Tech for Truth

01/09/2013 10:26 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2013

Last week's news that at least 60,000 named individuals have been killed in the Syrian conflict (between March 2011 and November 2012) has shocked and saddened the world. All of us here at Benetech, the nonprofit commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' office to complete the analysis of the killings, join in feeling that grief.

When Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced the findings of our analysis , it reinvigorated the international discussion and debate over what's happening in Syria. The New York Times ran a major story, as did many other media outlets across the world. More people started talking about what could or should be done. It might seem strange, but as someone who started Benetech with the goal of using technology for the social good, this has reconfirmed to me the importance of technology in both giving voice to the targets of human rights abuse today and creating a global standard of accountability tomorrow.

In order to explain, I think it's important to share some of the many layers involved in an analysis like the one we conducted. The world needs to know of the incredible contributions of the Syrian groups that collect and aggregate these frontline reports into the seven casualty lists we analyzed. We must appreciate the risks taken and sacrifices made by documenting these killings during wartime. We are grateful to groups like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and the government of the Syrian Arab Republic for sharing their confidential lists with our team through the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We are also very grateful to the 15 March group, the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria and the Syria Shuhada website, who have publicly published their lists of victims. Without the meticulous work of these groups, no analysis would be possible and the truth would be far more difficult to understand.

Benetech also greatly appreciates the support of the UN High Commissioner and her team. This was the fourth iteration of this report we have provided to the UN over the last six months.

The High Commissioner's commitment to this project made it possible to gather multiple important datasets and bring the startling result to the attention of the world.

Then, there is the research and analysis done by organizations like Benetech. As we discussed in our report, we used data sets, computer algorithms and a team of scientists and experts to prepare our results. With that said, our team took a scientifically conservative approach. We identified all duplicate reports and didn't count incomplete ones where there wasn't enough information to determine whether the same victim was possibly on multiple lists. We know there are almost certainly many people who have been killed where the information hasn't (and may never) reach the groups documenting the killings. As Dr. Patrick Ball, Benetech's Chief Scientist, explained to The Atlantic, "[t]his isn't an estimate... Let's be really clear here. This is a very conservative undercount." Our grief at these results is deepened by the high likelihood that the actual number of killings is probably higher than 60,000.

Analyzing these different datasets also offers insights into this likely undercount. The lead author of our analysis, Dr. Megan Price, notes:

"By comparing records across these databases, we are able to identify killings that were recorded by only one source, two sources, three sources, etc. This approach not only tells us about the violence occurring in Syria, but also about the process of observing and recording that violence. With this information we can identify times and locations where undocumented violence is likely occurring, thus helping us to more accurately describe what is happening in Syria."

We all want to see an end to human rights abuse anywhere in the world. Until that day comes, I strongly believe we should equip those who monitor these abuses with the tools and resources they need to safely document and report every single person's story. As technologists and scientists, we need to make that commitment to support the human rights movement -- to give a voice to the targets of human rights abuse today and create a global standard of accountability tomorrow.

That is why for nine years, Benetech has been assisting grass roots human rights groups on the ground across the globe by providing the Martus software, a free and secure tool to track the stories of abuses.

Our field team has met with and trained hundreds of groups and volunteers in numerous countries on how to use the software to best document the range of abuses that occur. Martus is used around the world, including in many Arabic-speaking countries, although not for the Syria report, which needed different kinds of analysis tools.

Specializing in large-scale events where there are many thousands of violations, our Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) has now helped nine truth commissions, three international criminal tribunals, many nongovernmental projects, and three UN missions. Technology and meticulous attention to the science have played important roles in each step along the way -- helping us safely to get better information and to conduct better analyses, to get closer to the truth.

At Benetech, we believe that every abuse of human rights, no matter where it occurs, should be accounted for so that the victims -- or the family and community of the victims -- can eventually find peace through justice and reconciliation. To us, every story matters because every story is a tool for justice. And we owe it to the victims to get the story right.