Casualty Recording and Estimation Workshops-Center for Human Rights Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Casualty Recording and Estimation Workshops

Thanks to the generosity of the U.S. National Science Foundation (Award # 0922638; $69,086) we were able to hold two workshop that directly addressed the scientific and technical challenges of casualty recording and estimation in times of conflict. 

The first event, held in October 2009, brought together representatives of nearly all of the major organizations involved in casualty recording and estimation to discuss the various methods available for this task, as well as their relative strengths and limitations.  The guiding principle behind this meeting was that civilized societies maintain orderly, accessible records of casualties, preserving the identity of those who have suffered in a respectful manner, and estimating their numbers as measures of social conditions and needs. During violent conflicts creating those records and estimates can be extraordinarily difficult and contentious, as rival parties seek to shape the records and conclusions drawn from them. Controversies include matters of principle (e.g., whom to treat as non-combatants in civil or guerilla wars); of cultural insensitivity (e.g., what matters to other people, in terms of what gets recorded, when, and how); and of science (e.g., defining socially constructed measures, extrapolating from constrained sampling procedures).  In recent years, a science of human rights has begun to evolve, with contributions from multiple disciplines, involving scientists committed to serving practical needs related to individual records (e.g., compensation, justice) and estimates (e.g., understanding social tensions, assessing proportionality). This emerging science and the controversies surrounding it are not readily accessible to the practitioners who need it (e.g., human rights organizations, trust and reconciliation commissions, relief bodies) or even to scientists without all the requisite technical training. This international, interdisciplinary conference served as a forum to evaluate alternative approaches to key topics, to identify critical scientific issues, and to create a plan to begin to address them in the coming years.  

The second meeting, held in October 2010, focused on computing and database challenges faced by organizations involved in casualty recording and estimation.  In order to keep this follow-up meeting focused and productive, the organizers placed a particular emphasis on data acquisition, organization, and analysis. Five outside speakers were brought in to discuss the computing challenges they face in their work and to request specific guidance from faculty and graduate students from Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science.  The general consensus among the CS faculty was that challenges described by practitioners could be categorized in three ways: problems with immediately implementable, off-the-shelf solutions; problems with existing solutions of varying quality that needed to be customized in order to meet the needs of the human rights community; and finally, problems that were at the frontier of computer science research or required original research to be solved. Because many of the challenges raised fit into the first two categories, computer science faculty and graduate students spent a significant amount of time sharing available techniques and resources with practitioners. Faculty participants also agreed to facilitate or seek support for several project courses within the School of Computer Science and Heinz College of Public Policy.  Longer-term research projects and collaborations will develop over time.  We hope that this will become the first in a series of meetings that address the technical and policy challenges of civilian casualty recording and estimation to be held at Carnegie Mellon over the next few years.