Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the leading global advocacy organizations, with 400 employees monitoring human rights violations in dozens of countries. For HRW, monitoring and advocacy is mostly a data problem: they need to collect and analyze data so they can proof human rights violations are taking place. This is the only way governmental and other organizations can be hold accountable. We are proud to say that HRW now uses Silk for Teams for an important part of their data analysis and presentation.
Among other things, HRW tracks voting patterns in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. The Council meets regularly to debate and pass resolutions on burning issues such as the civil war in Syria and government crackdowns in Iran or Belarus. HRW tracks the voting records of the 47 country members of the Council, and updates an written analysis on the voting behavior of each country. Up until recently, these track records and analyses were stored in spreadsheets and text files, but now they use Silk to store, analyze, and present them.
According to Stephen Northfield, Director of Digital of Human Rights Watch, they needed a tool that was flexible enough to adapt to quickly changing circumstances:
"The team does a lot of analysis each year, taking a look at the council, who is on it, and how they vote on certain issues. They are dealing with a large number of entities and a membership that changes, so it’s basically a dynamic data problem. Tracking and analyzing that without a real-time interactive tool is challenging. Even under the best of circumstances, reports were hard to produce and the records were cumbersome to maintain. So we were looking for a tool that allowed for the simple tracking of complex, dynamic datasets around voting records."
When Northfield joined HRW as the head of digital, the team tracking the UN Council told him they wanted to build graphics that allow anyone to explore the voting records of different country committees on the Internet. Northfield: "The notion was the creation of a tool that they would continue updating in years coming and use as a database. With this tool they could make assessments about the voting records of the individual countries."
In the summer of 2013, Northfield first heard of Silk, a Content Management System that combines the ease of use of online documents and spreadsheets with the power of traditional structured databases. He liked the way Silk leveraged the microdata capability of HTML5 to transparently add an underlying data structure to standard web pages.
“It looked very interesting and dynamic. The simple UI is easy for non-coders to upload data, even from spreadsheets. Anyone could easily be trained to update and manage Silk sites and run queries on particular votes,” says Northfield. “And the way Silk is built makes it very easy to drill down on data to focus on just about any aspect of the information.” As a self-service Web-based service, too, he liked that Silk would not add IT responsibilities to HRW’s already thin tech team.
The HRW team in Geneva began switching over from CSV files and word documents to Silk during the fall of 2013. In short order, tasks that formerly required construction of pivot tables or painstaking manual manipulation of data became jobs accomplished in several clicks. Silk’s faceted search component allowed the HRW team to quickly drill down or zoom out to view various aspects of its data on a country, regional, issue, global or temporal basis. Unlike any existing CMS service, Silk allowed the HRW team to combine all the contents of the 300-odd files different files into a single Silk site displaying the relevant data and accompanying embedded narratives. Not a single line of code or scripting language was required.
Whereas the team previously required an expert resource to generate graphics suitable for publication in reports, Silk allowed them to build charts and maps on the fly without outside help. What’s more, those graphical elements can be embedded in any web site, fulfilling a key mandate of HRW to widely share and distribute its findings. “Because you can so easily slice and dice the data, there are all sorts of possibilities in terms of advocacy - generating charts and maps. This is an interesting and powerful way for us to promote our activity on the Council,” says Northfield.
Further, the real-time update capability of Silk has allowed HRW to report on Council activities immediately and do so without sacrificing depth of analysis. Northfield anticipates that Silk will become HRW’s information store of record for the UN Council on Human Rights and will simultaneously serve as their tool for publishing the information as a public web site. This combination of two distinct functions previously was not possible. "Because Silk’s UI is so simple, I can allow the users to determine how they want to use the tool," says Northfield, who envisions using Silk to track refugee movements, economic repression and other key human rights areas. "Any place where we are tracking a lot of changes in data and regularly reporting, analyzing, visualizing and then sharing information, Silk could be extremely valuable."
We would like to thank Human Rights Watch and Stephen Northfield for talking about how they use Silk with us. If this case study got you interested in using Silk for your own company, please check out Silk for Teams.
You can also download the PDF version of this case study.