Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dead Speak

At first glance, Benetech looks very much like other corporate websites, with its navigation to different divisions, section on its "business plan," and use of stock photographs and features of institutional web design. But the company's Blogspot blog carries items about open source rather than proprietary technologies, and headings for "human rights," "literacy," and "environment" indicate that it is activism rather than corporate products or services is what constitutes their core business.

A recent Frontline television special about "Guatemala: The Secret Files" explains the role of Benetech in documenting the human rights abuses of the past. The Human Rights Data Analysis Group of Benetech took on the task of scanning documents and providing database resources to "flesh out the story of the disappeared" with custom software and "tools to capture the information."

The largest known human rights archive in the Americas, the recovered police records could provide critical information about the estimated 200,000 people dead or missing during Guatemala's 36-year civil war and help bring perpetrators to justice.

Another one of the firm's divisions, Martus, from the Greek word for "witness," explains its mission as follows:

Martus is a secure information management tool that allows you to create a searchable and encrypted database and back this data up remotely to your choice of publicly available servers. The Martus software 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.

When I was a teenager, I knew a friend of a friend who was from Guatemala. As a non-native English speaker and survivor of the dirty war that had decimated his family, it was difficult to understand who he was or where he had come from. Finally, at a party my Spanish-speaking boyfriend at the time ended up talking with this guy for hours and listening to him describe a bloody regime that seemed very far from our nineteen-eighties suburban comfort. This conflict is still poorly understood by Americans, but they can host parts of its archive on their computer desktops as part of one Benetech initiative.

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