Human rights, tech and a bit of unnecessary Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Writing in 1609, Shakespeare’s description of autumn has as much resonance now as it did more than 400 years ago. But were he around today, he might choose to write not about the falling leaves and sweet bird song, but about the deluge of conferences, workshops and summits that happens around this time of year. (Actually, that would make him an awful poet, so let’s be glad he chose to romanticise autumn instead). Still, the UK conference season is upon us and over the next couple of months you’ll likely see a number of posts like this, discussing some conference or event we’ve attended. Kicking things off last week was the European human rights funders’ group, Ariadne and their annual Grant Skills Workshop. This year’s theme was around digital technology and human rights and covered a range of topics from open philanthropy to digital security and quite a few things in between.

Anyone working in human rights in recent years can’t help but have noticed the changing role that technology has had during that time. Whether we’re dealing with investigative journalists using satellite imagery and social networks to piece together stories or human rights activists turning to new (and old) forms of tech to stay safe and try to evade an intrusive state, digital technology offers new ways of working, novel challenges and a whole range of ethical dilemmas to human rights organisations across the globe.

Many funders, it seems, are struggling to get to grips with this rapidly changing landscape. Staying on top of the tech developments, understanding proposals for tech projects and evaluating risk were all mentioned as particular challenges. Certainly, facing up to some of these challenges requires a new set of skills and knowledge and a commitment on the part of both donors and grantees to keep those skills and knowledge up to date. But some of these challenges pre-date the tech revolution in human rights. Risk, for example, has long accompanied much human rights and social justice work. The skills required to evaluate digital risk are largely similar to the skills required to evaluate more traditional kinds of risk. Thinking through a project in a rigorous and methodical fashion will help to identify key risk factors and devise strategies to minimise the dangers.

The barriers to funders adopting technology in their own work and supporting grantees to use technology are often lower than might be imagined. Evaluating proposals doesn’t require a degree in computer science – an understanding of the landscape and context is much more important than the ability to code!