Architect Calls For Interdisciplinary Approach to Human Rights Work

Bradley Samuels describes how SITU integrates the location of the viewers of design work the firm produces for clients, pointing to a side displaying the interior the International Criminal Court’s courtroom in The Hague where SITU’s work has assisted in the prosecution of cases involving human rights atrocities. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

Bradley Samuels is an architect with an unusual mission: he uses design skills not only for buildings, but to expose and communicate human rights atrocities. At SITU, the Brooklyn-based company he co-founded in 2005, Samuels and his colleagues leverage design skills and technical expertise to present complex information pivotal to human rights cases internationally.

SITU’s research division, which is funded by the MacArthur, Oak and Open Society Foundations, recently worked with Amnesty International to build an interactive platform that transformed data gathered from investigations into chemical weapons use and other incidents in Sudan into visually relevant information. Their platform has also been used by the International Criminal Court in cases focusing on the destruction of cultural heritage in Mali.

“There was a tremendous amount of evidence, but they needed a tool to allow them to present it coherently in court,” Samuels said in an interview.

Samuels provided case studies that illustrate the unique and growing opportunities for scientists, designers, architects and artists to assist human rights organizations and international legal efforts during a lecture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on 7 December. The presentation entitled “Undisciplined: Reflections at the Intersection of Design, Technology and Human Rights” was held in recognition of International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.  

The talk was organized by the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, which has focused on the multifaceted connections between science, ethics and justice since the 1970s.

For this year’s event, the organizers sought to address a growing shift toward utilizing digital evidence in human rights cases.

“This is a whole new area, where there is incredible opportunity for the scientific community to inform and advance what is happening,” said Theresa Harris, senior program associate. “We knew SITU Research was doing some very innovative things by combining technology and scientific evidence with design.”

Samuels pointed to a recent success that utilized such a combination: a digital platform his group developed to present evidence of the destruction of nine historic sites in the Malian city of Timbuktu. SITU’s platform integrated geospatial data with photos, videos, satellite imagery and panoramic images of each site before, during and after attacks, and allowed users to toggle easily between different views.

The evidence proved so comprehensive that the defendant pled guilty, becoming the first defendant that the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes to do so.

The platform’s flexible design makes it easy to redeploy, and it has since been used by Amnesty International in its investigation of chemical weapons use on villages in the Jebel Mara region of Sudan.

A current SITU Research project brings its work back into the courtroom, where it is supporting the cases of families of protesters killed by police and military in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2013 and 2014. In collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon Center of Human Rights Science, SITU designers are marshalling thousands of hours of video, seeking to identify and organize the data to show who was killed where and when, based on time and location.  The goal is to reconstruct the events surrounding the deaths of these civilians.

“We believe designers can make real, measurable impacts in human rights work,” said Samuels. “A lot of possibilities, whether through new tools and methods or simply an alternate perspective on the same problems sets, may open up by bringing design thinking into these conversations.”

This view has guided SITU since its formation. Samuels and his colleagues left architecture school compelled to design more than just buildings and found that the collaborative, fast-paced mindset of a good designer has a place in international justice work.

“Iteration is essential to innovate,” Samuels explained. “This can create new space in human rights work. People like us can come in and forge ahead in collaboration with people within the human rights community, who can identify where we can afford to experiment.”

Samuels and Harris hope the lecture will encourage more human rights groups to integrate such technologies and skillsets within their organizations, and help professionals realize how their own expertise — from high level chemistry to simple data management skills — can be a resource in addressing injustice.

“People often don’t know what to ask for until they’re presented with it,” Samuels said. “That’s why I’m hoping, in convening a diverse group of actors to have this conversation, the cases will emerge and the work will follow.”