Open Source Part 2—Human Rights

By Jose Rivera
Jose Rivera
Jose Rivera
December 20, 2009 Updated: December 20, 2009

In my last article, "Coming Age of Open Source Technology" I discussed the influence of open source technology on the global economy. This time I want to take a closer look at how this technology is helping human rights efforts.

As mobile technologies become more prevalent, humanitarian aid workers, journalists and others are given greater ability to inform the world of important developments as they unfold. Whether facing a natural disaster, an armed conflict, or a police action within an oppressive regime, reporting these critical first moments can often make a considerable difference in how the world community views and responds to a crisis.

One example is Sahana, a free and open source disaster management system. This Web-based collaboration tool addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster, such as finding missing people, managing aid and volunteers, tracking camps effectively between government groups, the civil society (NGOs), and the victims themselves.

Sahana helps coordinate these diverse groups so that they can all work together to respond effectively to a disaster. Sahana helps empower victims, responders, and volunteers to better enable them to help themselves and others. Not only does this system protect victim data and reduce the opportunity for data abuse, but it does so with a free and open source solution that is available to everyone.

Remember that "open source" doesn't necessarily mean "free" software. Instead it refers to a type of licensing agreement that allows users to shape the software as they see fit.

In my last article, I discussed how the open source model works. It can be compared to a store that sells a certain tool. Instead of simply selling this tool as is to the public, in an open source model the tool is available for others to modify. Customers from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives help shape the tool to fit their needs, making improvements that the tool's creator could never have made on his own.

Imagine how tailoring a program to suit a particular need would make that program even more valuable—especially in the area of human rights where so many variables are at play.

Protecting victim data can often be an important aspect to human rights work, and Martus is a project solely committed to this end. Martus is used by organizations around the world to protect sensitive information and shield the identity of victims or witnesses who provide testimony on human rights abuses.

This secure information management tool helps to create searchable and encrypted databases. Users can back up their data remotely to any one of several publicly available servers.

Like most open source software, Martus (the name is derived from the Greek word for “witness”) can be downloaded free. This tool is used by human rights workers, attorneys, journalists, and others who need to secure their information from eavesdropping, theft, or equipment failure.

In other situations, protecting identity is not necessary, but keeping good records is—especially when undertaking a daunting project. OpenMRS® is a community-developed, open source, enterprise electronic medical record system platform that helps those who are actively building and managing health systems in the developing world, where AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria afflict the lives of millions.

The mission of OpenMRS® is to foster self-sustaining health information technology implementations in these environments through peer mentorship, proactive collaboration, and a code base that equals or surpasses proprietary equivalents.

True to the open source spirit, users are welcome to participate in the OpenMRS® community by implementing the software in situations that it can help.

While some of open source software helps aid governments in coordination efforts, others defy regimes. FreeGate is an anti-censorship software for secure and fast Internet access. Developed and maintained by Dynamic Internet Technology Inc. (DIT: allows users to breakthrough Internet firewalls that restrict information in oppressive countries.

FreeGate allows users access to Web sites overseas as fast as their local ones and it requires no installation or change in system setting. FreeGate can be accessed simply through a single executable file on a Windows platform.

Evolving technology can be a wonderful thing, but if a community can’t get access to it, it won’t serve them at all. Open source projects, however, offer readily available and often free solutions along with a sense of interconnectedness. Because this model allows for input from a variety of sources, even better solutions and greater cooperation are sure to emerge in the future.

Jose Rivera