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Alex Steffen, 6 Jan 04

Landmine detectors that people in poor nations can actually afford. Securely encrypted off-site information storage of information on human rights activists. A phone cam that reads text on signs for blind people. Several readers have suggested we check out the non-profit Benetech. With projects like these, we can understand why.

As this article explains:

"Ten years ago, entrepreneur Jim Fruchterman asked himself a tough question: Can technology save people from brutality?

"He had just read a detailed account of the slaughter of hundreds of villagers in the El Salvador village of El Mozote, denied at the time by the U. S. government in an alleged political cover-up.

"How can technologists protect peasants from being murdered?" Fruchterman asked. "We're engineers, we like to think about all kinds of fancy things, but when it comes down to it, the only thing that helps groups like this is truth."

"Now Fruchterman's nonprofit, Benetech, has an answer: the Martus Human Rights Bulletin System, a simple database program that helps human rights observers in often low-tech field offices avoid losing their records of police brutality, rapes and other abuses. Martus means "witness" in Greek."

Fruchterman, who left his original field of rocket science after one project blew up on the launchpad and another failed to get off the ground financially, started Benetech 14 years ago with collaborator David Ross. Their goal: to develop and distribute technologies whose humanitarian promise dwarfs their potential profit.

"We think of ourselves as a high-tech company, but our customers are people who most high-tech companies won't go after," Fruchterman said. The Palo Alto organization's first project used optical-recognition software -- inspired by smart bombs -- to convert printed books into audio books for the blind.

When researching Martus, Benetech learned that a human rights group in Sri Lanka had lost five years of records to termites. Other groups recorded their data on computers, but the PCs were stolen.

"Some of these grassroots groups in remote locations have white boards in their offices where they're counting up atrocities. What happens if somebody erases the white board?" asked Jennifer Betty, marketing director at San Francisco's Asia Foundation, which funded and organized a training in the Philippines in February to teach 100 human rights workers to use Benetech's software.

Data collected by local human rights observers is often the basis of international investigations and trials. Such investigations can stall if the original data has been lost, said Fruchterman.

To combat data loss, Martus not only helps groups store the data on PCs, it backs the files up on remote servers so the data can't be lost even if the original PC is destroyed. And because human rights observers often strive to evade notice by local governments or deal with very personal information, the information is encrypted with an easy-to-use technology based on the Pretty Good Privacy program. PGP is a free, strong encryption technology that protects e-mail from prying eyes -- but many people consider its publicly available version difficult to use.

Martus is designed to be as easy to use as e-mail. It automatically transfers data to the server when the user is online. Local headquarters can decide whether to share a file with other groups, or to keep it private.

New York nonprofit Human Rights Watch says the software may help its field researchers, who travel to countries in every region of the world investigating human rights abuses. Martus' backup feature could be handy for workers who want to delete the original files from their computers before going through border crossings, said Jagdish Parikh, Human Rights Watch's online content coordinator.

"(Border guards) do open up a computer, they want to check the data. You don't want them to see your data," he said.

After beta testing began last summer, Martus is now in use by seven to 10 groups in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, the company estimates. Human Rights Watch provided suggestions during Martus' development, but its researchers are not yet using the program because they are awaiting improvements, especially a way to access the program via the Web at Internet cafes in areas where other Internet access is not available, Parikh said. Benetech is working on it.

In Sri Lanka, the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies documents thousands of human rights violations in far-flung areas of the country on a shoestring budget and uses Martus to transmit the information to its headquarters in the nation's biggest city, Colombo. The program also has been used in the United States by Arizona's AZ Coalition Against Domestic Violence when it compiled a report on fatalities and murder-suicides.

"(Martus) improved my project by allowing me easy access to my information without having to flip through hundreds of pages for each case," said the coalition's systems advocate, Brandi Brown, who used the software to organize information from police, medical examiner and court records into a single, searchable database.

In the Philippines and in Thailand, groups are gearing up to use Martus. Edgardo Abundo, a convener of the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers' Rights in Cebu City, the Philippines, said he likes the fact that Martus included encryption to keep the organization's data safe.

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More anti-landmine tech. Apopo - Belgian researchers in Tanzania using rats to sniff out landmines.

The rats are quite intelligent, learning faster than dogs, as well as being lighter and hence less likely to set off mines.


They're next trying using the rats as faster lab techs, to test samples for tuberculosis.

Was also in the Economist over Christmas.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 7 Jan 04



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