Developing ICT to Meed Social Needs

I just came across Jim Fruchterman‘s excellent piece on “Developing Information Technology to Meet Social Needs,” which was recently published in Innovations. If Jim’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s Benetech‘s CEO.

Jim recognizes that when technology innovation doesn’t generate major financial returns, it is rarely pursued. This is where Benetech comes in. Jim’s objective is to “overcome market failure in socially beneficial applications of information technology.” The Benetech story makes for an interesting and important historical case study on how Jim and colleagues adapated the high-tech company to develop technology for social causes.

What follows are some interesting excerpts from Jim’s piece along with some of my comments.

Our initial idea was spying for human rights, using the same kind of technology as the government intelligence agencies. [In June 2000, however], it was clear that “Spying for Humanity” wasn’t the first place that technology should be used. There were much more basic needs to IT than sophisticated surveillance tools. We needed to build tools that could be used by unsophisticated human rights activists in the field.

In general, I think mainstream tools are still too complicated and cumbersome. The emergence of citizen journalism means that anyone can become a human rights activist. These individuals will use their own everyday-tools to document such abuses, e.g., camera phones, Youtube, blogs, etc.

The tools are already out there, whether we like it or not, and crowdsourcing human rights information may be the way to go. Of course, I realize that the quality of the data may not be up to par with Patrick Ball‘s methods at Benetech, but this could perhaps change with time.

On a related note, I would recommend reading Clay Shirky’s new book “Here Comes Everybody” and Leysia Palen’s piece on “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation.”

To this end, “Spying for Humanity” is already happening. The question I ask in my dissertation is whether “humanity” will be able to “out-spy” repressive regimes, or vice-versa.

Think of the human rights sector as a processing industry with a typical pyramidic structure. At the base of the pyramid are the grassroots human rights organizations numbering in the tens of thousands. These groups are on the front lines of human rights violations. […]. [The] narratives [they provide] are the raw material of human rights work; everything else in human rights work is built with these raw materials.

Above the grassroots groups in the pyramid are the provincial or national groups. These larger groups are politically better connected, […]. They also play a role in quality control: membership in a bona fide network confers more credibility to the reports of a grassroots group.

Regional and international groups concentrate the human rights information even more. This information is aggregated and processed into higher value forms. The single incident of human rights abuse is combined with other incidents into a pattern of abuse. These patterns are the basis for international human rights campaigns […].

I find this a really neat way to describe the human rights sector. My concern, coming from the field of conflict early warning/response, is that we always think of the base of the pyramid, ie, the grassroots, as sources for raw material that feed into our work, but we rarely view the base of the pyramid as first-responders. We tend to leave that for “ourselves” at the national, regional and international level. What is most lacking at the grassroots level is tactical training in field craft.

On patterns, see my previous blog on Crisis Mapping Analytics. Satellite imagery provides an important underutilized resource for pattern analysis of mass atrocities. This a gap that the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) seeks to address in the near future.

The common product of the human rights community at all levels in the pyramid is information. The human rights sector is an information processing industry. Because of the limited resources available, computers and information technology are not used to anywhere near full potential. The paradox of the human rights community is that it is an information-processing industry that has limited access to information technology.

A very interesting point.

Later on in his piece, Jim describes the criteria that Benetech considers when deciding to pick a project. I include these below as they may be of interest to colleagues also working in this space.

How Benetech picks projects:

  • Return on investment: In our case, the return is to society, not to us. We frequently use benchmarking as a method of assessing returns.
  • Uniqueness: We want to be dramatically different: no interest in being 10% better than some other solution. If it already exists, we should be doing it for a fraction of the existing cost or bringing it to a completely different community.
  • A sustainability case: How can we keep this going without draining resources from Benetech forever?
  • Low technical risk: We assume the technology is out there, but nobody is motivated to bring it to the social application.
  • Deal size: Ideally in the $1 to $4 million range to encourage sustainability.
  • Fit of the technology with our capabilities: Is it in a field that Benetech knows something about?
  • Exit options: We try to devise three exit options before we start a project.
  • Access to resources: Can we access the resources we need to succeed?
  • Potential partnerships: What partners can we leverage? How can we encourage community involvement in this project?

Patrick Philippe Meier

One response to “Developing ICT to Meed Social Needs

  1. I discovered Benetech a while back and am psyched you’ve pulled together some of their analysis on HR and info tech. Might be interesting to look further at the projects they’re engaged in.

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