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DatNav: Researching Human Rights in the Digital Age

From online videos of war crimes, to satellite images of rights violations in areas as reclusive as North Korea, to eyewitness accounts disseminated on social media, we have access to more relevant data today than ever before.

These new data streams open up new opportunities for human rights documentation, and have a profound impact on how we conduct research at Amnesty International. For example, we recently used cell-phone video footage and satellite images to uncover a likely mass grave in Burundi. Due to lack of physical access, our work on Syria also relies heavily on content shared through social media and satellite image analysis.

While such data sources were still an exception a few years ago, at this point they are part of our daily work. However, in order to take full advantage of this new data environment, a lot of questions have to be raised and discussed around ethics, verification and accuracy. With our new DatNav guide, published today, we hope to get you thinking, and put you on the right track.

When used responsibly, new data can help human rights professionals fight in the courtroom, work with governments and journalists, and preserve historical record.

Acquiring, disseminating and storing digital data is also becoming increasingly affordable. As costs continue to decrease and new platforms are developed, opportunities increasingly arise to harness these data sources for human rights work.

But integrating data collection and management into the day-to-day work of human rights research and documentation can be challenging, even overwhelming, for individuals and organizations.

DatNav is designed to help you navigate and integrate digital data into your human rights work.

DatNav is the result of a collaboration between Amnesty International, Benetech, and The Engine Room which began in late 2015 and culminated in an intense four day writing sprint in May 2016.

The DatNav team at the writing sprint in Berlin, May 2016
The DatNav team at the writing sprint in Berlin, May 2016

Our research included interviews, community consultations, and surveys to understand if digital data was being integrated into human rights work. In the vast majority of cases, we found that it was not. Why?

Mainly, human rights researchers appeared to be overwhelmed by the possibilities.

In the face of limited resources, not knowing how to get started or whether it would be worthwhile, most people we spoke to refrained from even attempting to strengthen their work with digital data.

Human rights researchers, journalists, students, and philanthropists: this guide is for you.

We assume you know how to do human rights research but wish to expand your knowledge of how to use digital data and online media for documentation purposes. This is a broad introduction that will set you on the right path to asking your own questions and seeking your own solutions. We aim to inspire critical thinking, rather than be prescriptive about what specific software, devices, or platforms should be used, since these evolve constantly.

To find out more about the project, or give feedback, please email The Engine Room, or engage with us on Twitter.