The following blog is a reflection by Analyst Consultant, Raychel Justice, on data analysis in times of tragedy. She recounts an experience which is a major motivating factor for the work she does today. This article contains true depictions of real-life events that some may find disturbing, please read at your own discretion.
Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, there have been an estimated roughly 15,000 deaths, 2,000 injuries and 3,000 individuals displaced. With the ongoing crisis, across the globe, many analysts are trying to help in any way they can. However, in times of tragedy in the intelligence community, and the community at large, we sometimes intentionally or not, can forget the humanity behind the data. We become desensitized, often to protect ourselves from the emotional burden, but sometimes too desensitized that we forget the weight of our analytic conclusions.
Within our robust internship program, many previous analysts, including myself, have shared moments of excitement with the executive team because our analytic predictions happened in real-time. In the Intelligence Cell Unit, each cohort has the opportunity to track worsening conflicts in a specific Area of Responsibility (AOR) by leveraging all types of Publicly Available Information (PAI). The current team is focused on the conflict unfolding in Ukraine, and the previous round, my cohort, focused on Burkina Faso. For each of us, upon thinking about the circumstances more, we found ourselves taking those thrilled words back immediately as they were misplaced. It’s a strange feeling to see horrible indicators you have identified pop up in the news; in one sense, you feel encouraged because your line of thinking is validated, but in another you feel horrible those events occurred at all. This is the nature of analysis in crisis: constantly toggling the line of desensitization and emotional burden. Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that the data reflects real people, so we lose the weight of the impact connected to each of the individual data points. In the Intelligence industry, it is constantly stressed to “quantify, quantify, quantify” to display the gravity of a situation, but it’s also important to reflect and remember the weight of the quantity. It’s paramount to remember what’s behind the number.
Following the survival of an attack in Nice, France in 2016, my view shifted where the numbers on the screen suddenly carried more immediate weight in my mind. Here I recount the story:
On July 14th 2016, a 19-tonne semi-truck rammed through a crowd after the Bastille day firework show celebrations on the Promenade de Anglais in Nice, France. 86 people were killed and 456 people were injured by one man. He drove over a mile through the crowds. The attack has been classified as jihadist terrorism by Europol.
I was in Nice, France for a Summer abroad program. It was a Thursday evening after class. A group of us went for a quick bite and then decided to head out to the Bastille day celebrations, French Independence day. We all had a sense of urgency to get there to see the firework show. There was a large group of us to start, maybe 20 people, but slowly we split up as some were more eager than others sprinting to the beach. We arrived right as the show started. There were hundreds, maybe even a thousand people gathered there. Some families brought full spreads of cheese, grapes and wine and were sitting on blankets, others just stood and watched the fantastic colorful explosions in the sky. My friends and I sat on the rocky beach in silence, but were still breathing quite heavily from our run to get there.
After the show ended, everyone started to get up and climb back up the stairs to the promenade. Once we reached the top of the stairs, we ran into other friends who had basically just arrived. The promenade was crowded with people; it looked like ants filling out of a hill. We started walking toward the other end of the promenade for continued festivities. Nearly minutes into our walk I heard screams like I have never heard before. I quickly turned over my left shoulder shaken, and saw a white semi-truck plowing through the crowd. People were dropping like flies. Bodies were being flung. Bodies were being dragged by the wheels. But the driver kept going.
I looked to my right and several of us decided to jump onto a rickety little tin roof above a beach club. For some perspective, there was a roughly 1-story drop from the promenade sidewalk to the pebble beach below. I internally decided in mere seconds that a couple broken bones were better than being hit. The truck was inches away from us. It kept zigzagging to try and hit as many people as possible. It swerved towards the edge where we were. I thought it was going to tip on us, but it continued past. After the truck went by, I jumped back onto the sidewalk. Looking down the promenade, bodies were scattered everywhere. It was horrific; I’ll never be able to erase the images. I remember witnessing people hit the ground. It did not feel real. A young boy, maybe four or five, laid just feet from me. Only when blood started pooling around his head did I realize the reality of the situation. His arm was barely attached to his body. I sat there for what felt like a lifetime trying to figure out what had just happened. I still don’t have the words for it today or understand it any more than I did in that moment.
Two of my friends were hysterical. They could not form words and were struggling to breath. We did not know the context of the situation, and the last thing we needed was to be out in the open. Many of us started running back towards the residence, we wanted to be out of the streets. Everyone was running, hundreds of people; it was complete hysteria. We made it to a narrow street, my face was stone, but inside I was hyperventilating. I did not trust anyone and I especially did not trust any car, but I was trying to stay calm. I figured I would have the time to cry later. We were in a huge crowd all running one way. Screams echoed. Then suddenly everyone started running in the opposite direction yelling in French. I had no idea what they were saying but they made gun motions. Some people who owned little shops and restaurants along the street started hurriedly guiding people in to hide. I had no intention of being trapped in a small space with nowhere to go, so three of us decided to sprint up a hill in the other direction. It was later learned that the gunshots were being fired to kill the driver but it did not take away the feeling of fear.
We ran as hard as we possibly could. I did not think my body could move that fast, but I did not even think twice about it as it was happening. I did not feel like I was breathing. We saw a University that looked abandoned, so we jumped the fence and hid. I felt sick. I threw up in a bush. Our minds started messing with us; we were hearing and seeing things. A branch, peeking out from behind the corner of the building we were tucked behind, started looking like a hand to me; I thought it was a person coming to get us. We decided that we spent enough time hidden and needed to get back. The entire walk back we were on our toes. I jumped at the sight of nearly every passing car.
Once we arrived back at the residence, it was complete chaos. People thought I was hit, I was written down as missing. Some of my friends were still missing. By the end of the night, Nick was still missing.
For the next two days when Nick was still unaccounted for we went out into the city and put up posters on bus-stop boards and open walls throughout the city. Ten of us ended up getting taken by police to a holding cell for postering (because apparently that’s illegal in France or following the attack everyone was on high-alert). After sitting in a French jail for a couple hours, our professor came and the media showed up. The media wouldn’t leave us alone.
Time went by so slowly as we waited to hear from anyone. We occupied our time with these tasks, but later realized how blind we were. We were trying to keep hope. I seriously thought at times that he was just in Monte Carlo hiding out and his phone died. But the next day, we learned he was dead. The hospital during those days was working on helping the living, and only after they attended to those possibly able to survive did they start identifying bodies. DNA testing had to be used for a lot of them.
After the night of the attack, I wanted to immediately go home. I was scared to step foot outside. I’d never felt so conflicted, but I decided to stay. In the end though, it was good to be around people who went through the same thing, to not feed the fear cycle, and to be there for Nick’s family.
Walking back down the promenade days after everything, and sitting where it all happened was eerie. It felt good to face my fears though. The promenade was covered in flowers and candles, and letters to those lost. It was tragically beautiful to see all these people come together in love after this hate. The promenade still was as beautiful as ever, the water crystal clear and the sun beaming, but I would forever see it differently.
It is years later, much time has past, and somehow when I recount the events it sometimes feels like a story; I feel detached from it. Other times, something reminds me of that Summer and everything flashes before my eyes. I have gone back trying to replay the steps leading up to it, but I know obsessing isn’t healthy. I was lucky to survive, but survivor’s guilt is real. I view my life differently, my opportunities differently, the news differently. Before the attack, numbers were just numbers. Tragedy happens all over the world everyday, it can be difficult to process it all. Oftentimes prior to this, figures and details left me with a feeling of indifference or an absence of connection.
In the analysis community, bringing life to the data is important, making those connections between what is happening on the ground and in our own findings is critical. There is a time and a place to put your head down and focus on the data deliverable or task at hand for the greater cause, to compartmentalize the emotional piece so as to not be overwhelmed. However, every now and then, coming up for air and remembering the humanity behind the data, and the bigger picture, brings more meaning to those deliverables. Too much emotion of course is also an issue though. The balance between desensitization and emotional burden is a very personal one that each individual has to decide for themselves. Of course in this field, we can all appreciate the power of data that initially jolts many into action. Data oftentimes is what gets people talking about the issues, it’s the push, the emotion or the humanity is what keeps people invested.
Mo Vafai, an expert lead Trainer and Analyst Consultant at Praescient Analytics shares his thoughts surrounding the meaning of data following combat exposure. Vafai is a former Platoon Sergeant, deployed to Afghanistan from 2011-2012 and 2013-2014; he was in the Infantry during his deployments and then reclassified to Military Intelligence after.
“For me, after seeing death in the form of enemies, friends, and civilians who are just trying to live their lives in the middle of a brutal conflict, I came back with a completely different view on the data. I don’t know if it was possible for my view to drastically change without being exposed directly to violence and what it looks like when the dust settles. I would see numbers and feel a tightening in my heart. I would see and hear interviews or footage of civilians who survived and had to deal with their entire life being ripped apart, and I would cry. I would see between some lines and get heated and furious when a violent attack would happen against civilians and the global response was shaming the actions instead of taking action. I think part of why I miss being in the infantry was that during those deployments, I had the chance to actually fight against some of those harsh realities, however little or temporary the impact was, if any”.
In no way am I suggesting one has to experience a traumatic event to understand the weight of data. However, these two examples offer extreme versions of the breakdown of data representing reality. Analytics can be enriching for many fields in this big data era. However, certain types of data take a granular toll that sits behind the quantifiable numbers. Vafai continues:
“I don’t know what the answer is for a balance between desensitization with data and emotional strain. I think an answer for people who haven’t experienced similar events would be different than the answer for those who have. I do, however, think it’s important for people who have been through hard experiences to share them, when and where it makes sense, and after they’ve had the right amount of time and resources to work through and understand the traumas that come with them”.
Sometimes when one is siloed to a single task, it is easy to forget all that exists beyond the task at hand. Sometimes levels of desensitization are a way to protect oneself, as to not constantly carry the heavy weight of each data point. Walking the line of desensitization and emotional burden is something every analyst has to explore for themselves. In this persisting Russia/Ukraine conflict, the Intelligence Cell Unit at Praescient finds themselves walking this very line. More broadly, Praescient employees do not take lightly the responsibility to which they’re assigned. Finding ways to acknowledge the impact outside of the walls of an organization, helps make those tasks, those deliverables, those analytic results, live on beyond the immediate.