Using data to calculate the destruction of mass violence | #WomenInTech


Human rights efforts led by The United Nations require clear and concise definition if the organization hopes to solve the world’s problems. Properly vetted data can help, as the UN uses statistics and data to identify discrimination and to assign responsibilities where violations occur. 

Partnering with the UN on many issues is the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that applies rigorous science to the analysis of human rights violations on a global scale to answer the questions about what is happening to human rights.

“To answer those questions, you have to look at statistical patterns. So, you need to bring a deep understanding of that data available and, in the appropriate way, analyze and answer the questions,” remarked Megan Price (pictured). Price is the executive director at HRDAG, which investigates cases of human rights violations around the world. By working with human rights advocates, the non-profit supports causes with analysis that builds cases based on science and evidence about violence.

Lisa Martin (@Luccazara), co-host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile live streaming studio, interviewed Price at the Stanford Global Women in Data Science Conference in Stanford, CA. (*Disclosure below.) This week theCUBE highlights Megan Price in our Women in Tech feature.

While Price always had a passion for improving human rights, her academic life focused on earning a doctorate in biostatistics. Through the guidance of a mentor, she found a way to combine her education with her interests. Price moved to Benetech, an initiative to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions, where she met Patrick Ball, a respected leader in quantitative analysis for truth commissions for prominent organizations. The two joined forces to form HRDAG in 2002.

Data accuracy is critical 

When HRDAG takes on a project, accuracy is the goal. The organization needs partners to quantify the question they are asking in order to contextualize their cause. Another requirement is to provide or find the data necessary to uncover the historical or political circumstances under investigation.

“We are always thinking about our projects taking place in an adversarial environment, because we ultimately assume that at the end-of-the-day our results are going to be subjected to either the deep scrutiny that comes along with any socially or politically sensitive topic or with the kind of scrutiny that happens in a courtroom. So, that is what motivates the level of rigor we require,” Price disclosed.

According to Price, there are two stages used in analyzing the data. The first is a handwritten verification process done by the groups collecting data. Next is what she calls “the human verification” process. Then the organization receives the handwritten data “with all the risks and potential downsides of hand-entered data,” she said.

The worked performed by HRDAG requires merging a large number of databases to establish, for instance, the number of people killed in a conflict. Duplication seems to be the biggest hurdle, as individual names show up in various databases without a unique identifier.

“What we do is fairly conventional data processing and data cleaning to check for things like outliers, contradictory information, and we’ll do that using Python and R,” Price replied.

She went on to mention that HRDAG also maintains very close relationships with academia, a sector that helps with the duplication issues by using the latest technology with record linkage. The non-profit employs Multiple Systems Estimation, which is a combination of techniques to deduce the statistical evidence in unobserved events, which Price explained as a standard practice when there is unrest in an area.

The price of conflict

One of Price’s latest projects involves a request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which commissioned HRDAG to count the number of victims in the war-ravaged area of Syria.

In HRDAG’s preliminary report issued in 2013, the results from seven databases identified 59,648 unique killings. Navi Pillay, the UN commissioner who requested the report, was horrified by the results. “The number of casualties is much higher than we expected and is truly shocking,” she told the NY Times.

Price’s hope is to raise awareness about the scale of what is going on in Syria. “What I hope, ultimately, is that it helps to attribute accountability to those responsible for this violence,” she said.

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE and theCUBE’s coverage of the Stanford Global Women in Data Science (WiDS) 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