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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.

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He wouldn't find himself on the front lines of human rights work until grad school at the University of Michigan in the late '80s, when the Central America crises were hot campus topics. All the talk felt empty to him: "When you're in a university in North America ... you're learning about all this stuff you can't do anything about.... You can have these stupid little campus demonstrations, but who are you talking to?"

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He took a leave of absence and went to El Salvador with the Peace Brigades, an international group that offered foreign escorts to high-profile local leaders. He liked the idea that guerrilla fighters or government soldiers might be less inclined to commit atrocities in front of Western witnesses. But as the war wound down, he felt less useful. When a human rights commission asked him to do some computer work for them, he was relieved. "Accompaniment was boring," he says, "and programming was fun."

Ball wrote software that allowed the commission to aggregate and analyze the human rights records of officers in the El Salvadoran Army. The results forced a quarter of the military leadership to retire.

"We figured ... they were going to blow our office up," Ball says. Instead, the officers sued the commission – an unexpected recourse to the rule of law in a postconflict country. "We were tickled pink," Ball recalls.

Ball went back to Michigan, but word of his work got out and he spent the next years bouncing between truth and reconciliation projects – South Africa, Haiti, Guatemala, East Timor, and Peru – finding ways to uncover the scale and pattern of human rights violations.

The level of expertise and discipline his work requires puts Ball on par with Olympic runners or violin virtuosos. Lara J. Nettelfield, a Balkans scholar at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, says he's "one of the very small group of people in the world who could properly analyze and consult on [mass atrocities]."

Ball admits such a reputation carries a personal price. He has little time outside work, and no family.

But projects like the one he did in Kosovo make it worth it, he says. Kosovo attracted international concern when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees fled to Albania. Amid what seemed little more than chaos, Ball saw dozens of data sources that, could point to the cause of the crisis: "Everything is data to us. A pile of scrungy paper from the border guards – 690 pages – that's data."

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