Researchers Using Big Data to Forecast Genocide
Australian researchers say they have developed a mathematical model to predict genocide. A Swiss sociologist has sifted through a century of news articles to predict when war will break out — both between and within countries. A Duke University lab builds software that it says can be used to forecast insurgencies. A team assembled by the Holocaust Museum is mining hate speech on Twitter as a way to anticipate outbreaks of political violence: It will be rolled out next year for the elections in Nigeria, which have frequently been marred by violence.
What makes these efforts so striking is that they rely on computing techniques — and sometimes huge amounts of computing power — to mash up all kinds of data, ranging from a country’s defense budget and infant mortality rate to the kinds of words used in news articles and Twitter posts.
None of this has yet produced a perfect crystal ball to foretell mass violence — and for good reason. “Events are rare, data we have is really noisy,” said Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who is developing a web-based early warning system to forecast mass atrocities. “That makes it a particularly hard forecasting task.”
But social scientists are getting better at anticipating where trouble might start — or as Mr. Ulfelder put it, “assessing risks.” That explains why the United States intelligence community has been exploring the field for years. The government’s Political Instability Task Force, which Mr. Ulfelder helped to run for over a decade, tries to predict which countries are likely to witness civil unrest in the near term. Its data is not public, nor is information on how the government uses its predictions.