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A human rights statistician finds truth in numbers

Whether gazing at a computer or into the eyes of a former dictator, numbers cruncher Patrick Ball is on the front lines of justice.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / February 7, 2008

Details man Patrick Ball is credited with bringing the power of quantitative analysis to human rights prosecution, a field full of anecdote.

Eric Slomanson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Palo Alto, Calif.

The tension started in the witness room. "You could feel the stress rolling off the walls in there," Patrick Ball remembers. "I can remember realizing that this is why lawyers wear sport coats – you can't see all the sweat on their arms and back." He was, you could say, a little nervous to be cross-examined by Slobodan Milosevic.

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Mr. Ball was the first expert witness called in the case against the former Serbian president, who was representing himself against mass atrocity charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. Ball had spent 10 months crunching numbers about migration patterns in the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo; his findings suggested that hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Albania were spurred by the violence of Mr. Milosevic's army. By the time Ball entered the tribunal chamber, in March 2002, the ousted leader had a reputation for grand orations rather than direct questions; when Milosevic veered off track, the judge would interrupt. "Milosevic would say, 'Dobro,' and go on...." Ball remembers. "It means, 'OK, very well,' but it was clearly a, 'Very well, we'll have you shot later.' I hear [that] in my dreams periodically."

Ball is a statistician – not exactly a profession usually associated with human rights defense. But the Human Rights Data Analysis Group that he heads at Benetech, a technology company with a social justice focus, is bringing the power of quantitative analysis to a field otherwise full of anecdote. [Editor's note: The name of the program at Benetech was incorrect in the original version.]

In juridical terms, Ball's work on Kosovo went nowhere: Milosevic died in 2006, the trial was suspended and the evidence sealed. But nearly 20 years working on some of the world's worst human rights crimes prompts him to take the long view. Even without a ruling, his science complements the efforts of dozens of other professionals – lawyers, forensic scientists, historians, political scientists – to tell a truth bigger than the story abruptly silenced in the courtroom.

"The thing about human rights violations is that they occur massively. They don't occur one at a time," he says. What turns out to be really important, he says, is whether it's thousands or tens of thousands. "Because ... we have very different political understandings of [numbers]."

Since 1988, Ball has been "hacking code" – writing software – to unlock secrets from numbers. He taught himself computer programming so he could get a job that would cover expenses not included in his undergraduate scholarship to Columbia University. Not much of a campus radical, he did earn four years of disciplinary probation for helping to chain shut the doors of a building, hoping to pressure the university to divest holdings in companies doing business in then-apartheid South Africa.