I spent a most remarkable 24 hours in New York City (NYC) last December 13th – on a crisp, New York Thursday just before Christmas 2012.

It started with an Acela train ride from Boston’s Back Bay to NYC’s Penn Station. I usually sit in the “Quiet Car” and enjoy the travel (I love trains) – avoiding prolonged chitchat. An older man embarked at Route 128 – and politely asked if he could take the seat next to me. I welcomed “of course”. After he settled, I asked where he was headed – “Into the City”, replied he. That began a three-hour conversation with John Sampas. He is 80 years old, one of 10 children, was in Tripoli in the 1950s (we both got to see Leptis Magna – just 60 years apart), started writing at age 65, knows (my beloved) Truro, Massachusetts inside-out and now manages the estate of his close, deceased brother-in-law, Jack Kerouac. Mr. Sampas was on his way into “the City” for the movie premiere of “On the Road”. Talking with him was like peeling away the layers of a most magnificent and colorful mind – but that is not why I am writing. I write about a parallel quest to belong – quantifying genocide.

That Thursday night in New York City, I attended a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y Hebrew Association on the Upper East Side. This was a talk and discussion on the “Responsibility to Protect” – “R2P” – with Madeleine Albright, Nicholas Kristof and Richard Williamson and was moderated by Michael Abramowitz – Director of the Genocide Prevention Program of the Holocaust Memorial Museum (HMM). The event was co-presented by the Working Group on R2P – a joint project of HMM, the US Institute of Peace and the Brookings Institution. The bottom line is that this was a public forum to discuss what steps are needed to realize a world of “Never Again”.

I had the most incredible seat in the Kaufmann Concert Hall – third from the aisle in the front row. As the conversation ensued onstage, I thought of current day atrocities in Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Madeleine Albright then commented on her experience that Americans are the most generous people in the world – but that they have the shortest attention spans!

That made me think of a novel way to bring together the cumulative expertise of, for example, the Harvard School of Public Health FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Crisis Mappers, Cambridge Bluefin Labs and the Holocaust Memorial Museum into the creation of a single, quantitative “civilian atrocities and casualties humanitarian index” value that could be tracked over time – and one that would resonate within the short attention span of larger populations. This could be akin to a “Dow Jones” index for the humanitarian world.

The idea here is to track a pre-selected quorum of x diversified humanitarian organizations (of the Digital Humanitarian Network and others) that are expert in on-boarding data relating to refugees, displacement, sexualized violence, post-explosive injuries, child mortality and other markers of complex humanitarian emergencies (CHEs) and pool that data into a pragmatically derived “Humanitarian Crisis Index” algorithm. This algorithm could include known determinants of conflict including political (regime), economic (elite) and social (demographic) inputs as well as crowd sourced social media – facebook and twitter – feeds. This ticker-tape equivalent “Humanitarian Index” could be updated on a weekly, daily, hourly or instantaneous basis (create an “app” for that) and could be tracked online for individual nation states and, potentially, for global regions.

Such an inaugural, quantitative humanitarian index could be named the “Dunant-Nightingale” index – but, then again, my understanding is that Henri and Florence were light years apart in support of the codification and international legalization of war. Perhaps it could be the “FXB Index”? – the Harvard center where population health meets human rights and where medical science meets international justice – and hopefully the prevention of genocide and the realization of “Never Again”.

Similar sub-indices could be derived for human trafficking, the environment, children, women and other x vulnerable sub-populations: tFXB, eFXB, cFXB, wFXB and xFXB indices – akin to the specialized NASDAQ or S&P and calculation of these sub-indices could be modeled after apps such as the restaurant app “Arthur” that get “smarter” the more you use them.

The world has become numb to the civilian population mortality numbers in Syria – 20,000 human beings dead, 30,000 (human beings) dead, 40,000 (dead), 90,000 – it all sounds the same and registration of the signal-to-noise of horror to baseline humaneness drops off over time. We all know what it means to the economy if the Dow drops by 1,000 points. The idea here is to create an equally pragmatic, quantitative “Humanitarian Index” that communicates that sense of concern for “population pathology” with commensurate needed action and one that is independent of the United Nations (who may be involved in any international intervention via the United Nations Security Council).

Snapshots are often misleading – although, importantly, that would not have been the case in Srebrenica’s July 1995 genocide, being remembered this week as the remains of 409 victims are re-buried from mass graves to Potočari’s cemetery. To see what is really going on, one must also monitor trends over days, weeks and months and not just take random samples – and so, such a “Humanitarian Index” might offer the potential for meaningful, longitudinal observations with the capacity to  be communicated rapidly across multiple media outlets in seconds.

As I left the 92Y Kaufman Concert Hall, I had hoped that there would be a receiving line to meet Madeleine Albright and, ever so briefly, introduce by idea for such a Dow-equivalent “Humanitarian Index” for quantification and tracking of atrocities, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Alas, the crowd dispersed and there was no opportunity to meet the panelists. And so, I departed the main entrance and turned down 92nd Street.

Moments later, on the now empty sidewalk, I see Madeleine Albright walking towards me – flanked by what appeared to be her two granddaughters. I motioned respectfully to the granddaughters and to Secretary Albright and asked if I might introduce myself. She smiled, nodded “Yes” and I presented my “Digital/ Humanitarian à la Dow Jones index” idea. The former Secretary of State listened attentively and said that she liked the idea and thanked me. I happened to have a business card in my pocket (from the hopes of a receiving line) and was able to give that to her. The whole exchange lasted less than 2 minutes as MKA exited the side of 92Y into a waiting car. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It felt like swooshing a basket! Who knows, maybe it registered with MKA or maybe it was just an annoyance after a long day – but, I took a chance and, in that moment, it felt like those 2 minutes were worth all of the train trip down. It was a moment that turned into a swell memory – and reignited my thinking on digital collective impact and remote technology tools for population atrocity prevention.

As I took the train back to Boston, my inbound train companion, Mr. Sampas, wasn’t there in person on the return. Missing him, I settled again into the “quiet” car and opened the copy of the “TimeOut New York” magazine that had been in my hotel room. There on “The roundup” last page was a satirical version of Truro-summer-artist Edward Hooper’s “Nighthawks” (1942) – with Kerouac at his famous typewriter. It all seemed a bit too much to be coincidental and that image made me think this: What we write about contemporary violations of the Geneva Conventions and Common Article 3 in conflict zones matters – and how quickly, reproducibly and succinctly we communicate that distilled information from the experts to the masses and to those who will intervene matters tremendously. Communication matters. Perhaps creation of such a quantitative “Humanitarian Index” to track atrocities, ethnic cleaning and crimes against humanity is a valuable next step in genocide prevention and realizing “Never Again”.

Sometimes life can throw you the most delightful, unexpected surprises in meeting people. I smiled gleefully as I thought of the quest-filled minds of John Sampas, Jack Kerouac, Edward Hopper and Madeleine Albright – in the hushed outbound passage of the Acela “Quiet Car”, they all traveled back with me in spirit.

Catherine Mullaly, MD FRCPC MPH

photo from: TimeOut New York 13-26 December 2012


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