Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Purpose and definition of an information management system

The primary purpose of an information management system is to help a human rights organization understand and comprehend all of the information available to that organization. For example, if an investigator hears testimony about a particular incident, she should be able to use the system to easily find other information about the incident that the organization has obtained in the past.

Similarly, if an analyst suspects that a particular perpetrator is responsible for a number of violations of human rights in a particular region or period, he should be able to search information on all of the past and current organization's cases for other violations in which the perpetrator in question was likely to be involved. Witnesses to other cases may have identified the perpetrator indirectly: a) by a nickname; b) by a distinguishing personal characteristic (e.g., "very tall," "heavily bearded," etc.); c) by the military or police unit in which the perpetrator worked; or witnesses may have mentioned some other clue which allows the analyst to begin to put together information that can be invaluable to investigators or lawyers building a legal case.

Finally, a good information management system should permit an organization to calculate statistics according to a variety of criteria. For example, an organization may want to know how many reports of arbitrary execution they have heard in the last three months. Or they may want to know how many cases of torture there have been in each of the provinces of the country. Statistics can be either very simple or extremely complex.

As you can see from the preceding examples, the term "information management system" implies more than a computer database. Rather, it suggests an integrated system through which an organization collects data, organizes it, puts it somewhere, and then analyzes it. A good paper filing system is always an important component of the system, whether or not an organization uses computers. Good information management can be done without computers. We talk of an information management system in order to highlight the whole process by which an organization obtains and analyzes information.

There are four steps to an information management system. Every organization that studies patterns of violence works through each of these steps, although they may not be explicitly recognized as such. These steps are described at length in Section 3. The steps are presented graphically below in Figure 1.1.1.

Figure 1.1.1: The four steps in an information management system

By way of clarification, in this handbook "large-scale data collection" means collecting and analyzing more information than a single person can keep in her own head. With more than one person involved, a group will need a way to communicate what each person has learned to the others, and they will need a way to compile the information for analysis and presentation in a final report. Usually the model described in this handbook has been applied to projects involving thousands of deponents and victims, and tens of thousands of violations. However, it could easily be scaled either up or down, depending on the needs of a given organization.

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