Sunday, March 18, 2012

Recruiting Geeks for Human Rights!

Scientist / Data Analysis Engineer / General Techie

Want to help save the world with your code? Like going to hackathons and wish you could get paid to work on a good cause full time? Want to help assemble evidence used to convict dictators of war crimes? We're Benetech's Human Rights Data Analysis Group, and we're hiring right now!

What we do:

Benetech's Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) develops database software, data collection strategies, and statistical techniques to measure human rights atrocities. This technology and analysis is used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations around the world.

We help the human rights movement speak truth to power, because we believe each story of human rights abuse is a tool for justice.

Check out recent press coverage of our work, featuring the head of our human rights team, Dr. Patrick Ball, in Foreign Policy magazine and NPR's On The Media.

What you will do:

  • Write computer programs for human rights data analysis projects.
  • Process, clean, and transform data.
  • Run data standardization and de-duplication.
  • Write and run statistical analysis in R, including survey estimation, geospatial analysis, and general linear model fitting.
  • Maintain and develop our data deduplication (entity resolution) framework written in python and Java.
  • Write and run web crawlers and scrapers for data collection.
  • Data archeology: recover data from ancient files in odd formats. We use free and open source software whenever possible, but we're pragmatic and work with what our human rights monitoring and advocacy partners need, so our environment is a pretty eclectic mix.
  • Design and implement data visualizations, including everything from simple static charts and maps to custom interactive visualizations on the web. Familiarity with python, R, and JavaScript libraries for charting, mapping, and vis is helpful.
  • Maintain and develop our team's automated data processing and analysis infrastructure (POSIX-environment command line tools built on bash, make, python, and R).
  • Maintain and develop our team's internal groupware websites: a MoinMoin wiki, a rietveld code review deployment, and several small custom sites built on Django.
  • Teach good programming practice and provide general programming and tech support (everything beyond basic IT stuff) to the rest of the team, who are experts in statistics and social science with varying degrees of techiness. Perform a little bit of GNU/Linux system administration.
  • Write technical descriptions of HRP methods and projects at many levels of detail for academic publications, white papers, grant applications, grant reports, and internal documentation. Automate generation of publications based on data using LaTeX and Sweave. Give technical and non-technical presentations of HRP projects at conferences.
  • Coordinate analysis and writing work with human rights monitoring and advocacy organizations, academic collaborators, and courts throughout the world.
You will work at Benetech's Palo Alto office; some domestic and international travel may be required.


  • Bachelor's or Master's degree in computer science, electrical engineering, or related field.
  • High level of attention to detail, strong organizational skills, and ability to balance/manage multiple simultaneous tasks on your own.
  • If hired, ability to provide proof of eligibility to work in the United States.

Small to medium scale programming, with an emphasis on readability and maintainability. Experience or interest in:

  • Qualitative text mining & analysis. Distributed and parallel algorithms, machine learning, computer security & crypto, data visualization, web programming, and statistics.
  • Strong interest or experience with our main tools: Python and R.
  • Interest or experience with other technologies we use, including Java, LaTeX, HTML/CSS, JavaScript, bash scripting, make, SWeave, BibTex, Weka, svn, Django, and xml processing.
  • Interest or experience with unicode, unusual character encodings, and handling non-latin character sets.
Also helpful:
  • Interest in and comfort with languages other than English, especially Spanish, French, Russian, or Arabic. Knowledge of or fluency in other languages is *not* necessary, but in your CV/resume, please note your level of skill (reading/writing/speaking) in any languages other than English.
How to apply:

Send a cover letter, a CV/resume, and a description of an interesting piece of software you've written to Please include the position descriptor HRP-CS in the subject line. Please use open file formats (PDF is fine). In the cover letter, please explain what interests you about the Benetech Human Rights Program. We are especially interested to hear comments on our work (available on Tell us how you would strengthen our team, and the global cause of human rights.

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!

Friday, March 02, 2012

Supporting Artists With Disabilities

Untitled artwork piece by Marcus McClureFor the past ten years, Benetech’s Bookshare library has provided accessible books for people with print disabilities. Bookshare helps people who cannot read standard text participate in the world of ideas. This recent holiday season, Benetech began supporting an innovative organization that helps people with disabilities develop their creative abilities and become working artists.

Artwork entitled Fiction and Fact (detail 1) by Andrew Bixler. Initial text in piece reads, this is reginald he likes to howl at dusk...During our holiday party, we displayed thirty pieces of art provided by Creativity Explored, a San Francisco-based nonprofit arts organization. Creativity Explored works with more than 120 artists with developmental disabilities, providing services that help these artists create, exhibit, and sell their art.

Untitled piece of artwork by Anne Slater, featuring flowersBenetech worked with Creativity Explored to select a variety of paintings, drawings and prints. After admiring this collection of art at our holiday party, our staff cast votes for their favorite works. Benetech has now acquired quite a number of pieces of lively, playful, evocative art that will be displayed in our offices. During our party, we also held a raffle to give away a single piece of art chosen by the winner. The drawing was won by our business development manager, Aaron Firestone, who selected a splendid print entitled “Sonata VI” by artist Ana Maria Vidalon, which is now prominently displayed in his home. Benetech’s Vice President and general manager of our literacy program, Betsy Beaumon, also purchased several works from Creativity Explored after our holiday gathering. You can too!

Piece of artwork entitled Monster by Hector LopezCreativity Explored provides supportive studios for artists who receive individualized instruction from mentors, quality art materials, and professional opportunities to exhibit their work. The organization works with people in their 20s, to elder artists in their 80s. These artists come from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and have a wide range of ability and experience. Creativity Explored operates a studio on 16th Street in San Francisco which includes about 60 artists, and another studio on Arkansas Street where another 20 people work.

Piece of artwork entitled Dogs by Quintin Rodriguez, with four different dog head studiesYou can visit the Creativity Explored studios and gallery to purchase art or attend their excellent solo show by Salvadorian painter Pablo Calderon which runs until February 29th. Their next show, Parallel Visions, opens on March 8. In the meantime, check out Anne Slater’s abstract, Quintin Rodriguez’s dog portraits, Andrew Bixler’s cartoon panels, Hector Lopez’s monster, and Marcus McClure’s circle painting.

Artwork entitled Fiction and Fact (detail 2) by  by Andrew Bixler.  Text in the piece reads, here we have an orphan boy named jeff with his uncleWe encourage you to help support Creativity Explored and their artists who are making an important contribution to contemporary art. This work supports the diversity of artistic expression and helps talented people sell directly to collectors. Our office will be a more colorful and comfortable space with the addition of this art and yours could too.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Hosting Harkin at the Hub

Gather a group of social entrepreneurs to brainstorm ideas to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and you will harvest an array of innovative solutions. Share these ideas during a vibrant conversation with the number one champion in the Senate for people with disabilities, and you can count on a disability rights advocate who is prepared to mobilize support and resources to promote policies that will create an employment environment in which these cool innovations remain inspirational but become unremarkable.

Recently, I had the pleasure to host Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) for exactly such a meeting of minds with ten fellow social entrepreneurs. I’m happy finally to get an opportunity to reflect here on that important event.

Senator Harkin is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities. His signature legislative achievement is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. This landmark federal law, known as the “Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities,” has been remarkably successful in protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The ADA prohibits discrimination and mandates that Americans be accorded equality in access to employment, goods, services, and other opportunities. In his current roles as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and as Chairman of the Appropriations panel that funds education initiatives, Harkin continues to fight for policies that promote equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities and their families. Harkin’s work, especially his efforts to guarantee that every child has the opportunity to pursue quality education, infuses everything we at Benetech do through our Literacy Program to transform the lives and outcomes of individuals with disabilities. We applaud Senator Harkin for his ardent support of these people, and are proud to join him in the efforts to break down barriers to equality and to expand the educational and vocational prospects for all Americans.

The ADA and the special education laws have produced the best-educated population of people with disabilities in U.S. history, but the work ensuring equality of opportunity is far from over. Now that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports regularly on the employment situation for people with disabilities, there is strong evidence that it has gotten disproportionately worse for workers with disabilities since 2009. Last year, several HELP Committee hearings revealed alarming facts about the fate of people with disabilities in the face of the lingering recession: more than two thirds of Americans with disabilities are without a job, and adults with disabilities have been leaving the labor force at a rate more than 10 times the rate of adults without disabilities. This disturbing trend has a huge budgetary and social cost in our deficit-ridden climate, as manifested in the increase in applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. And, of course, the enormous toll on the mental and emotional health of people with disabilities is hard to quantify.

One of Senator Harkin’s top priorities is making a real impact on disability employment numbers. In his April 2011 keynote address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Corporate Disability Employment Summit, Harkin called on the CEOs and business owners in the audience to join him in setting the goal of increasing the number of Americans with disabilities in the workforce from 4.9 million to 6 million by 2015.

To meet this goal, Harkin has created and supported the Office of Disability Employment Policy to help eliminate barriers across the federal government to the training and employment of individuals with disabilities; pushed to strengthen the services provided to transition-age youth and young adults with disabilities as part of the Workforce Investment Act so that they have an opportunity to work in integrated settings at competitive wages as they enter the workforce; and funded a disability employment initiative at the Department of Labor which will support more effective approaches to delivering employment and training services to individuals with disabilities through the federal workforce development system.

Harkin is also seeking collaborations with business and social enterprise leaders to ensure that federal policymaking is producing real results on the ground in the form of jobs for people with disabilities. In connection with Harkin’s visit at the World Institute on Disability at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, I was given a challenge: bring together a group of social entrepreneurs for a conversation with Harkin, in order to identify novel strategies to improve employment opportunities for people with Disabilities. This is not quite Benetech’s area of expertise, but I took up to the challenge. We hosted Harkin and ten fellow social entrepreneurs at the cool space of the Hub SoMa, in the heart of San Francisco. An amazing conversation ensued, in which Senator Harkin was highly engaged.

The meeting reinforced the power of the holistic approach to solving problems: we reaped a lot more great ideas as a group than we would have through individual discussions with the Senator. As example, one strong idea that came up was having staffing services and temp agencies establish benchmarks for hiring workers with disabilities. In this context, we also learned of the importance of temp agencies: it turns out that they have become one of the primary ways to embark on a career path for all people, and that this gateway to employment is especially powerful in Silicon Valley and is spreading to other areas.

Since passage of the ADA and the special education laws, we have broken down barriers, created opportunities, and transformed lives. But there is a lot more to do to ensure economic justice for all Americans. If businesses, social enterprises, the disability community, and bipartisan champions in Congress all come together, we can make it possible for many more Americans with disabilities to experience the economic self-sufficiency that comes with employment.