podcastMarch 24 2016

Understanding patterns of mass violence with data and statistics

Patrick Ball

Databite No. 74

Data about mass violence can seem to offer insights into patterns: is violence getting better, or worse, over time? Is violence directed more against men or women? However, in human rights data collection, we (usually) don’t know what we don’t know — and worse, what we don’t know may be systematically different from what we do know.



This talk explores the assumption that nearly every project using data must make: that the data are representative of reality in the world. Contrary to the standard assumption, statistical patterns in raw data tend to be quite different than patterns in the world. Statistical patterns in data reflect how the data was collected rather than changes in the real-world phenomena data purport to represent.

Using analysis of killings in Iraq, homicides committed by police in the US, killings in the conflict in Syria, and homicides in Colombia, Patrick contrasts patterns in raw data with data in estimated total patterns of violence. The talk shows how biases in raw data can be corrected through estimation, and explain why it matters in these countries, and more generally.

Patrick Ball has spent more than twenty-five years conducting quantitative analysis for truth commissions, non-governmental organizations, international criminal tribunals, and United Nations missions in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, South Africa, Chad, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kosovo, Liberia, Perú, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria.

About Databites
Data & Society’s “Databites” speaker series presents timely conversations about the purpose and power of technology, bridging our interdisciplinary research with broader public conversations about the societal implications of data and automation.