clothing and leaving them on Colombian hillsides to measure how dogs and other animals disturb human remains, to putting uniquely identified titanium screws in human bones to learn how crabs move remains on Pacific islands. Every time we met, she had a story that taught me a little more about scientific ingenuity, integrity, and persistence. The Benetech Human Rights Program will greatly miss her warmth, wit, and guidance in the application of science to human rights.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Guatemalan National Police Archive Goes Online

Guest Beneblog by Ann Harrison

In 2006, the Benetech Human Rights Program was asked to participate in one of the most important human rights data projects in the world. The Guatemalan government human rights ombudsman invited the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) to analyze the contents of the estimated 80 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive or the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (AHPN). HRDAG designed a process to randomly sample the Archive and the archivists began using Benetech’s Martus software to organize and secure information generated from the samples. Just last month, the University of Texas at Austin made a large portion of the Archive available to the public unveiling a digital repository that contains 12 million of these critical records. This repository is an important step forward for the people of Guatemala and those seeking information about human rights abuses that occurred during the country’s 36 years of armed internal conflict.

The Guatemalan government and the police long denied the existence of these records - particularly during investigations by truth commissions organized by the United Nations and the Catholic Church during the final years of the conflict. Discovered by chance in 2005, the Archive has revealed a trove of documents dating from 1882 to 1997 including millions of arrest warrants, surveillance reports, identification documents, interrogation records, snapshots of detainees and informants, and unidentified bodies, fingerprint files, transcripts of radio communications, and ledgers of names and photographs. These records shed light on the complicity of police and other security forces during the years of violence that killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans. The Archive has also provided valuable information corroborating findings that involve the U.S. in medical experimentation on Guatemalan citizens as part of syphilis research in the 1940s.

According to Archive Deputy Director Alberto Fuentes, the Archive contains key information about crimes and violent acts, as well as records of social control and surveillance, especially of opposition politicians. Fuentes says archivists have found more than 900,000 personal dossiers containing names, photographs and fingerprints of individuals, as well as notes about their political activities. Documents from the Guatemala City-based Archive have already provided critical information in the prosecution of former members of Guatemalan security forces accused of human rights abuses. Expert testimony by Benetech statistician Daniel Guzmán, based on analysis of Archive documents, provided key evidence in the conviction of two former Guatemalan National Police officers accused of disappearing and murdering Guatemalan union leader Edgar Fernando García.

Dr. Patrick Ball, Chief Scientist and Vice President of Benetech’s Human Rights Program, presented research data from six years of Archive analysis during a conference at the University of Texas where the digital repository was unveiled. You can read about Benetech’s findings from the Archive here and here. In addition to producing findings used to convict former police officers, the Archive has produced documents that have provided evidence for the arrest and prosecution of senior officials.

Family members of those who disappeared during the years of violence are also using the Archive to help locate their loved ones. José Suasnabar, Assistant Director of the non-governmental Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), told the Inter Press Service (IPS) that investigators have found records in the Archive that will help them identify bodies buried in unmarked graves. The creators of the repository said in a statement that the online records, “will bring together previously disparate experiences of personal memory and trauma, and promote public dialogue.”

“Documents about our family members have been found, and it is helping bring the cases to trial,” Aura Elena Farfán of the Guatemalan Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared (FAMDEGUA), told the IPS. "Our concern now is that everyone who in one way or another has come under scrutiny for the repression during the war wants the archive to disappear.”

Documents in the Archive continue to be digitized by a committed team of archivists and added to the digital repository to help secure historical memory, legal and scholarly use. Benetech is proud to support this project and our ongoing work with the Archive to analyze the contents of the records. According to the organizers of the University of Texas conference, the repository will provide “researchers, human rights activists, and prosecutors around the world an archive that has already begun to help rewrite the history of state repression in Guatemala.”

You can read more about the Guatemalan National Police Archive digital repository here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why We're Blacking Out Sites: PIPA and SOPA

In November, I wrote a blog post entitled: Why I’m Scared of the SOPA bill. Part of my objective was to show the unintended consequences of Internet censorship bills like SOPA and PIPA (SOPA's Senate buddy bill), responding to alerts from organizations I trust like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Copyright Alliance had the courtesy of engaging with multiple comments in favor of the proposed bills, but they failed to directly address (either a deliberate omission or because it was a robot) my major concerns about two of our main technology programs: the Bookshare online library (largest in the world for people with print disabilities) and our Human Rights program.

Today, we're joining what is probably the largest online protest in history, by blacking out significant portions of the Benetech website, as well as our Martus and HRDAG human rights websites. We're not alone: far larger sites like Wikipedia and Google and hundreds of others (if not thousands).

Copyright hawks like Rupert Murdoch and the MPAA have attacked this movement as being for piracy, against jobs, and dangerous. But, we're not for piracy. Like almost all libraries, we're scrupulous in following the law, because we're serving incredibly important communities. But, badly crafted bills like SOPA and PIPA do far more collateral damage to freedom and economic wellbeing than they do good for the putative beneficiaries.

Make no mistake, we are for the Internet, we are for jobs, we are for legal access to content, and we are for human rights and freedom of speech. And we're part of a movement that believes passionately that the Internet is a treasure: a force for equality and economic growth.

Don't Break the Internet! And, let's follow up Blackout Day with a campaign to pass laws that protect this critically important resource!

Screen grab of Benetech website with most text blacked out and a Censored banner in the upper right corner

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Engineers Without Borders Canada

I greatly enjoy talking to students, and I am now in Ottawa, Canada, just having spoken to an incredible group of students, Engineers Without Borders Canada. Now, I had heard of EWB before, but I hadn't grasped how large, sophisticated and ambitious an organization this is!

I'm at the annual Canadian EWB conference (each of the EWB country groups is independent of the other), and there are hundreds and hundreds of students here. Mainly engineering students, but as EWB Canada has grown and matured, they've increased the size of their umbrella and welcome non-engineering students. Oh, and at least half of the engineering students here are women. Hint to the profession: if you link engineering to helping people rather than gadgets, women seem to be more interested!

Dr. Pamela Hartigan, head of the Skoll Centre at Oxford University's Said Business School, noted in her keynote that EWB was the largest single source of Skoll Scholars at Oxford. That made me realize how important this channel of engineers doing social good was to the social entrepreneurship movement. As someone who has both recommended a Skoll Scholar (Jesse Fahnestock of our Bookshare team was in the first class of Skoll Scholars) and hired a fabulous MBA from Jesse's class: Barbara Morrison, who led our business development team for years, I can see how important this is!

I gave two talks here: one on failure, and one on engineering for social good, Benetech style. The first was on our Landmine Detector Project and why we think it failed. Right after my session, EWB released its own report on how it had failed in numerous project. I think it's incredibly important for the social sector to acknowledge and learn from failures. Bravo to EWB for prominently featuring its Failure Reports.

My second session spent a lot of time on the Benetech process for choosing projects, which Aaron Firestone, our current head of business development, spent a lot of time updating last year and had our board approve last month. We'll be putting it up on our website in the next couple of months. What was exciting was that EWB Canada had just put up their version of project development, which they call Intelligent Development. And, it's very similar to our approach. Like Benetech, EWB started with a technology-centric focus and moved to realizing that system change and improving the lives of real people is the true way to do good with technology. I'd say the main difference is that as a software-focused organization, Benetech thinks mostly about products, and then does projects utilizing our products. EWB, as a more hardware focused organization, tends to do projects, and so their focus on exit options by turning over projects to local partners is even more intense than ours.

As an engineer who has been working on social good for over twenty years, and felt pretty lonely the first ten or so, it's exciting to run into an organization that has many engineers in the field (in Africa), and tens of thousands of members around Canada! I'm leaving Ottawa today with optimism for the future, based on the incredible young people I met here!