How data science is changing the face of human rights | #WiDS2017

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Today the world can be a scary place, and even with modern advancements and societal awareness, the violation of human rights spans the globe. Human Rights Data Analysis Group is using technology to analyze data to protect and support people living in opposition without basic civil liberty. And the right data science skills are a must for those working in this field.

“I think creativity and communication are probably the two most important skills for a data scientist to have these days,” said to Megan Price (pictured), executive director of HRDAG, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that applies rigorous science to the analysis of human rights violations around the world.

Price sat down with Lisa Martin (@Luccazara), co-host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio, at the Stanford Global Women in Data Science Conference in Stanford, CA, to discuss how data can help find accountability for human rights violations. (* Disclosure below.)

Price, who has a doctorate in biostatistics, spent her academic career studying the science. Also drawn to human rights causes, she wondered how to combine her two passions. It wasn’t until a mentor exposed her to the possibilities of blending her education with her interests that she moved on to a career as a human rights advocate.

The evolution from statistician to analyzing human rights data began when she worked as a statistician at Benetech where she collaborated with Patrick Ball, a well-known leader in quantitative analysis for truth commissions for prominent organizations such as the United Nations. In 2013, Bell and Price formed HRDAG.

Highlighting responsibility through data

Answering questions about responsibility and accountability are what drives the projects HRDAG tackles. “To answer those questions, you have to look at statistical patterns. So, you need to bring a deep understanding of that data that are available and in the appropriate way to analyze and answer the questions,” Price remarked.

The commission of these projects requires data accuracy due to the level of scrutiny that comes from political and social institutions. According to Price, they use rigorous methods to ensure data quality. However, these studies generally take place in an adversarial environment, so there is a need to connect with academics who are pushing these methods forward and using the most cutting-edge approaches with data.

Currently, Price leads a team of statisticians who are documenting deaths in the war-torn nation of Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights. HRDAG is partnering with four other Syrian organizations who collect information about those killed in the ongoing conflict in the country. The citizen-led groups are collecting data.

These files contain raw data verified by humans on the ground, so Price knows that there are risks of data entry problems, especially during outbreaks of violence. “Primarily what we do is fairly conventional data processing and data cleaning to check for things like outliers, contradictory information … using Python and using R,” she explained.

Then the organization collaborates with partners in academia. There is also a class of statistical tools called “multiple system estimation” that identify patterns of data as it is collected to model what the underlying population was before the violence started.

“What I hope this has done so far is simply to raise awareness about the scale of the violence that is happening in Syria, and what I hope, ultimately, is that it helps to attribute accountability to those responsible for this violence,” Price disclosed.

Currently, HRDAG is monitoring crises in several countries and working with the United States to study legal cases.

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of the Stanford Global Women in Data Science Conference(*Disclosure: TheCUBE is a media partner at the conference. Neither Stanford nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo by SiliconANGLE