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Data Science for Justice: Andre Stephens Dives into Dated Databases

October 31, 2016

Andre Stephens in San Francisco, summer 2016.

Andre Stephens in San Francisco, summer 2016.

I had the pleasure of working with Patrick Ball at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group office in San Francisco during the summer of 2016. This training proved indispensable as I worked to process and publish a number of datasets on human rights violations during the El Salvador Civil War as part of a collaboration between HRDAG and UWCHR. The HRDAG team was all the more helpful because of their familiarity with the data. As part of an impressive career which took him from places like Ethiopia and Kosovo to Haiti and El Salvador, Patrick had himself worked on gathering and analyzing much of the data. In addition, we were fortunate to benefit from the extensive work done by Patrick’s colleague, Amelia Hoover-Green, to address some of the more stubborn data processing issues.

My visit to HRDAG was one of the more fruitful experiences of my academic career. Patrick, who was both personable and engaging, imparted a great deal in the few days I spent in San Francisco. He would often cap off his tutorials with kernels of wisdom like “Don’t run a lawn mower over your foot if you don’t need to.” And while I’d managed up until then to avoid such issues in the world of gardening, those were precisely the kinds of painful gaffes I was making in the world of programming. Where I had written dozens of lines of code earlier in the summer in an effort to cover every quirk in the data that might break my scripts, Patrick demonstrated an elegant approach by dividing the process into a series of discrete problems. Although it seemed counterintuitive at first (wouldn’t it be better to catch every potential issue before it arises?), the superiority of the latter approach quickly became obvious. Parsimony, I’d forgotten, is a scientist’s friend!

With the help of Patrick and my UWCHR colleague Phil Neff, I spent the summer and autumn months doing the gritty work of cleaning, standardizing and combining dozens of datasets. Gathered under difficult conditions, with limited resources and using 30-year-old technology, these datasets needed considerable preparation before they would be suited for publication and study. We also needed to consider important ethical questions. Should we, for example, publish records that identify hundreds of victims of sexual violence without knowing whether they would prefer that these experiences remain private?

Before joining the project, I was already sensitized to the horrors of state violence in El Salvador and to the important work of groups fighting for accountability. While I was a research assistant with UWCHR, I did archival work on the March 1981 Rio Lempa massacre on the El Salvador-Honduras border. I also closely followed the work of other members of UWCHR’s Unfinished Sentences Project as they filed suit against the CIA for the release of internal documents that could aid in identifying perpetrators; revealed previously-hidden information and victim accounts of past violations; hosted survivors, organizers, jurists and academics on the frontlines of the struggle for human rights and justice; and collaborated with Salvadoran human rights groups on a number of projects.

I felt deeply honored to receive the Ben Linder Justice Award which has supported my work on the datasets and my trip to San Francisco. Ben Linder, a University of Washington alum, moved to Nicaragua in 1983 after earning his degree in mechanical engineering. There, he worked on projects to electrify parts of the country and, by all accounts, became well-liked for his juggling and unicycling. In the context of the rise of the Sandinista government and the Cold War violence which gripped the country, Ben was not unaware that his commitment to using his engineering expertise towards a humanitarian cause came with significant personal risk. Tragically, he was ambushed and killed by the Contras in 1987 while traveling through the forest in search of a construction site for a new hydroelectric plant. Ben’s example reminds us of the commitments and sacrifices that so many make in struggles against injustice. It also reminds us of the incredible sense of courage and selflessness with which they do so.

Forgoing more lucrative and comfortable opportunities in industry, Ben immediately began using his technical skills to directly improve the welfare of others. I believe that Ben would have been encouraged by the collaboration between UWCHR and HRDAG which does a similar thing. By using the tools of data science, we are able to offer new and more systematic insight into crimes perpetrated during the El Salvador Civil War. Of course, numbers and spreadsheets will never quite reflect the horrors that took place, nor will it fully capture the enduring trauma they impose on victims and an entire society. They do, however, help to tell a part of the story.

These datasets are important because they will allow us to analyze cases and patterns that help to identify perpetrators who might yet be brought to justice. They also memorialize victims by telling the truth of their experience and may help families and friends to piece together what happened to their loved ones. By shedding light on past human rights violations, I believe that organizations like HRDAG and UWCHR help to create a climate which diminishes the impunity with which human rights are violated.