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A human rights statistician finds truth in numbers

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In juridical terms, Ball's work on Kosovo went nowhere: Milosevic died in 2006, the trial was suspended and the evidence sealed. But nearly 20 years working on some of the world's worst human rights crimes prompts him to take the long view. Even without a ruling, his science complements the efforts of dozens of other professionals – lawyers, forensic scientists, historians, political scientists – to tell a truth bigger than the story abruptly silenced in the courtroom.

"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.

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