Carnegie Mellon University
Statistics and Human Rights Program

Statistics Program

We are currently exploring several exciting projects that harness computing and database technologies to advance human rights in a variety of contexts.

How many people were killed? It’s one of the first questions asked in the wake of military action, and it’s often surprisingly hard to answer. During active fighting, it’s impossible to document each death as it happens, especially civilian casualties in besieged areas. During long-running conflicts, official record keeping systems fail as society breaks down. Mass graves may be uncovered years after an event, if at all, and bodies are difficult to exhume and identify. Well-known numbers associated with historical conflicts tend to be historians’ best guesses, rough estimates, or politically motivated fabrications.

Today, Carnegie Mellon statisticians are working to develop rigorous methods to estimate conflict deaths. A 2009 workshop held at CMU highlighted areas of controversy and agreement in this domain and was the subject of the center’s first book project, Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Non-Military Deaths in Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Building on this tradition, statisticians at CHRS are collaborating with researchers in the statistics and human rights communities to better understand the death toll in the Syrian conflict. This work is being carried out through a partnership between CHRS, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (a nonprofit think tank based in San Francisco, CA) and the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program.

Moving forward, we’re expanding our work to address other complex statistical problems, including estimating the number of kidnappings during war and the impact of faulty forensic science on the U.S. criminal justice system.