How do we select the right approach to documentation?

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How do we select the right approach to documentation?
What are the tools available to human rights defenders and how do we know which one is right for our situation? This discussion thread will explore the process of selecting an approach that is the right fit for your documentation goals.
Consider these questions below when sharing your comments in this discussion topic:
  • What tools are available? What other tools are being used to fill in gaps? What do practitioners need for human rights documentation?
  • What is the right tool for our needs? We need to take into account: security, privacy, share-ability, budget, upgrades, etc.

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

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Available human rights documentation tools

Human  rights documentation tools can be devided into two:

(a) Ordinary documentation tools:

1. Paper: The first tool most used by human rights organizations in least developed countries is paper. Before the advent of computer technology, both public and private institutions used paper to document and archive informations. In each big institution, there used be a department of archives. The paper-based archiving is prone to destruction linked to natural and man-made calamities such floods, arson/fire. When the oldest and largest library of Alexandria was burnt down,  a great deal of knowledge went to waste ( Paper can be easily worn out through wear and tear. Insects like white ants and other micro-organisms can gnaw piles of books to make habitat. Paper archives takes more spaces than electronic archiving. 

2. Ordinary electronic tools:  These  are tools which are used by any computer users. They include Microsoft Word suits such Word, Excel and Access. They are user-friendly as all Word and Excel literare people can type information and save it as a file and/or a  folder. Access serves a dabase of records although it has limited capability to store larger texts. 

3. Documentation tools for computer scientists: These tools require some programming knowledge. They use commander line interface (CLI) and console user interface and character user interface (CUI). And they are not user-friendly. MySQL and eSQL are some examples of these tools which are free/libre and open source software (FLOSS). The just mentioned tools work as databases. 

(b)Specialized electronic tools for human rights documention: To revolutionize human rights work, human rights organizations saw fit to develop software programs which are tailored to human rights work. They are many but they most known in human rights field are CRM, OpenEvSys and Martus software. CRM ( Customer Relationship Management) software was first designed in marketing. But it can be customized to fit the work of NGOs. Both OpenEvSys and Martus was designed for the monitoring, documenting and reporting (MDR) human rights violations/abuses. OpenEvSys was developed by HURIDOCS whereas Martus Human Rights Bulletin System ( hereafter Martus or Martus software) was developed by a California-based human rights organisation called Benetech.  Both of them are free/libre and open source software (FLOSS).

Succinct account on Martus software and OpenEvSys

As the social research world has embraced the use of Statistical Packages such as SPSS and Epi-Info to analyze and report, civil society institutions and organizations are the least studied and constitute the terra incognito of statistical reporting (Helmut, 2004). To revolutionize human rights MDR, Martus and OpenEvSys software programs to provide digital documenting, analyzing and producing human rights reports.  

MartusTM Human Rights Bulletin System helps to document and store the documented human rights information in bulletin (file), hence the name of Martus Human Rights Bulletin System (Beneficent Technology, Inc., 2001). This program can work online and offline. The documented information is automatically stored on the Martus server and once the documenter is working offline, the bulletins (files) are self-stored on Martus server when the computer is connected to the Internet (Ibid.).  

OpenEvSys is another human rights monitoring, documenting and reporting software.  It was developed by a Switzerland-based human rights organized called HURIDOCS in collaboration with Respere[1]. Twenty years after various human rights organizations had been using different monitoring documenting and reporting programs, OpenEvSys was developed in 2004 to mainly record human rights violations and store related documents, browse the history of a particular victim or perpetrator and analyze trends and patterns of abuse and track human rights NGOs interventions (HURIDOCS, 2011).

Martus versus OpenEvSys

Both software programs are free and open source. Both Martus Human Rights Bulletin System and OpenEvSystem can be customized to fit particular human rights working environment and its related human rights violations. Whereas Martus Human Rights Bulletin System offers only one option of Martus hosting, OpenEvSys has two options. OpenEvSys developers (HURIDOCS) can host the collected information or the documenter may choose another host company (HURIDOCS, 2011).

But it should be noted that OpenEvSys is more complex than Martus Human Rights Bulletin System. OpenEvSys has more features than Martus. OpenEvSys requires more computer science expertise.  It is therefore used by human rights NGOs which handle huge amounts of human rights information. And information stored in Martus migrated into OpenEvSys.





Janvier, that was a very

Janvier, that was a very helpful and succinct summary of some available tools. Can I ask, are getting a glimpse of your PhD research?

You've discussed the two software packages which I'm also familiar with (Martus and OpenEvSys) but you've also mentioned some of the social science research tools used in academic settings. The ones that I'm (very vaguely) familiar with are SPSS ( and R ( for quantitative storage/analysis, and Nvivo ( for qualitative storage an analysis.

I think anyone who has taken some level of a statistics class would have a general sense of what SPSS and R can accomplish (though they are both very impressive), but I've always been really intrigued by what could be possible through a qualitative package like Nvivo. 

My follow-up question would be what is being missed out by human rights organizations that don't have academically trained practitioners who can use these tools? What sort of analysis would be possible if we were to be using them? Or is the type of data collection done by academic researchers vs human rights NGOs just too different?

I'll give credit to OpenEvSys for having very nice search and analysis features built into its package. But it still takes careful planning to decide which queries will reveal interesting, relevant information, and to build those decisions back into the data collection process to ensure consistent availability of key indicators. Again, this is very difficult work not traditionally in the wheelhouse of human rights organizations!

There is one more resource which I'm aware of but personally haven't exploited well yet. That is School of Data, which offers live and archived courses on data analysis using commonly available tools and on subjects of interest such as environmental damage and labour exploitation:


Members tagged in this comment: 
Observations from one-year period of PhD studies

Dear Neil,

I concur with you that OpenEvSys developers ( HURIDOCS) did a thorough research on classification of human rights violations/abuses including the gender and sexual orientation-related cases. There are more repetitions in filling cases in OpenEvSys. For example, the software requires use to give the details of the cases and references in Event and victim sections. Also the language used by OpenEvSys can have different interpretations from different users.

Regarding human rights documentation tools,  the academia and most of human rights organizations are not aware of these tools specialized in documenting and reporting human rights violations/abuses. They  document cases using Microsoft office suites esp. Word and/or paper. They make a design format from the available information to enter into SPSS or Epi-Info. After  designing the format, they feed the information into those social statistical packages.  That is to say that they do triple work.

During the preliminary defense of my PhD project, professors advised me to specialize in one human rights documentation tool, Martus. They also required me to organize 4 hour presentation with human rights lecturers on OpenEvSys,Martus  and digital security to discuss a way forward on how to integrate such tools in the university curriculum.  After an academic discussion, I was told to teach Martus and digital security to year I, II and III of Bachelors' degree in Ethics and Human Rights. In introducing Martus to students, I also mentioned OpenEvSys but all the lectures on digital documentation dwell on Martus. 


Members tagged in this comment: 
More tools for human rights documentation

This is a great list, Janvier - thanks for sharing. I wanted to add a few other tools that came up during our Google Hangout today. In addition to Martus and OpenEvSys, there are also these tools that have been developed specifically for human rights defenders:

CaseBox - CaseBox is designed to support the needs of litigation NGOs which are looking for an integrated and web-based application to manage their caseload. (but this tool is flexible enough to be used for any kind of case-management) Built by HURIDOCS

Corroborator - Corroborator is intended to help journalists, researchers and civil society activists cope with modern large scale data. It is designed to help analysts create verifiable chronologies of events (Incidents) based on information submitted from a multitude of sources (Bulletins). Built by

RightsCase - RightsCase helps you to securely record, collate and analyse information and evidence of past and ongoing human rights violations. RightsCase allows you to access meaningful statistics through visualisations of collated data. Built by

A few other tools that are useful for human rights documentation efforts though not necessarily developed for this, include:

  • Content management systems, generally (Drupal, Wordpress, etc)
  • Consituent relationship management systems (like CiviCRM and Salesforce)
  • Ushahidi is useful for mapping information
  • Spreadsheets (Excel, Google Spreadsheets)
  • Mobile applications like cameras, WhatsApp, TextSecure private messenger,
  • Paper
  • Google docs

I hope to learn more about these tools and how they are being used! Also, I'm hoping someone will start a conversation thread specically on mobile applications for human rights documentation - what's available, what's being developed, how can we use these safely, and what are the gaps?


Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Criteria to select a right human rights documentation tool

How to choose the right human rights documentation tool?


The main aim of technology is to render human work more efficient and effective. The word technology does not mean necessarily the use of computers and electronic devices to such work. If there is a mnemonic technique invented to master a lengthy and complex theories of a phenomenon, such technique is a technological tool to help human minds to remember such theories in short time and by using fewer efforts.

Documentation tool performance criteria

The selection of a right human rights documentation tool is dictated by its efficient and effective performance. The performance of the tool is premised on at least 15 overlapping criteria.

1.      Accessibility: After the development of a human rights tool, there should be training and outreach programs to facilitate its users and prospective users to get it. The dissemination of information on the tool and its training manual in lay man’s language is of paramount importance.

2.      Availability: A human rights documentation tool should not be out of reach of   human rights practitioners, researchers, students and academicians.  

3.      Affordability: A tool may be accessible and available not affordable. The affordability allows a tool user to get with few cost or without cost. Note that if FLOSS software programs such as Martus and OpenEvSys cannot be downloaded on a USB or CD RW of more than 5$, they would be on the Internet in ready-to-form but few individual human rights defenders would be able to get them.  

4.      User-friendliness:Taking into account that most human rights defenders are not computer scientists, the right tool for human rights documentation should be easier to use. A tool is difficult to   manipulate remains in the realm of the few people (developers and other experts).             The intent of developing human rights tool is to  promote and protection human rights both in the cities/towns where most human rights organizations are based and in the far-flung areas including villages. Human rights tool should not be the privilege of the highly educated people or specialists only.  The user-friendliness promotes users’ independence whereas unhandy tools requires users to always seek assistance not guidance, hence the perpetual dependence syndrome. 

5.      Security: Security of the human rights documenters/documentalists, victims, witnesses and other stakeholders is of cardinal importance. With the increase of targeted attacks             (cyber or physical) against human rights defenders (HRDs), there is a need of secure documentation tool to prevent unauthorized/spying eyes to get sensitive information of HRDs. Although the security of a documentation tool depends on the security consciousness of its users, embedding of other security tools such as TOR browser to anonymize users and encryption software strengthens the already existing security of such a tool. Security promotes privacy and confidentiality. 

6.      Free-distribution/redistribution: Costless and unfettered distribution/redistribution of a documentation tool is an added value. Most small NGOs and individual human rights documenters cannot afford the documentation tools because they are underfunded and they work on voluntary basis. When there is no information documented on cases of human rights, human rights violators/abusers go scot-free. The victims continue to languish in hopelessness and helplessness. One of the modern tactics of dictators is divide, impoverish and rule. The haves and enlightened are only the chosen few, it is easy to control them while the masses remain ignorant. Human rights documentation should done by everybody, everywhere and every time. But the reality is that the documentation of human rights violations and abuses is done by few organizations and individuals. Since documenters   human rights monitors are not omnipresent, most of human rights violations and abuses go unnoticed and undocumented. The free distribution/ redistribution coupled with other criteria will ensure that most human rights violations are documented and reported securely.     

7.      Transparency: One of the components FLOSS software is open. Openness requires the developer of a documentation tool to disclose all mechanisms behind the development of the tool. This allows experts to ascertain the veracity and the security of a tool. Openness also welcomes opinions and contributions on how to innovate and bridge the gaps identified by independent experts. Transparency helps to pass a documentation tool to the future generation, hence its perpetuity. The transparency involves both developers and practitioners in the innovation of a documentation tool. The involvement of practitioners make them to consider a documentation tool as theirs not as it is imposed from third party.    

8.      Perpetuity: A right documentation tool should be timeless. It does not mean that the 21st century documenters can continue to use a documentation tool of the 50s. The knowledge of the old documentation tool is a basis of the future innovations. Old tools should not be superseded and thrown into oblivions but they should be improved to suit particular needs, time and people.

9.      Interoperability: As there are various software programs in the world, the right documentation tools should not conflict with other programs use. For example, Martus software operates on both Linux and Windows. The main goal of interoperability as Somone Alprandi puts it is “to facilitate interaction between different software applications and to enable sharing and re-use of information among non-homogenous systems” (

10.   Customizability: Without abusing the intellectual property rights of the authors, the users of right documentation tool can change some components of the tool. If a team develops a standard format of a documentation tool, the practitioners from various background can modify the model documentation tool to suit their respective interests and needs.

11.  Flexibility: A human rights documentation should allow its users to run, examine, modify and distribute its codes or format. The immutability of a documentation becomes a burden to its users and make users to user unsecure and affordable tools.

12.  Secure and free back-up opportunity: A right documentation tool provides storage facilities for its users. As few organizations and human rights documenters can afford to buy a server or outsource database development and pay its upkeep and maintenance fees in case of malfunction, the developer of documentation should avail a secure back-up system to human rights documenter. 

13.  Accommodating:  A good documentation tool should accommodate records to substantiate the documented information. It should allow the attachment of paper documents, audio materials and audio-visual data which are produced by other tools supporting human rights documentation.

14.  Efficient information sharing: To reduce  security risks, expenses and other resources linked to travel from one destination to another to deliver information, the right documentation tool should have a secure component of share information with vertically     ( boss/subordinate), horizontally ( boss/boss or subordinate/subordinate) and vice versa.  

15.  Multipurpose:  A right documentation tool should be of multipurpose use. Apart from the archiving task, it should allow automatic report production and search. The embedding of various tools in a documentation tool enables the tool to do multiple activities using one tool.


CRM, OpenEvSys and Martus are three documentation tools used by NGOs. CRM is used for managing inter-organizational and individual relationship whereas OpenEvSys and Martus are used by human rights defenders to document and report human rights violations/abuses. Considering the aforesaid criteria, Martus is best tool recommended for small human rights organizations and individual human rights defenders.

To document human rights violations/abuses, most human rights defenders use traditional tools (also called support tools) such camera, paper, recorder and phones to document human rights violations/abuses.                  These paper-based and audio/audio-visuals are incorporated in a documentation tool to substantiate the documented information and   dispel doubts that could hover over the outcome. The hybridization of a documentation tool and support tool gives opportunities to other stakeholders such courts and investigators to carry out more enquiries. 

Convenience thought in the common citizen

Good morning everyone. Today I throw the question, thinking of readers like me, have little knowledge about the effectiveness of security measures. Depending on the purpose, how safe is to use media as g. drive, dropbox, skype, facebook, tweeter and other possible.?  How to choose the right way to protect data, what to consider Effective and safe way to collaborate with others (SVN, VERSION CONTROL)


Security and convenience

Hi poecarol,

If I could offer my 2 cents on your question, I think we're living in an age where security (and privacy) and convenience are increasingly at odds. All the tools you mentioned are very convenient, but they also all rely on trusting a 3rd party to handle your information well. So you may need to do a risk analysis - is it an acceptable risk that these companies, and governments whose jurisdiction they fall within, may access or share your information? I think for many human rights organizations, while we may dislike the principle, it is simply easier to use these tools.

On the other hand there is a large range of solutions which can put security back into your hands. Email encryption with GPG (see is very commonly used. You could VPN into a private network. And yes, you can use Martus as a documentation tool, which has encryption baked into its implementation. 

That being said, there are always security flaws being discovered even in well-respected security packages (look at recent vulnerabilities in OpenSSL, one of the most widely used encryption libraries used today). So we're left making practical and in a sense philisophical decisions about our data security, based on the sensitivity of our work, what our risk analysis is, and what the capabilities of our adversaries are.


Good points

These are some good points made by Neil. On the topic of risk assesment I would like to share a short questionairre that I use with the staff I work with. I use this because while I know more about technology and security than them they know more about the circumstances of the individual or documents which helps me best keep it secure. These are good questions to ask yourself whenever deciding to store something on for example google drive.


ASSETS: What are we protecting?

Assets could be Electronic files such as email and documents, paper documents, physical items like laptops and voice recorders.

THREATS: What are we protecting the assets against?

Types of threats break down as follows:

  • Confidentiality – Keeping assets away from unauthorized parties
  • Integrity – Keeping assets undamaged or unaltered
  • Availability – Assuring the assets are available for people to use
  • Consistency – Meaning assets work as expected all of the time.
  • Audit – The ability to verify that assets are secure

RISK: What is the likelihood of a threat occurring in your opinion?

ADVERSARIES: Who poses a threat to the organization and its contacts/associates?

CONSEQUENCES: What would the consequences of a security breach be? 

Tools to help defenders measure risk?

Very useful, Chris - thanks for sharing this questionnaire! I was curious of you or others had more tools/resources to help defenders measure risk. Is it your experience that the process of identifying the types of threats and adversaries gives them enough information to accurately measure their risk? I just wonder how likely it is that groups may miss risks that aren't on their radar....are there tools to help defenders expand their view of potential risk without overwhelming them with fear?


Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

More info

I had written a longer reply but it was erased when I tried to post. 

I wanted to share this chart which I collaborated on which is a list of attacks, countermeasures, and alternatives. I thought some may find it useful.

Thanks, Chris!

Thanks, Chris!


Hi Neil,

I think you are making some excellent points here. There are many things that we can do to enhance security, but it requires us to change our habits and sometimes live with less convenient solutions. And once we start, we begin to realize other potential failure points, asking ourselves for more and more and more actions - so it becomes almost a philosophical question, for which answers are not always found based on risk and cost-benefit analyses.

Yet, I feel learning more in that regard is totally worthwhile, because it is also a matter of regaining control, agency over how we are interacting with computers. We become conscious risk-takers and make informed decisions. We won't gain full control, because ultimately we have to trust other people's work (if it's Google software, or a volunteeer open source tool, or Martus), but that is ok, as long as we are making informed and responsible decisions.

Do developers have ethical responsibility to improve usability?

Enrique posted a potentially contraversial idea today on our Google Hangout - that perhaps it is the ethical responsibility of developers to make tools (designed for human rights defenders) easy to use and secure. That the secure documentation is as important as effective documentation, and it's up to the tool developers to bring these two things together. What do others think?

Also, I wonder if we're setting the bar too high (or not high enough) and setting them up to fail or to fall short because of a lack of resources and understanding of the field. Is there enough funding for the development of the kinds of tools human rights defenders need? Is there enough knowledge and skill among those developers interested in this work? Are there gaps between the developers and the defenders on the group?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Recording of our Thursday Google Hangout

Thanks for joining our Google Hangout! I look forward to continuing our conversation on these documentation tools and the criteria for selecting the right tool in this discussion forum!

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