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."
Ball wrote software that allowed the commission to aggregate and analyze the human rights records of officers in the El Salvadoran Army. The results forced a quarter of the military leadership to retire.
"We figured ... they were going to blow our office up," Ball says. Instead, the officers sued the commission – an unexpected recourse to the rule of law in a postconflict country. "We were tickled pink," Ball recalls.