CrySP Speaker Series on Privacy

This speaker series is made possible by an anonymous charitable donation in memory of cypherpunks and privacy advocates Len Sassaman, Hugh Daniel, Hal Finney, and Caspar Bowden.

View the list of past and upcoming speakers

Human rights, data analysis, and the truth: technical and epistemological reflections from twenty years building software and doing analysis to study mass atrocities

Patrick Ball, Benetech

[Download (MP4)] [View on Youtube]

September 11, 2012 1:30pm, in DC 1302


Human rights monitoring consists primarily of receiving information from witnesses and conducting investigations. Additional information can be found in on- or offline press sources, forensic evidence, or from partner organizations. Naturally, the resulting information is often stored in databases. However, statistics generated from databases collected in this way may tell us more about the functioning of the organization doing the monitoring than about the violence being monitored.

Using examples from El Salvador, Kosovo, Colombia, Timor-Leste, and Sierra Leone, this talk will explore how statistics derived from data collected by direct observation can be inconsistent or misleading representations of true patterns of violence. Two responses to the selection bias problem are: i) for quantitative work, use methods that either through random sampling or post-sampling modeling adjust estimates to account for hidden populations; and ii) for software development, explore non-quantitative tools that facilitate qualitative human judgments while using thousands of source documents. Examples of both approaches will be presented with examples from Guatemala and the DR Congo.


Patrick Ball is a leading innovator in applying scientific measurement to human rights. He has spent twenty years designing databases and conducting quantitative analysis for truth commissions, non-governmental organizations, international criminal tribunals and United Nations missions in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Chad, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kosovo, Liberia, and Peru.

He began this work with a human rights NGO in El Salvador in 1991. From 1993-2003, he worked at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the Science and Human Rights Program where he began recruiting colleagues to build the Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

Dr. Ball has received several awards. In April 2006, the Electronic Frontier Foundation presented him with their Pioneer Award. In June 2004, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) gave Patrick the Eugene Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science and Informatics. In August 2002, the Social Statistics Section of the American Statistical Association gave him a Special Achievement Award.

Dr. Ball is currently involved in HRDAG projects in Guatemala, Colombia, the DR Congo, and others.