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Digital justice: exploring tech-based tools for human rights accountability

May 17th, 2016

How can innovations in digital and data technology be used for more effective human rights advocacy? This question is extremely pertinent for economic and social rights, which pose particular challenges when it comes to gathering and presenting complex data.


The RightsCon event attracted many high-profile figures,
including transparency advocate Edward Snowden
who spoke through a satellite link-up from Russia

For this reason, CESR’s Allison Corkery and Mahinour El-Badrawi joined digital gurus and social justice leaders at RightsCon in Silicon Valley. The annual conference brings together over 1000 human rights activists, business leaders, technology experts, government officials and others to discuss human rights and all things digital.

CESR co-organized a session at the conference with the University of Connecticut Human Rights Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Center for Human Rights Science. The session reflected on the unique challenges of monitoring economic and social rights and brainstormed ways to design technological solutions to best respond to those challenges.

Allison highlighted how chronic economic and social rights deprivations such as malnutrition, homelessness and illiteracy often result from dysfunctions in law and policy that affect large populations and so challenge traditional approaches to human rights documentation which focus on repressive events or actions against specific individuals.

Making the case that a particular situation of deprivation or disadvantage amounts to a rights violation depends on challenging the reasonableness of government action and that in turn requires assessing how resources are raised, allocated and spent. In response to these challenges, there has been an increasing trend towards quantification in research and advocacy on economic and social rights. Technology has great potential in terms of expanding the breadth of open data available and encouraging innovation in primary data collection, as well as making it increasingly possible to communicate complex quantitative data quickly and compellingly.

Mahinour shared CESR’s current work in Egypt, where we are partnering with a group of human rights researchers to conceptualize an interactive online “scorecard” to enable civil society monitoring of Egypt's commitments on a range of indicators relating to economic and social rights. Despite the country’s longstanding patterns of socioeconomic exclusion—which have left over 25 million people living in poverty—these rights have been relatively overshadowed by the dramatic socio-political upheavals of the past few years. The initiative comes at a time when the government is limiting space for advocacy by human rights defenders and civil society groups, making the need for innovative approaches all the more pressing.

Allison and Mahinour were joined by Emily Jacobi from Digital Democracy, who shared a cluster of projects they have carried out with communities in the Amazon around land rights and forest governance. These projects support communities to use basic digital tools, such as cameras, mobile phones, and online maps—and, in some cases, develop and implement new open-source tools—for mapping, monitoring and storytelling.  

CESR’s work in Egypt is just one of the ways we are exploring how to harness new opportunities presented by technological advances to deliver more effective accountability for economic and social rights violations. For example, at the Southern end of the continent we are collaborating with the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa to monitor implementation of legal decisions on the right to education in the Eastern Cape. As part of this project, we are working with the LRC to experiment with an SMS-based reporting system for monitoring the school furniture shortfalls across the province that are preventing many thousands of children from accessing the education they need.

CESR is also collaborating closely with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University on a project on data visualization that will explore the opportunities it presents for more effective human rights advocacy.  In the coming period, we will be collaborating with researchers to identify best practices for data visualization in human rights work and to develop some exciting new resources.

The opportunities that technology presents for research and advocacy on economic and social rights are enormous and, together with our partners, we are cutting a path to leverage their full potential. 

  • To learn more about CESR's work on economic and social rights monitoring, click here.
  • To learn more about CESR's work in Egypt, click here.
  • To learn more about CESR's work in South Africa, click here.