Two weeks ago the United Nations opened an inquiry into the "civilian impact of the use of drones and other forms of targeted killing." Data -- on casualties, targets, frequency, and other topics -- will play an important role in this investigation, led by Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur for human rights and counterterrorism. In an interview with The New York Times, Emmerson underscored the necessity for United Nations member states to come to an "agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians."
Predator unmanned aerial vehicle at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, September 2009 | DoD photo by Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force/Released
Visualization can add important context to help the public follow this inquiry and to assist policymakers in their careful evaluation of current and future programs and policy responses. Last week, I blogged on MapBox about a site I created to visualize one particular drone strike database, maintained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
I explained how our new MapBox.js library makes it easy to visualize complex and dynamic datasets in real time. Over the past few months, we've been refining the
In the week since we published the blog post, I received feedback -- some good, some critical, but all ultimately constructive -- about my drone strike microsite. I'm going to go over some of the key criticisms, which provide good guidance for future visualizations, as well as paint a more vivid picture of the current state of drone strike data, which is of especial importance, given the current UN inquiry.
Method behind the map
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism provides a live-updated database of U.S. covert drone strikes in Pakistan. There are other sources for this information, including New America Foundation and The Long War Journal, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
To get a better idea of the differences between the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's dataset, New America's and the Long War Journal's, see pages 43-44 of "Living Under Drones" and pages 27-33 of "Counting Drone Strike Deaths." The Bureau's data is sourced from local and international news accounts of the strikes and credible field investigations in drone strike areas. An important factor to account for in using drone strike aggregators is that the dataset is a derived one, coming from third-party sources rather than traditional official channels. Please see The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Methodology for additional information regarding their sources and methodology.
The map site visualizes four aspects of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's drone strike data:
- civilian deaths
- children killed
- number injured
- total number killed
On the map, each marker represents a drone strike and has been scaled to size based on the number of casualties. Because the number of casualties and injured are estimates, the Bureau's dataset sometimes gives a range, rather than a single number. In those cases, the high and low values were averaged to scale the marker.
Drone strike data is difficult to obtain and is generally problematic in nature. This is due to several reasons, which are outlined in "Counting Deaths from Drone Strikes," published in October 2012 by The Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School. After carefully evaluating the estimates provided by three different drone tracking datasets, the Columbia Report concludes:
We -- the public, the analysts and experts, and the policymakers -- still do not know the true impact or humanitarian cost of drones; the estimates, though well-intended, may provide false assurance that we know the costs and can fairly assess whether to continue drone strikes.
A similar uncertainty is expressed in the "Civilian Impact of Drones" report, though directed toward the U.S. Government for failing to act as an official source:
The information included here is not comprehensive, as despite public and repeated allusions to covert drone strikes by Obama administration officials in 2011 and 2012, most official materials related to the drone program are classified. Even the existence of a CIA drone program remains classified, although government officials have repeatedly leaked information to the media.
Thus, one might summarize the problems with drone strikes datasets as deriving from insufficient information about the justification for the strike -- the secrecy of which may be driven by operational security concerns -- as well as the existence of only third-party estimates, rather than comprehensive official totals, for drone strike impacts.
Calls for Analysis and Visualization
There are additional dimensions of the impact of drone strikes -- besides the raw numbers of casualties and injured persons -- which deserve further analysis and visualization. Two dimensions of importance for those conducting the UN inquiry are first, the relative mortality of drone strikes; and second, the relationship between civilian deaths and unmanned versus manned aerial strikes.
The map microsite does not address the relative civilian mortality rate of particular drone strikes or of drone strikes in aggregate. Using the Bureau's dataset, an analysis of civilian mortality would be difficult, if not also methodologically questionable. This is due first to the Bureau's use of numeric ranges, rather than single values, for casualty and number injured estimates; and second, that not every strike has values for the number of civilians killed.
A third obstacle to a relative civilian mortality analysis relates to the distinction between civilian, non-civilian, combatant, and targeted populations, which would require thorough and consistent operational definitions for membership in each group. It would also require that these definitions were agreed to and followed throughout -- from the initial data collection, reporting, and eventual analysis and visualization. Such consistency is extremely difficult when working with third-party sourced data. Without this consistency in group membership definitions, a cursory analysis of the number of civilians killed versus total number of deaths from a particular strike might fail to address the lived humanitarian impact.
Another avenue for visualization that could provide meaningful insight into the effects of drone strikes might look at relative mortality of unmanned strikes in comparison with manned aerial strikes. A researcher might ask: "Do unmanned aerial strikes cause greater/fewer civilian/non-civilian casualties than do manned aerial strikes?" While I did not have the opportunity to explore this concept with this visualization, it appears to be an important avenue for careful analysis.
The report, "The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions" from the Human Rights Clinic and the Center for Civilians in Conflict at Columbia Law School, critically examines claims related to drones' battlefield precision and could provide a good starting point for questions regarding unmanned versus manned strikes.
There are nevertheless many potential pitfalls associated with this sort of analysis, stemming from the faulty comparison of fundamentally incommensurable situations, which might be due to conflict theater, target, time of strike, type of weapon/targeting capability, altitude of pilot, and, among others, atmospheric composition. Military publications about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in lethal combat could also prove helpful here. A few reports from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Department of Defense include:
- Brave New Warfare: Autonomy in Lethal UAVs, Lieutenant Matthew S. Larkin, Master's Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School
- The Children of Aphrodite: The Proliferation and Threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Twenty-First Century, Major Darin L. Gaub, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College
- Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036, United States Department of Defense
- Robot Wars: Legal and Ethical Dilemmas of Using Unmanned Robotic Systems in 21st Century Warfare and Beyond, Major Erin A. McDaniel, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
- Establishment of Models and Data Tracking for Small UAV Reliability, Marinos Dermentzoudis
- Air Force UAVs: The Secret History, Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Dr. Thomas P. Ehrhard
My inclusion of these reports here is meant to ease the burden of those wishing to research the topic further, and should not be taken to imply implicit or explicit support for the messages contained therein.
Reflections on an Inquiry
U.S. MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at Camp Dwyer in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 2011, U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released
One entity that could substantially improve the current drone strike data situation -- a situation in which we "do not know the true impact or humanitarian cost of drones," according to "Counting Deaths from Drone Strikes" -- is the U.S. government. Greater transparency -- more openness -- concerning the targeted individuals, and the civilian and non-civilian populations collaterally damaged by the U.S. government's drone strikes in Pakistan (as well as Yemen and Somalia), would enable greater accountability and careful analysis in assessing the program's humanitarian impact and updating international laws to ensure international human rights and legal safeguards are met.
Head over to MapBox to read the original post, "Using Google Fusion Tables to Add Real-Time Feeds to MapBox Maps," and be sure to check out my map, U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.
Chris Herwig is a data analyst at MapBox, where he uses open-source tools to wrangle and visualize complex data in innovative ways. His tools of choice include R, TileMill, GDAL, and PostGIS. Chris is passionate about open data, civic engagement, and governmental accountability. In his spare time, Chris engages the larger open data community through Occupy Data and other data-centric civic organizations and hackathons.