Our Thoughts on the Violence in Charlottesville

This week, we join our friends and colleagues in feeling horrified by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. As we have for the past 26 years, we stand with the victims of violence and support human rights and dignity for all. We spend our careers observing and documenting mass political violence across the world. The demands by the so-called “alt-right” to normalize racism and social exclusion are all too familiar to us. At HRDAG, our work is always guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We reaffirm our commitment to these principles, in ...

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A Newcomer’s Perspective on HRDAG Systems

I’m a high school student who has been working with Patrick Ball here at HRDAG as an intern over the summer. I arrived here after asking my parents about what jobs existed that used data analysis to help people. Through our friend and human rights lawyer Kathy Roberts at the CJA, I was introduced to Patrick and have been lucky enough to spend my time here learning what data analysis looks like as an actual job. Here’s an overview of the tools and methods I have learned so far at HRDAG. Prior to this summer, I didn't realize why data science is so hard. Because of ...

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Reflections: Pivotal Moments in Freetown

The summer of 2002 in Washington, DC, was steamy and hot, which is how I remember my introduction to HRDAG. I had begun working with them, while they were still at AAAS, in the late spring, learning all about their core concepts: duplicate reporting and MSE, controlled vocabularies, inter-rater reliability, data models and more. The days were long, with a second shift more often than not running late into the evening. In addition to all the learning, I also helped with matching for the Chad project – that is, identifying multiple records of the same violation – back ...

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Reflections: A Simple Plan

I got an email from my superheroic PhD adviser in June 2006: Would I be interested in relocating to Palo Alto for six months in order to work with Patrick Ball at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group? (She'd gotten a grant and would cover my stipend.) Since I'd spent the last several months in New Haven wrestling ineffectually with giant, brain-melting methodological problems, I said yes immediately. The plan with my adviser was simple: I'd digitize the ancient, multiply-photocopied pages of data from the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, combine them ...

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Reflections: HRDAG Was Born in Washington

I began working with HRDAG in the summer of 2001 before it was ever even called HRDAG. In fact, not intended as a boast, I think I’m responsible for coming up with the name. After contracting with Dr. Patrick Ball for a time writing the Analyzer data management platform, I left New York City and joined him in Washington, DC, at AAAS in 2002. Soon after starting, Patrick decided to establish an identity for this new team, consisting mainly of myself, Miguel Cruz and a handful of field relationships. We discussed what to name it briefly in the AAAS Science & Policy ...

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Locating Hidden Graves in Mexico

For more than 10 years, and with regularity, Mexican authorities have been discovering mass graves, known as fosas clandestinas, in which hundreds of bodies and piles of bones have been found. The casualties are attributed broadly to the country’s “drug war,” although the motivations and perpetrators behind the mass murders are often unknown. Recently, HRDAG collaborated with two partners in Mexico—Data Cívica and Programa de Derechos Humanos of the Universidad Iberoamericana—to model the probability of identifying a hidden grave in each county (municipio). ...

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Reflections: It Began In Bogotá

It was July of 2006, I’d spent five years working at a local human rights NGO in Bogotá, and I had reached retirement age. But then a whole new world opened up for me to discover. Tamy Guberek, then HRDAG Latin America coordinator, whom I had met at the NGO, approached me about becoming part of the HRDAG Colombia team as a research/administrative assistant. Over a cup of suitably Colombian coffee, the deal was quickly "signed.” My responsibilities ranged from fundraising to translations, from support in data gathering for estimates on homicides and disappearances ...

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Reflections: Growing and Learning in Guatemala

As a woman, mother and sociologist who is curious about the patterns of our political past in Guatemala, I feel privileged to know and work with the HRDAG team. Collaborating and learning from people like Patrick, Megan, Suzanne, Beatriz and Tamy has been an invaluable gift. I have discovered many things, both human and academic. For example, I’ve learned new ways of seeing what seemed everyday and simple, to discover that not only do the social sciences and statistics work hand in hand, but that they are critical for understanding Guatemala’s reality. Twenty years ...

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Letter from the Executive Director

Dear Friends, This has been quite a year, and I don’t just mean the recent political events in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Thanks to your ongoing support, HRDAG has a number of accomplishments to be proud of this year: Patrick’s testimony in the trial of Hissene Habré for crimes against humanity was cited by the judges three times in their determination of guilt. We launched a book describing ten years of collaborative work with the Historic Archive of the National Police in Guatemala. We contributed quantitative analyses to ...

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Stephen Fienberg 1942-2016

We are saddened by the passing of Steve Fienberg yesterday in Pittsburgh, at the age of 74. He is perhaps best known around the world for bringing statistics to science and public policy and was a beloved professor at Carnegie Mellon University. At HRDAG we are in awe of and grateful for the work Steve did formalizing multiple systems estimation. His work on that front blazed a trail and essentially enabled all of our most important analytical work at the intersection of human rights and statistical science. If we are to reduce the amount of human violence in the world, ...

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HRDAG – 25 Years and Counting

Today is a very special day for all of us at HRDAG. This is, of course, the 68th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—but this day also marks our 25th year of using statistical science to support the advancement of human rights. It started 25 years ago, in December 1991, in San Salvador, when Patrick Ball was invited to work with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church to design a database to keep track of human rights abuses committed by the military in El Salvador. That work soon migrated to the NGO Human Rights Commission (CDHES). Fueled by thin beer and ...

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FAQs on Predictive Policing and Bias

Last month Significance magazine published an article on the topic of predictive policing and police bias, which I co-authored with William Isaac. Since then, we've published a blogpost about it and fielded a few recurring questions. Here they are, along with our responses. Do your findings still apply given that PredPol uses crime reports rather than arrests as training data? Because this article was meant for an audience that is not necessarily well-versed in criminal justice data and we were under a strict word limit, we simplified language in describing the data. ...

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Training with HRDAG: Rules for Organizing Data and More

I had the pleasure of working with Patrick Ball at the HRDAG office in San Francisco for a week during summer 2016. I knew Patrick from two workshops he previously hosted at the University of Washington’s Centre for Human Rights (UWCHR). The workshops were indispensable to us at UWCHR as we worked to publish a number of datasets on human rights violations during the El Salvador Civil War.  The training was all the more helpful because the HRDAG team was so familiar with the data. As part of an impressive career which took him from Ethiopia and Kosovo to Haiti and El ...

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Using MSE to Estimate Unobserved Events

At HRDAG, we worry about what we don't know. Specifically, we worry about how we can use statistical techniques to estimate homicides that are not observed by human rights groups. Based on what we've seen studying many conflicts over the last 25 years, what we don't know is often quite different from what we do know. The technique we use most often to estimate what we don't know is called "multiple systems estimation." In this medium-technical post, I explain how to organize data and use three R packages to estimate unobserved events. Click here for Computing ...

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HRDAG Names New Board Members Julie Broome and Frank Schulenburg

We are pleased to announce that HRDAG will be supported by two additions to our Advisory Board, Julie Broome and Frank Schulenburg. We’ve worked with Julie for many years, getting to know her when she was Director of Programmes at The Sigrid Rausing Trust. She is now the Director of London-based Ariadne, a network of European funders and philanthropists. She worked at the Trust for seven years, most notably Head of Human Rights, before becoming Director of Programmes in 2014. Before joining the Trust she was Programme Director at the CEELI Institute in Prague, where ...

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Predictive Policing Reinforces Police Bias

Issues surrounding policing in the United States are at the forefront of our national attention. Among these is the use of “predictive policing,” which is the application of statistical or machine learning models to police data, with the goal of predicting where or by whom crime will be committed in the future. Today Significance magazine published an article on this topic that I co-authored with William Isaac. Significance has kindly made this article open access (free!) for all of October. In the article we demonstrate the mechanism by which the use of predictive ...

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Judges in Habré Trial Cite HRDAG Analysis

Three months after the announcement of the momentous verdict finding former Chadian president Hissène Habré guilty of crimes against humanity, the presiding judges have released the full, written 681-page judgment of the court. Testimony given by HRDAG’s director of research, Patrick Ball, is mentioned at three points in the verdict. The judges included in their written judgment the HRDAG analysis that the mortality rate in Habré prisons was staggeringly high—much higher than the mortality rate among the population as a whole. Here’s an excerpt from the ...

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HRDAG and Amnesty International: Prison Mortality in Syria

Today Amnesty International released “‘It breaks the human’: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons ,” a report detailing the conditions and mortality in Syrian prisons from 2011 to 2015, including data analysis conducted by HRDAG. The report provides harrowing accounts of ill treatment of detainees in Syrian prisons since the conflict erupted in March 2011, and publishes HRDAG’s estimate of the number of killings that occurred inside the prisons. To accompany the report, HRDAG has released a technical memo that explains the methodology, ...

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Clustering and Solving the Right Problem

In our database deduplication work, we’re trying to figure out which records refer to the same person, and which other records refer to different people. We write software that looks at tens of millions of pairs of records. We calculate a model that assigns each pair of records a probability that the pair of records refers to the same person. This step is called pairwise classification. However, there may be more than just one pair of records that refer to the same person. Sometimes three, four, or more reports of the same death are recorded. So once we have all ...

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HRDAG and AHPN Launch Book Detailing Collaboration

Earlier this month, HRDAG and the Historic Archive of the National Police (AHPN) of Guatemala launched a book that represents a long-time collaboration between the two organizations. The book, “Una mirada al AHPN a partir de un studio de cuantitativo,” is, as the title states, a look at the Archive’s datasets via a quantitative study. Book authors are HRDAG executive director Megan Price and AHPN colleague Carolina López, with translations by Beatriz Vejarano. The book is available in Spanish and forthcoming in English. The book explains how HRDAG and the Archive ...

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