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The task is a quantum of workflow

This post describes how we organize our work over ten years, twenty analysts, dozens of countries, and hundreds of projects: we start with a task. A task is a single chunk of work, a quantum of workflow. Each task is self-contained and self-documenting; I'll talk about these ideas at length below. We try to keep each task as small as possible, which makes it easy to understand what the task is doing, and how to test whether the results are correct. In the example I'll describe here, I'm going to describe work from our Syria database matching project, which includes about 100 tasks. I'll start with the first thing we do with files we receive ...

IRR: Agreement Among Coders is Key

For years I have been engaged in a quantitative study at Guatemala’s Historic Archive of the National Police, or AHPN. (See the blogposts below.) In this study coders collect data on sheets of paper according to criteria established and explained in manuals. But when collecting data, there’s always room for human error—this is why the validity of the study hinges on verifying that coders use the correct criteria. It is important to mention that the mainstay of coding is the use of a controlled vocabulary. A controlled vocabulary gives analysts a framework, or frame of reference, when converting qualitative information into categories ...

The Art and Science of Coding AHPN Documents

The coding, from my perspective, is the heart of the project. I say this, because the coding team has the responsibility of selecting documents according to the random sample, recording the documents’ contents, and applying the criteria to convert that content into an entry in a quantitative database. Not to mention the fact that this team has the privilege of being in direct contact with the documents. At present, because of advanced organizational processes, not everyone has a chance to hold an original document in their hands. The quantitative study had many advantages in this regard; since we started work in parallel with the archival ...

Data on Kosovo – Other

The other data is in three files. All of the files are comma-delimited UTF-8 (like ASCII but including the characters to render Serbian names). The fields in each file are described below. If you use these data, please cite them with the following citation, as well as this note: “These are convenience sample data, and as such they are not a statistically representative sample of events in this conflict.  These data do not support conclusions about patterns, trends, or other substantive comparisons (such as over time, space, ethnicity, age, etc.).” Human Rights Data Analysis Group. (2002). Database of NATO airstrikes, geographic coding, and KLA ...


In July 2009, The Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) concluded a three-year project with the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help clarify Liberia's violent history and hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable for their actions. (This work was conducted by HRDAG while with Benetech.) In the course of this work, HRDAG analyzed more than 17,000 victim and witness statements collected by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and compiled the data into a report entitled "Descriptive Statistics From Statements to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The report is included as an annex to the final ...

Multiple Systems Estimation: Collection, Cleaning and Canonicalization of Data

<< Previous post: MSE: The Basics Q3. What are the steps in an MSE analysis? Q4. What does data collection look like in the human rights context? What kind of data do you collect? Q5. [In depth] Do you include unnamed or anonymous victims in the matching process? Q6. What do you mean by "cleaning" and "canonicalization?" Q7. [In depth] What are some of the challenges of canonicalization? (more…)

HRDAG Retreat 2022

A week in the California redwoods amongst a hodgepodge of people united by their passion for using quantitative analysis to combat injustice.

Data coding and inter-rater reliability (IRR)

Data coding is the process of converting unstructured information, such as a narrative testimony, into discrete facts such as names and roles of actors (victims, witnesses, perpetrators) in crimes, as well as the date and place of act. Data coding must not discard or distort information. When more than one person is identifying, classifying and counting the elements reported in a qualitative source, the results of what they find may differ slightly based on each individual's interpretation and care in doing the coding. These differences can be measured by measuring IRR (inter-rater reliability). We give the same source document to several coders and ...

How to Become a Data Scientist: My Lessons at HRDAG

I will use the skills and culture I learned from HRDAG’s team to understand how the conflict has affected the people in my country.

Strong Crypto Safeguards Human Rights Data

Strong cryptography can safeguard critical human rights data from repressive governments that steal data in order to persecute citizens. When vulnerable citizens dare to bear witness by naming perpetrators, their crimes, and their victims, the sensitive identifying information about those witnesses must be protected. In the late 1990s, HRDAG’s Director of Research, Patrick Ball, began his work with encrypted data while documenting crimes committed by the Guatemalan national police—and strong cryptography has remained critical to all of HRDAG’s work. hr {border-width:20px;} .main-container p a{color:#f98d00 !important;} h2 {font-we...

Quantitative Research at the AHPN Guatemala

In early 2006 I joined the Historical Archive of the National Police (Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, or AHPN) without knowing the impact it would have on my future. I started with cleaning, organizing and classifying documents—and learning, with other colleagues, what a historical archive is and how it works. By April of that year, parallel to these learning processes, I was selected along with 20 other people to begin work on the challenging Quantitative Research project. I started as a "coder," transferring key content from documents into a database. (more…)

When It Comes to Human Rights, There Are No Online Security Shortcuts

Patrick Ball. When It Comes to Human Rights, There Are No Online Security Shortcuts, Wired op-ed, August 10, 2012. Wired.com © 2013 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.

Learning Day by Day: Quantitative Research at the AHPN

Working at the Historic Archive of the National Police (AHPN) of Guatemala, there are many skills I learned on the job. My many years of work on the team that studies the recovered documents have been like a custom-made course in how to do quantitative research. The Archive documents I study are the result of 36 years of creation during civil war (1960 to 1996). Many of these documents are simply administrative—but we are able to use them to understand patterns that occurred during the conflict, to get a sense of what mattered to the National Police and what didn’t. Our quantitative research shows us the Police behavior in broad strokes. ...

Learning a Modular, Auditable and Reproducible Workflow

The modular nature of the workflow and use of Git allowed us to work on different parts of the project from across the country.

CIIDH Data – Dictionary

Version date: 2000.01.29 Current version: ATV20.1 Patrick Ball & Herbert F. Spirer The unit of analysis for each record in this structure is VIOLATION. Each violation was of a particular type, happened at a particular time and place, and was committed by zero, one, or several organizational perpetrators. The violation was committed against zero or one named (individually identified) victim, and zero or more anonymous (unidentified) additional victims. The violation was reported one or more times in one, two, or three source types. Note that to count the number of times individuals suffered particular violations, users should sum either the ...

String matching for governorate information in unstructured text

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Liberia 2009 – Coding Testimony to Determine Accountability for War Crimes

In July 2009, HRDAG concluded a three-year project with the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to help clarify Liberia’s violent history and hold perpetrators accountable. A military coup in 1979 sparked 24 years of civil war in Liberia where warring factions subjected civilians to severe human rights abuses. The TRC sought to determine whether these violations represented a systematic pattern or policy. This chapter describes how HRDAG developed a statistical analysis of the more than 17,000 victim and witness statements collected by the TRC and applied Ball’s “Who Did What To Whom?” methodology. HRDAG scientist Kristen ...

Tech Corner

The HRDAG Tech Corner is where we collect the deeper and geekier content that we create for the website. Click the accordion blocks below to reveal each of the Tech Corner entries. Sifting Massive Datasets with Machine Learning Principled Data Processing  

How Coder Cornered Milosevic

Coders Bare Invasion Death Count

Our work has been used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations. We have worked with partners on projects on five continents.