Carnegie Mellon University
August 10, 2016

Carnegie Mellon Partners With Human Rights Data Analysis Group To Improve Syrian Casualty Reporting

Contact: Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 /

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Human Rights Science (CHRS) is partnering with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) to improve mass casualty estimation and will start with the ongoing uprising in Syria.

HRDAG, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, nonpartisan human rights advocacy organization that applies rigorous science to analyze human rights violations around the world, was contracted by the United Nations to identify the number of deaths in Syria between March 2011 and November 2012. HRDAG published a report in January putting the number of documented killings within Syria during that time period at 59,648.

HRDAG is almost certain that this number is low because it is highly likely that many deaths are not reported in any of the data sources. This summer, Carnegie Mellon researchers will help them develop better methods for estimating the number of these unreported cases. They also will help advance methods for merging datasets collected in human rights emergencies.

Stephen Fienberg"Using data from multiple lists compiled by different nongovernmental agencies poses many challenges," said Stephen E. Fienberg, the Maurice Falk University Professor of Statistics and Social Sciences who will lead the project for CMU. "First, they capture different but overlapping subsets of the population of deaths. Thus there is the problem of linking the records from different lists when they refer to the same people but using slightly different data such as on age or the spelling of names. Second, there is a 'new form' of duplication across lists because the NGOs now post their information on deaths publicly. Finally, once we resolve these issues, we still need to estimate the number of deaths that go unreported by all of the organizations compiling lists. We are going to create better statistical techniques to do all of these tasks."

"Quantifying violence during conflict is always challenging, and data on the conflict in Syria present particularly complex analytical problems," said Megan Price, director of research at HRDAG. "Professor Fienberg has always been at the forefront of research estimating population size from multiple overlapping lists.  We look forward to pairing our experience applying these methods to the analysis of human rights violations with the cutting edge methodological development of Professor Fienberg and his students."

Jay D. Aronson, associate professor of science, technology and society in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Department of History, founded CHRS to promote this kind of collaboration. "This is really a mutually beneficial partnership," he said. "Carnegie Mellon researchers will gain access to real-world data that they can use to improve statistical methods for merging complex datasets, while the human rights community will gain freely available, ready-to-use tools that can be applied in Syria and other conflicts around the world."

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University Professor Stephen Fienberg (pictured above) is leading a CMU research team that will help the HRDAG develop better methods for estimating the number of unreported cases. They also will help advance methods for merging datasets collected in human rights emergencies.