Now that Pakistan's former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf has returned home in time for the country’s May elections, many human rights advocates are concerned that the longstanding surge in U.S. drone strikes within that nation’s borders will grow even larger. Musharraf is widely believed, despite protestations to the contrary, to have given the U.S. his tacit consent for launching its first drone attacks against suspected terrorists in his country in 2004.
Although a certain amount of information about the drone attacks, which have also resulted in civilian deaths, has become available in the past few years, few reports have managed to humanize the statistics.
That’s the thinking behind a new data visualization tool by Pitch Interactive founder Wesley Grubbs and programmer Nick Yahnke. Using data from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the pair charted the total number of drone deaths in Pakistan, from the first known CIA strike on June 17, 2004 to its most recent, March 22, 2013.
Grubbs says he hopes the visualization will help Americans comprehend the size and scope of drone strikes in Pakistan, where the U.S. has targeted high-profile Taliban and alQaeda militants as part of the War on Terror. “We think it will give people a sense of pause,” Grubbs says. “We want people to say, wow, this is what 3,000 deaths looks like.”
Grubbs was shocked by how little Americans know about the impact U.S. drone strikes are having in the Middle East and beyond. Without stories from returning soldiers who fought on the ground in these countries, Grubbs said, Americans have no way of understanding the societal impacts of warfare in the region. “It’s completely disconnected from us,” Grubbs says.
The team’s colorful display is meant to counter this trend. Grubbs says he and Yahnke designed “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” to show the data in a simple, succinct way. Traditionally, most infographics on the subject, he said, have focused on simple maps with circles above them indicating the total number of drone-related deaths in the region. But these types of visualizations aren’t sufficient, Grubbs says, adding that “most Americans don’t even know where Pakistan is.”
As an alternative, Grubbs team sought out a means of communicating the societal cost of drone warfare in a way that is universally digestible. In their interactive piece tiny colored squares represent the victims of drone strikes. The color of each square, then, tells the viewer if the victim is a child, a civilian, a high-profile target, or a member of an “other” category.
This “other” category was a subject of contention for Grubbs’ team: the term includes “military combatants,” or, according to the U.S. military’s definition, any Pakistani male of military age. “‘Combatants’ include anyone engaging in hostilities in an armed conflict on behalf of a party to the conflict,” said Pentagon Lt. Col. John Dorrian in an email. Grubbs’s team was hesitant to use the military’s term because they felt it was a “misrepresentation of the facts.”
Rice University Information Technology Fellow Christopher Bronk says that while the term potentially implicates all males in Pakistan between 15 and 40, that is a sacrifice the U.S. has decided is worth making. “The U.S. has managed the terrorism problem effectively for over a decade now,” says Bronk. “Drone strikes are an important part of that.”
Grubbs and his team are working to expand the visualization. In the next few weeks, they hope to incorporate images of high-profile targets killed by strikes, an intensive process which he said will take concerted effort.