Spotlight on Software for Social Good: The Complicated Intersection of Tech and Human Rights
Shabnam Mojtahedi is a lawyer focused on rule of law and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa region. At Benetech, she is leading efforts to apply artificial intelligence to help civil society organizations pursue justice and accountability in Syria and beyond. Before coming to Benetech, she worked with the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), an organization that promotes meaningful transitional justice for Syrian victims of war crimes and human rights violations.
In this illuminating Q&A, Shabnam discusses her current
work and shares her perspective on the complicated intersection of technology
and human rights.
Tell me a little bit about your current work at Benetech.
One of the recent phenomena in Syria and around the world has
been the amount of content shared online by ordinary people about conflicts
that could be used as direct evidence of human rights violations. However,
investigators have had difficulty taking advantage of this content due to the
sheer quantity of information. To address this challenge, we are building
software tools to help human rights defenders analyze data more efficiently.
An example is video de-duplication. Organizations,
activists, and civilians are recording what’s happening around them and posting
it online. Many of these videos are downloaded, re-uploaded, changed and
manipulated in minor ways like resolution and length, resulting in a massive
amount of duplicate and near-duplicate videos. By developing AI to match and
cluster those videos, Benetech is aiming to help organizations cut down on the
time needed to sort through and build relationships between different pieces of
documentation, providing a clear path to justice.
What are some of the challenges to achieving justice for victims of human
rights violations? How is technology changing that?
The biggest challenge is the lack of political will to
pursue justice in almost all circumstances. Justice is a hard won battle fought
by victim communities and human rights advocates, and technology will not
overcome human imposed hurdles, but it is a critical tool for amplifying the
impact of human rights work.
Technology adds to a human rights defender’s tool box,
strengthening security, advocacy, and monitoring. Through software, people are
better able to store and analyze documentation that can be used as evidence of
atrocities. In the digital security space, software can be used to better
safeguard people and data in increasingly closing environments where activities
are vulnerable to crackdown from government authorities. It also helps
advocates tell a more compelling story. By drawing on evidence from emerging
data sources, such as satellite imagery, and creating visualizations using
statistical analysis, human rights defenders can inspire human action and
political pressure. And as AI tools are developed, this can be done faster than
Where else do you see technology making a major impact in the human rights
Technology impacts nearly every aspect of our lives. As much
as it serves as a tool for advancing human rights, it has also opened new
avenues for abuse. The AI software that will make human rights abuse monitoring
more efficient will also be used by governments for surveillance. The same
social media platforms allowing human rights advocates to share stories are
also being used by bad actors for disinformation campaigns. We must monitor and
condemn the abuses committed through the use of technology while also creatively
leveraging new tools to benefit the human rights community.
Why does the idea of software for social good resonate with you?
Working at SJAC introduced me to the tech for good sector. I
immediately saw the gaps when it came to the human rights community applying
technology to its work, and I saw huge opportunities and needs in the software
for human rights space.
Software has promised so much good. Now, we’ve seen that with
the market interests that have driven tech development, a lot of these promises
remain unfulfilled. More so, with the rise of disinformation, cyber warfare, rising
economic inequality, and data breaches, we are in an era of cynicism and
wariness about tech.
What excites me about Benetech’s mission is that working
directly with communities is embedded in our approach to developing software solutions.
Right now, we are working with partners to examine needs, test tools and
incorporate their feedback accordingly. We are also working to define how we
measure the impact of this technology in the human rights space. Applying the
lessons learned from these past few decades, we can continue to set standards
for the responsible development of software for good.
Now is a critical time to be rethinking how we engage with
technology – how we leverage the incredible potential that tech offers but do
so in a way that is sustainable, ethical, and in collaboration with the
communities we serve.
Do you know a person or organization leading the software for social good revolution? Let us know at email@example.com, and we may feature them in an upcoming blog post.