When an organization seeks out Patrick Ball’s nonprofit to do a statistical analysis, say, of the war crimes committed under a particular dictatorship, the first thing he tries to emphasize is that there are always gaps in the data.
This humbling knowledge is the starting point for Ball’s nonprofit Human Rights Data Analysis Group, a tiny operation of statisticians he founded in 2002 that works out of a modest office on Bartlett Street in the Mission District.
“Because of wildly varying levels of social visibility, there are silences in the data,” says Ball, a statistician who serves as the group’s director of research. “And if we’re talking about trying to tell the truth about violence to people in the world, our first commitment should be to make sure that we document the violence against the most marginalized people.”
And the commitment is clear: This year, after decades of work in the field, Human Rights Data Analysis Group will be awarded the Rafto Prize, a Norwegian award bestowed on defenders of human rights around the world which comes with $20,000 in prize money. Past laureates span the continents, but Ball’s organization is the first based in the United States. Four earlier winners have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
There is a long list of countries where Ball and his team have been called in during or after a conflict to examine human rights abuses, exemplified by the several dozen framed posters that line the walls of his office.
One, from El Salvador, reads “Los impunes, las victimas, los complices” (the unpunished, the victims, the accomplices) and contrasts images of suited politicos and military officials with strewn-about corpses and skeletons.
Over the years, Ball has seemingly been everywhere: From Ethiopia to Haiti to Kosovo to Timor-Leste.
But he always ends up back in Central America, where Ball says the “heart” of his work lies.
“We’ve worked in 30 countries,” Ball said, “but Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras have always been, in some sense, where we really always ground ourselves again.”
To this day, Ball maintains that his 1991 work after the Salvadoran Civil War as a graduate student with the University of Michigan is one of the most successful things he’s ever done. His work tied the worst documented human rights violations during the war to 100 senior military officials. The officials were exposed in the press and forced to resign.
That was 30 years ago. In the ensuing decades, Ball’s work has continued to make a difference. And at times, it’s astonishing.
In a 2015 study, the data analysis group found that one-third of victims killed by strangers in the United States died at the hands of the police. In his article “Violence in Blue,” Ball puts the study into layman’s terms.
“If a person is killed by police without the presence of witnesses,” Ball writes, “and is from a social network of people fearful of retaliation by police, local police may know that they don’t have to report this to the FBI.”
At a federal level, Ball said, most states have not been historically required to report when police have killed someone. This means the federal government had an often under-reported record of deaths in police custody, and was powerless to compel this information from many of the 18,000 or so police jurisdictions across the country.
In some cases, Ball’s work can have a direct effect, like the various instances he served as an expert witness in the trials of war criminals. His team’s expert testimony helped to convict a Guatemalan general for his role in the genocide against the Maya Ixil Indigenous people, among other crimes against humanity.
The group’s work with Amnesty International also helped document deaths in Syrian prisons, finding that a quarter of the fatalities between 2011 and 2015 went unreported.
Ball’s group worked for a period in a Palo Alto company developing software to document human rights abuses. But in 2013, the group returned to its roots in the statistical analysis of war crimes, and set up shop in the Mission.
While the Human Rights Data Analysis Group’s primary goal is to protect human rights and bring about reform, in some cases, all Ball’s team can do is present their analysis and let others take the reins.
For example, with the findings about unreported deaths at the hands of police in the United States, Ball knows his academic or community organizing partners will take the information and then dedicate their careers to making the actual change. His group’s data analysis and machine learning algorithms continue to support ongoing projects for criminal justice reform from Boston to New Orleans to Puerto Rico.
And in the meantime, Ball and his team move on to the next crisis: At the moment, that’s Colombia, where Ball has worked off and on for 19 years, and where he is cooperating with two “transitional justice” organizations to facilitate the country’s emergence from its own period of conflict.
There is one place Ball hasn’t been: Norway. But that lapse will be remedied in November when he travels to Bergen, Norway to collect the group’s Rafto Prize.