“It’s a long process, but a worthwhile pursuit“

Handling information effectively, using its potential to maximize the impact of advocacy – this is a serious challenge, and one that Janet Haven of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) has been working on for almost a decade. In this interview she talks about why she is convinced this is important, how she is constantly looking for new ways to measure the impact of this work and the progress made so far by working together with organizations like HURIDOCS.

By Friedhelm Weinberg on

Why is good information handling important for NGOs working for human rights?

I am a big believer that information is powerful, but I also think that it is  only powerful when it’s accessible and deployed in meaningful and targeted ways. What we have seen is that the increasing availability and ease of use of new technologies has meant that there are many different ways that information can be created and used by the human rights and transparency sector, which were not previously available to them. But we face a great challenge that the skills to make use of that information are generally not in place in those organizations that have the passion and vision to affect real change.

What motivates me and the program is that we see this gap between the possibilities and the reality. And we would like to try to close that gap.

Could you briefly introduce your work at OSF and how you are working on closing this gap?

I work in a thematic program at OSF called the “Information Program” that focuses, taken very broadly, on creation of, access to, and use of information, looking through the lens of new technologies in the digital sphere. Within that program we do quite a lot of work on information policy and the more hands-on issues surrounding the use of new technologies and data by human rights and transparency organizations. Essentially, we support projects that address the threats and opportunities that are brought to bear by new technologies and the increasing availability of data and data analysis tools and methods.

You mentioned the challenges, particularly that many organizations lack the skills to make the most of data. How are you working on overcoming them?

We are working on this from a couple of different angles. One of them is building expertise in this emerging field of using new technologies effectively for rights-focused work, for advocacy, for building citizen participation or movements. Part of how we do that is through support to organizations like HURIDOCS, which have a specific expertise that can be passed on to a lot of other organizations, so there is a possibility of learning and of replicability.

Another is that we try to isolate our assumptions about what are the impacts of using new technologies or data. Then we look for projects we can fund that will test out these assumptions. In some cases we support research that looks at these assumptions in different ways or is forward-looking.

So we are constantly trying to get at this question: What are the real impacts that we can point to? Why do we use technology and data and why is it important?

So what is the answer?

It’s a work in progress; the technology easily gets ahead of the impact and strategy questions. One example of a question we’re working on is identifying specific fields where the advocacy arguments can be measurably strengthened by having access to data, and by its strategic use. Another question is around shared data within a sector – if organizations advocating around a specific issue pool their data, does that increase the advocacy impact of the entire sector? In other words, we are interested in the impacts of sharing data, rather than keeping it siloed organization by organization, which is often what happens now.

Why are you working with HURIDOCS? How do we fit into this picture?

HURIDOCS is an expert organization on the important issue of how organizations handle their information. Not just how they handle it, as in administration, but how they think about it and understand their workflow and understand how information moves through their organization. And how this can be improved, so information becomes as usable and impactful as it can be.

I think one of the great tragedies is that many organizations around the world are supported by donors to undertake information collection, monitoring, research, to name a few. It is often extraordinarily difficult for those organizations to use that data meaningfully for its primary purpose, the project they are funded for. And then they often can never use that data again, because they are not collecting it in a way that makes it reusable.

That is not only a loss for the organization, it is potentially a loss for the entire sector. It is a loss for the broader public sphere; that information may be useful to someone, somewhere, if it were structured and released in a way that could be found and understood.

There are a lot of organizations that say: “We want to build a database.” Or: “We have already built a database.” I think HURIDOCS is very good at saying: ”We can help you build a good database, but we will also ask you: Why do you want the database?  What will it help you to do?”

So it’s the approach?

What we see again and again is that when an organization realizes they need help with technology, they generally lead with the technology. One of the things that HURIDOCS does is that they lead with strategy. You look for ways to make the technology support the strategy, rather than the other way around.

On a more personal note, you used to work for gaming and software companies. What did you learn there that you can use in your daily work now?

That was a long time ago! Yet, it was a formative experience — what I learned is how hard it is to design technology that people really want to use and that meets their needs.

When everything takes long is complicated, an uphill run – what keeps you motivated to keep working on these issues?

These are critical and unsolved issues for the advocacy sector. The ability to have the right information, and deploy it strategically, at the right moment in a campaign or advocacy effort can make all the difference. Information is fuel of an advocacy organization. It is at the heart of what people need to do their jobs well. But on the whole, it gets treated as a second-tier issue.

I see this starting to change. One of the reasons why I have stayed interested in this field for so long is the challenge of foregrounding these issues with the organizations that are doing such great work.

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