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Accepted Paper:

Translating humans: Balancing care in the best possible humanitarian quantification  
Annika Isfeldt (Aarhus University)

Paper Short Abstract:

“Data, data, data, that’s the solution,” a senior peace negotiator says when asked how the humanitarian sector can mitigate future crises. But is data an answer or rather a question? This text asks what happens when humans and other complicated realities are condensed and translated into numbers.

Paper Abstract:

From his office in snowy Uppsala in northern Sweden, Michael goes through drone footage of battles at the Ukrainian front line. His job is to make qualified guesses about how many of the soldiers he sees being hurt on his screen are going to die in the field, and to feed this number to UCDP’s database that monitors death tolls following from violence. In the humidity of a former bus station in Cali, Colombia, Carmen’s work consists of taking fingerprints with an app, listening to personal stories of in- and externally displaced people, and compiling it all in a UNHCR database. Michael and Carmen are translators: They convert human complexities into numerical simplicities.

Numbers are prima facie static, neutral, and calculable entities. For this reason, the numbers produced by Michael and Carmen come to have highly tangible – often even existential – consequences as they travel to inform global (non)governmental policies and operations. But because of the mandates of UCDP and UNHCR, their data production is inherently messy, uncertain, and dependent on access, prior knowledge, and perspectives of their translator.

Michael and Carmen are acutely aware of the discrepancy. They attribute it to a lack of data literacy among those that use their data. A well-translated number is not necessarily precise; it is rather an entity found through a balancing act of caring about details of all humans alike without getting lost in caring about the singular human case. To them, this makes the number as correct as possible.

Panel P202
Number politics: ethnographies of composing, sensing, and being with data
  Session 2 Wednesday 24 July, 2024, -