This site offers insights and practical guidance that emerged from research by The Engine Room, HURIDOCS and PILPG, exploring the technology needs and challenges of civil society organisations conducting human rights documentation.

In the course of our research, we saw a strong interest in knowledge exchange, learning, and collaboration in the sector, and we hope that our findings make a contribution here.

In particular, we have the following groups in mind:

  • Civil society organisations looking for guidance around choosing and using tech tools to support their documentation work
  • Tool developers working in the human rights documentation space
  • Funders and donors looking for insight into areas that need more support
  • Transitional justice experts looking to better understand challenges faced by civil society organisations documenting human rights abuses for the purposes of accountability

Research into tech tools

As part of our research, we also took a closer look at some of the tech tools currently out there.

Civil society organisations conducting human rights documentation currently use a wide range of tech tools for their documentation work. For this research, we focused only on tools that were:

  • Intentionally designed to address the needs of civil society documenters working in a human rights or social justice context.
  • ‘Flexible’, in that they accommodate a range of types of rights violations (i.e. not designed to collect information on only one specific type of violation).
  • Currently being used by documenters in the field.
  • Non-exploitative in that their underlying business models do not make money through collecting data or locking organisations into high and unsustainable ongoing charges.
  • Developed with input and feedback from documenters themselves.

Almost all of the tools we looked at were also free and open source, meaning that anyone can download the code and, with the right technological knowledge and resources, set up their own instance of the tool.

See our Tools Table for some of the tools we explored.

Research methodologies

Technology needs of civil society human rights documenters

For this research, The Engine Room interviewed 22 civil society organisations working across different areas of human rights violations documentation. Most interviews were conducted in English, with a small number conducted in Spanish and Arabic.

The organisations we interviewed:

  • focused on and were spread across different regions, including Africa, East Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia;
  • had annual budgets ranging from less than 10,000 USD to over 1m USD, with staff capacity varying from two full-time employees to more than 100 people spread out through different country offices;
  • had varying degrees of access to and use of digital technologies – from offices that relied mostly on physical archives (organised or not) or an ad-hoc computer folder system, to groups using highly customised databases and advanced tools;
  • conducted documentation with different, and often multiple, goals in mind, including advocacy, memorialisation, support of accountability mechanisms, or as part of or to inform victim/survivor support services such as psychological or legal aid.

Interview questions focused on documentation workflows and challenges, particularly as these related to technology – from collecting data to managing, analysing and sharing it.

Tech tools and tool development in the human rights documentation space

For our research into tool development in the human rights documentation space, The Engine Room explored technology tools currently being developed and used by civil society for human rights documentation.

This involved combining existing knowledge with desk research, including sources such as recent, relevant blog posts, articles and online discussions, tool websites and documentation, and GitHub repositories and issues. We also reviewed the tools themselves, and/or demos of the tools.

In order to investigate some of the challenges involved in tool development in this space, we also conducted one-on-one interviews with 8 tool authors, and received background notes from one more.


Research into the technology needs of civil society human rights documenters

This research included qualitative, quantitative and indirect observation methods.

Qualitative methods relied on direct communication with established documentation actors via interviews and roundtables, whereas quantitative indirect methods used surveys to collect lean data.

Research participants were selected according to their area and level of experience in the field of human rights documentation of violations.

Three profiles were targeted:

  1. Organisations with an effective documentation workflow
  2. Established actors with significant experience documenting violations within a network of organisations
  3. Intermediaries –individuals or groups that support civil society documenters of human rights violations, but do not engage in documentation themselves.

The organisations consulted conducted their work and were based in different regions, including South Asia, East Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North America and Northern Africa.

Following the process of identification of established actors, HURIDOCS sent surveys to 36 organisations and conducted 14 one-on-one, in-depth interviews. In addition, HURIDOCS remotely conducted two roundtable discussions.


Research into civil society use of documentation technology for accountability

The target participants for PILPG’s research were transitional justice experts, including actors from transitional justice mechanisms with insights on receiving civil society documentation, legal scholars, legal practitioners, digital investigation experts, civil society organisations, and donor groups.

Participants were selected for their ability to provide valuable insight on theoretical and practical obstacles to the utility, acceptability, and admissibility of civil society documentation before transitional justice mechanisms. To ensure a range of perspectives, participants with varied levels of knowledge and expertise on documentation technology were consulted.

PILPG conducted remote one-on-one interviews with 15 transitional justice experts, mainly actors from transitional justice mechanisms.

  • These interviews provided in-depth insight into the policies and practices of a range of transitional justice mechanisms on the acceptance and use of human rights documentation from civil society sources, including a range of civil society organisations.
  • The interviews also indicated how features of technology tools used by civil society organisations to document human rights violations may better align with these policies and practices.

In addition, PILPG remotely conducted a preliminary focus group, and two further focus groups.