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$5 Million Grant From Microsoft Will Help UN Track Human-Rights Abuses


Refugees at the Ban Tractor camp in Thailand, which houses mostly Karenni ethnic people from Burma. Thanks to a Microsoft grant, a new digital “dashboard” tracking human-rights abuses worldwide is being developed by the UN. GARY MOORE/CREATIVE COMMONS

As political instability, conflicts and migration proliferate across the world, technology has become a potential solution for identifying and predicting human-rights violations, which play a major role instigating upheavals. Smartphones enable instant updates and eyewitness accounts of events happening around the globe, and the use of cloud computing and big-data analysis allows large amounts of information to be synthesized quickly and accurately.

So, where does the United Nations’ work on protecting individual human rights become relevant to technological tools? A recent partnership that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights office signed with the Microsoft Corporation will leverage digital power to enhance the UN’s protection of human rights by tracking abuses through a comprehensive databank.

The idea was planted by the previous high commissioner, Navi Pillay, when she began talking to Microsoft in 2013 on how technology could further the UN’s work on human rights. (The current high commissioner is Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.)

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The agreement includes a $5 million grant from Microsoft as well as pro bono technological support over five years to advance the UN’s top human-rights office, based in Geneva, to better monitor, track and call out rights abusers. That includes countries and national leaders.

Since the agreement was signed, Microsoft and the OHCHR, as the UN office is called, have focused most of their new joint efforts on a project called Rights View. It consists of a human-rights “dashboard” that will aggregate different sources of data on human rights into a single panel to be used only by UN staff.

The dashboard could take years to be fully operating, said Laurent Sauveur, the head of external relations at the UN human-rights office, in an interview with PassBlue. Marlene Urscheler, a human-rights officer at the OHCHR, said, “in the next 12 months, hopefully we can integrate enough data sources that it actually becomes a useful tool.”

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The UN human-rights office has staff members working in countries as diverse as Syria, Burundi, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, where they gather crucial information about human-rights situations on the ground. The UN experts collect data through “monitoring,” a broad term that includes gathering information about incidents, observing events (elections, trials, demonstrations and the like), visiting sites such as places of detention and refugee camps and holding discussions with government authorities to obtain information, according to the OHCHR.

Unsurprisingly, “data on human rights violations is often difficult to obtain, incomplete, unverified; and the sheer volume is overwhelming,” a Microsoft spokesperson told PassBlue.

An important feature of Rights View is that it will integrate the internal data gathered in the field with outside sources of data from social media, other UN partners and traditional media. Consolidating the data will also allow information to be cross-checked and verified automatically using artificial intelligence and big-data analytics instead of requiring human-rights officers to do this preliminary work themselves.

Given that the UN is perpetually criticized by everyone from the White House to the general public for its perceived bureaucratic barriers to operating more efficiently, the Rights View program can help change that perception and reality.

“It’s a massive project,” Saveur said. “We are looking at having at least 14 types of databases speaking to one another. This is really taking most of Microsoft’s attention dedicated to the pro bono aspect of this partnership.”

Rights View will also unify various sources of data into a central dashboard with a small number of themes and predicting variables. Such collation will increase the amount of data that human-rights officers can access and make it easier to identify potential rights abuses.

“The idea is to give the human rights office the possibility to see which hashtags are trending or which kinds of new issues are coming up in order to identify trends,” Urscheler said.

The dashboard will consist of a page for each country, where human-rights officers can see a collection of statistics, indicators and themes. Several challenges will invariably emerge when aggregating different sources of data in one place. The notation of events could be different from one data set to another, for example. The need for uniformity across the databases requires the creation of a new, adaptable taxonomy that can apply to each of the data sets, Urscheler said.

If there are 300 or 400 different subsets, it will also be hard to sift through information, so the list of themes and their notation must be concise and generalizable.

Rights View is in the early phase, with the first data sources being integrated into the dashboard.

“We are having meetings with each of the data owners and with the Microsoft team to discuss exactly which elements of their information we can display and how to display them,” Urscheler said. “In the next 12 months, hopefully we can integrate enough data sources that it actually becomes a useful tool . . . although the full development, including integrating media sources and social media data, might take a bit longer.”

The dashboard is not the only tech project that the UN human-rights office hopes to tap with Microsoft. “It would be great if technology could help us identify whether images that we receive that are supposedly evidence of a human rights violations are real or not by using video forensics,” Saveur said.

Forensic video analysis is one example of a tech solution that could save immense amounts of time by automating the painstaking process of authenticating photos and videos of alleged rights violations.

The OHCHR, which is suffering from a significant funding gap, receives 40 percent of its total annual budget from the UN regular budget, of which only 3.5 percent of that outlay goes to the human-rights pillar at the UN. In 2016, the OHCHR budget was $129 million, with the US the largest donor at $17 million. Norway was the second-largest, at $12 million. By contrast, Russia donated $2 million; Microsoft also donated $750,000.

This article was updated. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Julie Vanderperre is a recent political science graduate of McGill University in Montreal. She has written for the McGill Tribune and was an intern for AID India in Chennai and for Social Justice Connection in Montreal. She currently works for France-Amerique Magazine in New York and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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