"The thing about human rights violations is that they occur massively. They don't occur one at a time," he says. What turns out to be really important, he says, is whether it's thousands or tens of thousands. "Because ... we have very different political understandings of [numbers]."
Since 1988, Ball has been "hacking code" – writing software – to unlock secrets from numbers. He taught himself computer programming so he could get a job that would cover expenses not included in his undergraduate scholarship to Columbia University. Not much of a campus radical, he did earn four years of disciplinary probation for helping to chain shut the doors of a building, hoping to pressure the university to divest holdings in companies doing business in then-apartheid South Africa.
He wouldn't find himself on the front lines of human rights work until grad school at the University of Michigan in the late '80s, when the Central America crises were hot campus topics. All the talk felt empty to him: "When you're in a university in North America ... you're learning about all this stuff you can't do anything about.... You can have these stupid little campus demonstrations, but who are you talking to?"
He took a leave of absence and went to El Salvador with the Peace Brigades, an international group that offered foreign escorts to high-profile local leaders. He liked the idea that guerrilla fighters or government soldiers might be less inclined to commit atrocities in front of Western witnesses. But as the war wound down, he felt less useful. When a human rights commission asked him to do some computer work for them, he was relieved. "Accompaniment was boring," he says, "and programming was fun."