This project was born out of a love of metadata and a concern for the visibility of human rights violations by the US government under the War on Terror.
Confronting Documentation of the US War on Terror takes existing metadata about US government documents collected by the nongovernmental organization the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and re-presents it in new ways to confront the viewer with aspects of the original documents that might not be immediately visible without that metadata.
Pratt Institute’s Programming for Cultural Heritage course gave me the Python scripting knowledge I needed to work with the ACLU’s Torture FOIA Database API (www.thetorturedatabase.org) to access the documents and data they have collected via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. I used the ACLU’s “full node” API call option, run via a for-loop in Python, to write and save JSON files with the full information from each database record. I then parsed these in Python to extract just the metadata elements that I wanted to display in the project. For this project, I chose to focus on the metadata element of the document descriptions written by ACLU staff/archivists. I imported metadata elements into content nodes in a Drupal-backend website and used the Drupal “Slideshows” module to turn them into a looping slideshow of document summaries. Long term I plan to utilize the full array of metadata generated by my original Python scripts in different ways for future projects as well.
This project is inspired by the artist Jenny Holzer's work with many of these same documents, such as in her "Redaction Paintings" series, where she presents reproductions of US government documents related to human rights abuses in the War on Terror at different scales and rendered in different mediums, enabling viewers to see the documents in new ways and providing space for reflection about what the documents have meant to human beings and recent history. When seeing her work, I have always felt that it helped me to see these documents in a different way than if they were simply held in my hands as a stack of paper. Similarly, my project seeks to provide different ways for viewers to encounter government record information related to human rights abuses. My project, however, focuses on the document summaries written by the ACLU – presenting them in near-isolation in order to focus the attention of the viewer on getting a sense of the document’s content, with links to the full ACLU database record and full scanned document PDFs provided for potential further investigation by the viewer. Viewers can navigate through the document summaries using the controls below the text, pausing to linger on any document account that may capture their interest.
Through Confronting Documentation of the US War on Terror I hope to highlight the important contributions metadata can make to furthering understanding of government document archives, as well as provide another resource toward making human rights violations related to this era of US state policy and practice more visible.
About the Source Data: The ACLU Torture FOIA Database (www.thetorturedatabase.org) is an independent, non-governmental archive of US government documents related to the War on Terror. It is a collection of digitized documents originally developed through FOIA requests and lawsuits made by the nonprofit organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The original intention of acquiring the documents was to research possible abuses for direct advocacy efforts/potential legal actions. The ACLU now makes digital versions of these government records available to the public online, along with document metadata added by ACLU staff that powers a searchable online database. Their website currently offers a large amount of data (over 6,700 records) and excellent filtering and searching functionality via its ACLU-added metadata and OCR’d document text. They also offer an API, which was utilized for this project to call individual record nodes via python scripts and generate stand-alone, downloadable files, later converted to CSV format, so that this project would not overtax the original server on an ongoing basis. The metadata added by the ACLU allows for new forms of access to these government records.
Acknowledgements and Thanks: This project would not be possible without the incredible work of the ACLU in obtaining, cataloging, and archiving these documents in their database. It is an important service to the public, increasing information access and government transparency. This project also owes enormous thanks to Matt Miller at Pratt Institute for coding guidance and support. Thanks also to the CUNY New Media Lab for hosting the project and to all of the coders out there who contribute to projects like Python and Drupal modules. Thank you!