Friday, February 15, 2013

Benetech Spins Off Human Rights Data Analysis Group

From a Project to an Organization: Benetech Successfully Spins Off the Human Rights Data Analysis Group

Benetech is celebrating a major milestone: On February 1, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG)—which focuses on the statistical and analytical side of Benetech’s human rights work—spun out from being a project within our organization to become its own, independent group. Dr. Patrick Ball, who has led our Human Rights Program since 2003, now heads HRDAG as its Executive Director and Dr. Megan Price, formerly a senior statistician at Benetech, has joined Patrick as the organization’s Co-Founder.

Spinning off projects when they reach sustainability, and when doing so would allow them to better achieve their mission, is all part of the Benetech model. As a matter of fact, the funding for Benetech to start Bookshare and our Martus human rights software project came from a successful spinoff of  our first social enterprise, the Arkenstone reading machines, which we sold to a for-profit for roughly $5 million. We may be a nonprofit, but we’re also a tech company: in ten years, we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today!

With each of the projects we launch, we plan for at least three successful exit options. When we convinced Patrick to move his team to Benetech from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and HRDAG became a full-fledged project of Benetech’s Human Right Program, we discussed a three-to-five year timeline to spin off his own human rights group. The process took us longer than we anticipated, but that is due in large part to the great things we’ve been able to achieve from the collaboration between the technology and the analytical sides of our work. During that time, HRDAG has also grown to a place where it can be self-sustaining.  Patrick has become widely recognized as the world's leading human rights statistician, something that I personally already felt was true when I recruited Patrick to Benetech!


As HRDAG sets out on its own, its primary focus will continue to be on the data-driven and scientific side of analyzing human rights violations around the world. I encourage you to check out HRDAG’s new website to get more information and to stay informed about their new and ongoing work.

Benetech will of course continue the software and technology development that is the primary focus of our Human Rights Program. That work includes updates and upgrades to Martus, our free, open source software that enables human rights fieldworkers to securely document abuse that is occurring in dangerous environments. We will continue to support human rights defenders and other social justice actors and our theory of change remains the same. We continue to believe that the stories of individuals suffering abuse, secured with Martus and combined with analysis of the patterns and scale of abuse, can make a powerful contribution to the cause of justice. That's one of the many reasons why Benetech is looking forward to partnering with HRDAG whenever possible.

Our goal is to empower human rights and social justice groups to leverage their information assets for maximum impact: For current and near-term advocacy and for larger scale truth telling when the time is right.

Interestingly enough, our 2013 budget projection for the Martus project is larger than the combined group was in 2012.  And when you combine Patrick's projection for the new HRDAG, together these groups will be between 50% and 100% bigger than the combined program was last year.  This growth in human rights work, supported by strong donor relationships, makes it possible to carry out a spinoff at a position of great strength!  I want to especially highlight the role of the Oak Foundation in supporting this transition and continuing to support both Benetech and HRDAG for the next two years. 

We have also begun searching for a new senior executive to lead our Human Rights Program. This is a rare chance to operate at the forefront of the intersection of technology and human rights. We're looking for someone with great human rights experience with tech cred, or someone with great tech experience with human rights/social justice cred!

Anna Berns, longtime Program and Product Manager and now a Director at Benetech, will continue to oversee our human rights field outreach staff and manage Martus product development (including our new mobile Martus tool, which is already working on my Android phone).

We’re very excited to see HRDAG on its way and are confident that the human rights movement will only be stronger with our two independent efforts. Coincidentally, just as we began announcing HRDAG’s spin-off to our supporters we learned from Darius Cuplinskas, Director of the Open Society Institute's Information Program, about this interesting Spin-Off Tool Kit made available by the Vera Institute of Justice. It’s a great resource for organizations that are engaged in spinning off sustainable projects, or that are considering similar strategies. We used it to review our planning as we wrapped up this move.

We hope our own successful experience with HRDAG’s spin-off, too, inspires other social enterprises to shape their own spin-off strategies and fuel their innovation process.

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