Afghanistan: The Information Is Not Beautiful

Friday, November 13th, 2009

I took a visual look at the casualty figures coming out of the Afghanistan war for The Guardian. It’s part of my effort to understand what’s going on there. It’s not easy reading. But I think it helps to give some context. See what you think.

You can explore the data and sources in this spreadsheet.

Books and Store

Our Beautiful Books - Information is Beautiful Information is Beautiful Store

Show Comments ( )

  • jdbartlett

    David, do you know how up-to-date the UN figures were at the time you made that last graphic, or if they were as up-to-date as the others? From looking at the others, it would seem that 2009 has been the worst year for violence in Afghanistan since 2006, but there have been significantly fewer civilian casualties. As well as the possible reasons you mention for this, could it simply be that military deaths are reported more promptly than the UN updates its statistics?

    • david

      @jdbartlett military deaths are definitely reported more promptly -the UN only updates its civilian casualty figures every 6 months!

  • christmas presents

    Hey you have shared very nice post. Thanks for the spreadsheet. You have doing very nice work in data journalism. It is truly awesome.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Why are the Canadians taking such a beating? Is it just because they’re in the worst zone? Or is it something to do with the fact that there are fewer of them, so proportionally more of them are on the front lines at any one time (I don’t know how it works over there but that seems plausible…)

  • Antoine

    Thanks for the interesting information. Anyone know where we could find the data before 2007?

  • Joe

    Another thought @ Canadian casualties could be the terrain, their equipment, their training, their skills, their leadership, and so on. Could be a lot of factors–we just need more data, right? Still, it’s sobering.

  • JP

    Very interesting figures and visualization, thanks.

    Can you do a comparison to Iraq?

    Does the data show any correlation between the use and improvement of IEDs in Iraq to the use of them in Afghanistan?

  • Diversity

    As always, you punch home significant data.

    If you revisit the subject, two points:

    The fall in numers of civilians killed by coalition forces looks significant: it is the first (mildly) promising figure for the coalition for years – if confirmed.

    You have not picked up all the coalition forces nor casualties. The Spanish soldiers dying in Afghanistan are a recurrent item in the Madrid papers

  • Qarlos

    Canadian troops are getting hit because they are in the Pushtun heartland (Kandahar), home of the Students (Taliban) and the Canucks don’t have helicopters nor very well armoured personel carriers. Most casualties are from mined roads (IEDs). Canuckistanis are sacrificed so our politicians might have a say at the NATO table. So they say in Ottawa.

  • Cloned Poster

    It was always said that the Canadians were doing some “heavy lifting” in Afghanistan, they are.

  • Matthias

    Where did you get the data for the troops deployed? I didn’t see a link for the “Private Security Contractors” data… can you point me to the right numbers for that?

  • MetaEd

    The visualization is wrong for British Troop Fatalities as % of force.

    Your 2009 circle is the same size as your 2008 circle. Based on the numbers reported on the chart, it should be 2/3 larger than your 2008 circle. It should be close to the same size as the 2006 circle.

  • Sporcupine

    The Canadian portion hit me hard, making me feel the tenacity of others and the sloppiness of my own U.S. for so much of a decade. The ache is another sign that the design works.

  • RohbTC

    The high amount of Canadian casualties are due to the fact that they are responsible for the most dangerous area: Kandahar province.

  • vanderleun

    I like this site, but could you please comment on and clarify the measured criticism of this item at Political Math.


    It says, among other things, that:

    he problem is that McCandless doesn’t source that number. I said to myself “71,700 hired guns? That seems high.” It didn’t pass the smell test.

    I looked into the number. Near as I can tell, its basically a huge mistake on McCandless’ part. He didn’t source where he got the “71,700 private security contractors” stat and he didn’t say anything when I tweeted to him to ask where he got it. And he didn’t respond in the comments section of his blog when I asked. So I had to go searching for it.

    It looks like the number comes from this Washington Times piece which mentions that there are 71,700 contractors, not all of whom are private security contractors. And yet McCandless not only changes this important data point (HUGE no-no in my book), he goes on to push the point with his “hired guns” comment.

    Why would he do such a thing? My guess is that he doesn’t like the war in Afghanistan, so that kind of makes it OK to push a “mercenaries” point of view by lumping all contractors into the “private security” category.

    Are you teaching in Kabul? You’re a “hired gun”.

    Building a bridge? You’re a “hired gun”.

    Flying supplies in? “Hired gun.”

    Maintaining a network for the government? “Hired gun.”

    Working as a translator? “Hired gun.”

    It’s basically a data labeling mistake made worse by an wildly inaccurate (and, frankly, quite stupid) comment.

    The reason it’s taken me so long to get to this is because I didn’t want to say anything bad about Mr. McCandless without giving him a chance to explain. It’s obvious to me that he’s not going to. If he does, I’ll post his explanation at the top of this post. But it’s given me new insight into the old saw that a lie is half-way around the world before the truth can get its pants on. Being right and being generous to others is something that takes caution and time.

    It seems to me that you must answer this in some wise if you are to preserve integrity.