Political science students, faculty work to advance human rights research

For decades, organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, and the United States Department of State have compiled reports on human rights around the globe. This summer, Chris Fariss, assistant professor of political science at Penn State, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students, digitized more than 14,000 of these reports and made them publicly accessible online.

“This information has been publicly available for years, but this is the first time it will be publicly accessible in digital form,” said Fariss, the Jeffrey L. Hyde and Sharon D. Hyde and Political Science Board of Visitors Early Career Professor in Political Science.

Megan Biek, a senior majoring in international politics, played a major role in the research. “Human rights reports are so inaccessible to most people,” said Biek. "This project is a great way to make the information more obtainable to the public.”

Beyond just being publicly accessible, though, this project aimed to compile the reports in a way that would allow future researchers to make sense of the data. According to Fariss, “The number of reports and the length of each report make it difficult for human rights scholars to analyze and discover patterns within them.”

With help from a  McCourtney Institute for Democracy  Innovation Grant, Fariss was able to assemble a team of seven to digitize and prepare the documents for future research. By using optical character recognition, the team was able to make the scanned documents machine-readable. Additional programming fixed errors in the scanned text and organized the resulting information.

“Now,” said Fariss, “in addition to reading and coding the documents one-by-one, scholars can apply computational methods to analyze the data all at once, hopefully making the information more useful for understanding how different human rights practices and reporting have evolved over time.”

"It’s much different from a typical class where you complete an assignment for a grade. I was given the opportunity to work independently and propose ideas that shaped the outcome of this project."

-- Megan Biek, senior international politics major

For Biek, the experience was transformative. “It’s much different from a typical class where you complete an assignment for a grade. I was given the opportunity to work independently and propose ideas that shaped the outcome of this project.”

That experience is exactly what McCourtney Institute for Democracy Associate Director Mark Major wants to see.

“Students at Penn State have unique opportunities to get involved in innovative research projects," Major said. “This project makes a significant contribution to the literature on human rights, and I applaud Chris Fariss for making this a Penn State community project.”

Fariss and his team published an article about the project titled “Human Rights Texts: Converting Human Rights Primary Source Documents into Data” in the journal PLOS ONE.

Additional contributors to the project included: Fridolin J. Linder, a third-year graduate student in the Department of Political Science; Zachary M. Jones, a third-year graduate student in the Department of Political Science; Charles D. Crabtree, a third-year graduate student in the Department of Political Science and recipient of another McCourtney Institute for Democracy Innovation Grant for his work on censorship in authoritarian regimes; Ana-Sophia M. Ross, Schreyer Honors College; Taranamol Kaur, a recent international relations graduate from the University of California, San Diego; and Michael Tsai, a master’s candidate at the University of California, San Diego.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017