Profile of a Conflict Statistician

BALL IS 46, STOCKY, SHORT, and bearded, with glasses and reddish-brown hair, which he used to wear in a ponytail. His manner is mostly endearing geek. But he is also an evangelist, a true believer in the need to get history right, to tell the truth about suffering and death. Like all evangelists, he can be impatient with people who do not share his priorities; his difficulty suffering fools (a large group, apparently) does not always help his cause….

He first applied statistics to human rights in 1991 in El Salvador. The U.N.¬†Commission on the Truth for El Salvador¬†arose at an auspicious moment — the new practice of collecting comprehensive information about human rights abuses coincided with advances in computing that allowed people with ordinary personal computers to organize and use the data. Statisticians had long done work on human rights — people like William Seltzer, the former head of statistics for the United Nations, and Herb Spirer, a professor and mentor to almost everyone in the field today, had helped organizations choose the right unit of analysis, developed ways to rank countries on various indices, and figured out how to measure compliance with international treaties. But the problem of counting and classifying mass testimony was new.

Ball, working for a Salvadoran human rights group, had started producing statistical summaries of the data the group had collected. The truth commission took notice and ended up using Ball’s model. One of its analyses plotted killings by time and military unit. Killings could then be compared with a list of commanders, making it possible to identify the military officers responsible for the most brutality.

“El Salvador was a transformational moment, from cases, even lots of them, to mass evidence,” Ball says. “The Salvadoran commission was the first one to understand that many, many voices could speak together. After that, every commission had to do something along these lines.”

That’s an excerpt Foreign Policy’s “The Body Counter,” and it’s worth reading in full, especially if you enjoyed this post.