Technology reporter Clark Boyd describes how one Silicon Valley nonprofit
became involved in human rights work and how a simple database application
has moved a country closer to finding justice after years of violence.
I can’t recall exactly how it came into my head to do a story about Benetech, but somehow I had heard about the company’s founder and CEO Jim Fruchterman. He’s a rocket scientist turned technology entrepreneur turned social entrepreneur.
Fruchterman founded the Silicon Valley nonprofit Benetech in 2000, after he became discouraged by venture capitalists and their singular focus on market size and investment returns. After the success of his first company, which developed technology to help the blind, Fruchterman says his investors told him, “We don’t want you to go off and do a separate [product] for the blind. We want you to focus on making us money. I was frustrated, so I said, ‘Well, I should start a nonprofit that actually makes equipment for the blind even though it’s only a million-dollar-a-year market.'”
Benetech was created, Fruchterman says, so he could “tackle the applications of technology that make huge social impact but don’t make enough money for a for-profit company.” Essentially, Fruchterman identifies global problems and then finds technologies and people who can help solve them. He selects social entrepreneurship projects based on their potential for global impact.
Benetech has several projects worthy of reporting. There’s Bookshare, an effort started six years ago, designed to give people with vision and reading disabilities the opportunity to access what Fruchterman calls “the world’s largest accessible digital library of scanned material.” Additionally, the company is working on a new project called Miradi, or Swahili for "project" or "goal." It’s a package of software that allows nature conservationists to monitor their projects.
In the end, though, I was drawn most to Benetech’s work in human rights, which revolves around a database called Martus, the Greek word for “witness.” The software is open source, and anyone around the world can download it for free and tailor the code to their needs. Information entered into Martus can be sorted and analyzed to detail human rights abuses, and the data can be backed up and stored securely – essential for human rights projects, which typically handle legally and politically sensitive information.
“The point of all human rights work is to understand the past, so we can build a future that doesn’t repeat it,” Benetech's Patrick Ball told me in an interview. “We give [organizations] the technical tools to preserve their information…and provide them with technical support to assure that the process is systematic, thorough and scientific.”
Preserving Guatemala’s Bloody History
In 2005, one-time secret files of Guatemala's National Police were found in an abandoned munitions depot. Bound and stacked in piles, some 80 million documents catalog decades of state-sanctioned arrests and disappearances during the country’s brutal civil conflict, which eventually ended through a 1996 peace accord. I remember vividly the photos of the documents appearing in national newspapers here in the United States after the amazing find. When I learned that Martus was being used to analyze and store the archive, it dovetailed into the kind of story FRONTLINE/World would cover.
In the final television report, which you can watch here, you’ll see dramatic footage from the 2005 discovery. I wanted to take viewers back to that time and to trace what has happened since the discovery of this immense trove of records. I wanted to find out how something as simple as a database could not only help document Guatemala’s bloody history, but potentially bring human rights perpetrators to justice after years after civil unrest that left at least 200,000 people dead.
Benetech’s chief scientist Patrick Ball is long familiar with Guatemala’s human rights record. In the 1990s, he worked with a truth commission, known as the Commission for Historical Clarification, to help document how the Guatemalan army carried out genocide against indigenous people in the countryside. Through that work, he came to believe that similar evidence existed against the army and police in regard to the deaths and disappearances of students, activists and dissidents in the urban areas. When the Guatemalan human rights community approached him for help with the police archive, Ball gladly took on the task.
Letting the Documents Tell Their Own Story
Looking for answers among reams of data is a multi-step process. First, workers at the Guatemalan archive spend hours cleaning, sorting and scanning the documents by hand. Then, Benetech applies a scientific approach to analyzing those documents. Because archivists can’t possibly analyze 80 million documents in any reasonable time frame, Ball decided on a process of random sampling.
“The advantage of a random sample is that you cannot be accused of cherry-picking; in fact, you are giving every document in the archives a chance to be a part of your analysis. You’re not wandering through and choosing things that support your case. Rather, you’re letting the documents tell their own story.”
After documents are selected randomly, they are coded based on a variety of basic factors: document type, document creator, document recipient. There are also codes for any potential human rights abuses mentioned in the documents. Ball had to train a cadre of archive workers to do the coding, so that everyone worked systematically toward a common goal. This process, he told me, was key for ensuring that the information could stand up in a court of law. “It has to be unassailable,” Ball said.
After workers in Guatemala enter information from the documents into the Martus database, the content is encrypted and backed up to multiple servers outside the country. That keeps the data safe, no matter what happens.
Benetech’s task, in conjunction with the archive’s workers, is to analyze all the coded data. This is not a search for specific names, dates and places. Rather, this is a broad analysis of larger patterns within the Guatemalan National Police over time. It’s a search for “not the small why, but the big why,” as one archive worker explained it.
Waiting for Justice
But the “why” is taking quite a while to answer. An initial report on the archive’s findings has been held back numerous times by Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor’s office, which cites safety and security concerns for the delay. Some families, not surprisingly, are getting restless. They want answers, large or small, to questions about what happened to their loved ones. They also want someone to be held accountable.
Kate Doyle is a senior analyst and director at the Guatemala Documentation Project for the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. She doesn’t appear in our broadcast story, but she has been an invaluable source of background information about the archive. Doyle recognizes that the rescue and archiving of the files has been an extraordinary undertaking, but she worries about delays in the release of the findings.
“Almost three years after their discovery,” Doyle says, “Guatemalans wonder why the files remain behind the closed doors of the institution created to preserve them, inaccessible to the public. To date, there is no published index to the records, no report about their contents, no public access of any kind.”
The continued secrecy surrounding the documents is particularly difficult for the families of those killed or “disappeared” by the National Police during Guatemala's civil conflict. These people, she says, “long for information about the fates of their loved ones.”
Doyle adds that the hold up is also affecting human rights cases being brought to court now. Many of these cases could benefit from evidence drawn from the archives. Additionally, Guatemalan scholars, historians, journalists and human rights groups also want to look into their own government's record and role in a conflict that destroyed so many lives.
When you talk to the archive staff, you get a sense that incriminating information – data that could lead to the arrest and possible trial of human rights perpetrators – has been found in the archive. And while they are not at liberty to release such information publicly, they too are uncomfortable with the delays.
But Benetech’s Ball remains optimistic about the pace of the project. “You need to keep in mind the scale of work like this,” he says. “We’re talking about hundreds of people reading documents, dozens and dozens and dozens of different understandings of pieces of knowledge and accumulations of information that have to be drawn together and synthesized.” According to Ball, it’s difficult to calculate when a project of such magnitude will finish or even reach a point where you can publish some sort of meaningful intermediate report. “Projects that are being honest, projects that are really learning from their data, those projects,” he says, “take years.”