Can Big Data Stop Wars Before They Happen?

Number crunching and pattern recognition may hold the key to predicting and preventing conflicts. But first, peace-builders need to change the way they do business.

It has been almost two decades exactly since conflict prevention shot to the top of the peace-building agenda, as large-scale killings shifted from interstate wars to intrastate and intergroup conflicts. What could we have done to anticipate and prevent the 100 days of genocidal killing in Rwanda that began in April 1994 or the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica just over a year later? The international community recognized that conflict prevention could no longer be limited to diplomatic and military initiatives, but that it also requires earlier intervention to address the causes of violence between nonstate actors, including tribal, religious, economic, and resource-based tensions.

For years, even as it was pursued as doggedly as personnel and funding allowed, early intervention remained elusive, a kind of Holy Grail for peace-builders. This might finally be changing. The rise of data on social dynamics and what people think and feel -- obtained through social media, SMS questionnaires, increasingly comprehensive satellite information, news-scraping apps, and more -- has given the peace-building field hope of harnessing a new vision of the world. But to cash in on that hope, we first need to figure out how to understand all the numbers and charts and figures now available to us. Only then can we expect to predict and prevent events like the recent massacres in South Sudan or the ongoing violence in the Central African Republic.

A growing number of initiatives have tried to make it across the bridge between data and understanding. They've ranged from small nonprofit shops of a few people to massive government-funded institutions, and they've been moving forward in fits and starts. Few of these initiatives have been successful in documenting incidents of violence actually averted or stopped. Sometimes that's simply because violence or absence of it isn't verifiable. The growing literature on big data and conflict prevention today is replete with caveats about "overpromising and underdelivering" and the persistent gap between early warning and early action. In the case of the Conflict Early Warning and Response Mechanism (CEWARN) system in central Africa -- one of the earlier and most prominent attempts at early intervention -- it is widely accepted that the project largely failed to use the data it retrieved for effective conflict management. It relied heavily on technology to produce large databases, while lacking the personnel to effectively analyze them or take meaningful early action.

To be sure, disappointments are to be expected when breaking new ground. But they don't have to continue forever. This pioneering work demands not just data and technology expertise. Also critical is cross-discipline collaboration between the data experts and the conflict experts, who know intimately the social, political, and geographic terrain of different locations. What was once a clash of cultures over the value and meaning of metrics when it comes to complex human dynamics needs to morph into collaboration. This is still pretty rare, but if the past decade's innovations are any prologue, we are hopefully headed in the right direction.

* * *

Over the last three years, the U.S. Defense Department, the United Nations, and the CIA have all launched programs to parse the masses of public data now available, scraping and analyzing details from social media, blogs, market data, and myriad other sources to achieve variations of the same goal: anticipating when and where conflict might arise. The Defense Department's Information Volume and Velocity program is designed to use "pattern recognition to detect trends in a sea of unstructured data" that would point to growing instability. The U.N.'s Global Pulse initiative's stated goal is to track "human well-being and emerging vulnerabilities in real-time, in order to better protect populations from shocks." The Open Source Indicators program at the CIA's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity aims to anticipate "political crises, disease outbreaks, economic instability, resource shortages, and natural disasters." Each looks to the growing stream of public data to detect significant population-level changes.

Large institutions with deep pockets have always been at the forefront of efforts in the international security field to design systems for improving data-driven decision-making. They've followed the lead of large private-sector organizations where data and analytics rose to the top of the corporate agenda. (In that sector, the data revolution is promising "to transform the way many companies do business, delivering performance improvements not seen since the redesign of core processes in the 1990s," as David Court, a director at consulting firm McKinsey, has put it.)

What really defines the recent data revolution in peace-building, however, is that it is transcending size and resource limitations. It is finding its way to small organizations operating at local levels and using knowledge and subject experts to parse information from the ground. It is transforming the way peace-builders do business, delivering data-led programs and evidence-based decision-making not seen since the field's inception in the latter half of the 20th century.

One of the most famous recent examples is the 2013 Kenyan presidential election.

In March 2013, the world was watching and waiting to see whether the vote would produce more of the violence that had left at least 1,300 people dead and 600,000 homeless during and after 2010 elections. In the intervening years, a web of NGOs worked to set up early-warning and early-response mechanisms to defuse tribal rivalries, party passions, and rumor-mongering. Many of the projects were technology-based initiatives trying to leverage data sources in new ways -- including a collaborative effort spearheaded and facilitated by a Kenyan nonprofit called Ushahidi ("witness" in Swahili) that designs open-source data collection and mapping software. The Umati (meaning "crowd") project used an Ushahidi program to monitor media reports, tweets, and blog posts to detect rising tensions, frustration, calls to violence, and hate speech -- and then sorted and categorized it all on one central platform. The information fed into election-monitoring maps built by the Ushahidi team, while mobile-phone provider Safaricom donated 50 million text messages to a local peace-building organization, Sisi ni Amani ("We are Peace"), so that it could act on the information by sending texts -- which had been used to incite and fuel violence during the 2007 elections -- aimed at preventing violence and quelling rumors.

The first challenges came around 10 a.m. on the opening day of voting. "Rowdy youth overpowered police at a polling station in Dandora Phase 4," one of the informal settlements in Nairobi that had been a site of violence in 2007, wrote Neelam Verjee, programs manager at Sisi ni Amani. The young men were blocking others from voting, and "the situation was tense."

Sisi ni Amani sent a text blast to its subscribers: "When we maintain peace, we will have joy & be happy to spend time with friends & family but violence spoils all these good things. Tudumishe amani ["Maintain the peace"] Phase 4." Meanwhile, security officers, who had been called separately, arrived at the scene and took control of the polling station. Voting resumed with little violence. According to interviews collected by Sisi ni Amani after the vote, the message "was sent at the right time" and "helped to calm down the situation."

In many ways, Kenya's experience is the story of peace-building today: Data is changing the way professionals in the field think about anticipating events, planning interventions, and assessing what worked and what didn't. But it also underscores the possibility that we might be edging closer to a time when peace-builders at every level and in all sectors -- international, state, and local, governmental and not -- will have mechanisms both to know about brewing violence and to save lives by acting on that knowledge.

Three important trends underlie the optimism. The first is the sheer amount of data that we're generating. In 2012, humans plugged into digital devices managed to generate more data in a single year than over the course of world history -- and that rate more than doubles every year. As of 2012, 2.4 billion people -- 34 percent of the world's population -- had a direct Internet connection. The growth is most stunning in regions like the Middle East and Africa where conflict abounds; access has grown 2,634 percent and 3,607 percent, respectively, in the last decade.

The growth of mobile-phone subscriptions, which allow their owners to be part of new data sources without a direct Internet connection, is also staggering. In 2013, there were almost as many cell-phone subscriptions in the world as there were people. In Africa, there were 63 subscriptions per 100 people, and there were 105 per 100 people in the Arab states.

The second trend has to do with our expanded capacity to collect and crunch data. Not only do we have more computing power enabling us to produce enormous new data sets -- such as the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) project, which tracks almost 300 million conflict-relevant events reported in the media between 1979 and today -- but we are also developing more-sophisticated methodological approaches to using these data as raw material for conflict prediction. New machine-learning methodologies, which use algorithms to make predictions (like a spam filter, but much, much more advanced), can provide "substantial improvements in accuracy and performance" in anticipating violent outbreaks, according to Chris Perry, a data scientist at the International Peace Institute.

This brings us to the third trend: the nature of the data itself. When it comes to conflict prevention and peace-building, progress is not simply a question of "more" data, but also different data. For the first time, digital media -- user-generated content and online social networks in particular -- tell us not just what is going on, but also what people think about the things that are going on. Excitement in the peace-building field centers on the possibility that we can tap into data sets to understand, and preempt, the human sentiment that underlies violent conflict.

Realizing the full potential of these three trends means figuring out how to distinguish between the information, which abounds, and the insights, which are actionable. It is a distinction that is especially hard to make because it requires cross-discipline expertise that combines the wherewithal of data scientists with that of social scientists and the knowledge of technologists with the insights of conflict experts.

But we're making progress.

Four years ago, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the National Academy of Engineering founded the Roundtable on Technology, Science, and Peacebuilding -- supported by the departments of State, Defense, and Agriculture; the National Science Foundation; and private-sector organizations like Qualcomm and CRDF Global -- to create a high-level "silo-busting" forum to define, explore, and catalyze action at the intersection of engineering and conflict management. One of its first proposed projects was a data hub with analytics to provide decision support for local, national, and international conflict prevention. Perhaps most importantly, this hub would be the heartbeat of a new USIP-housed PeaceTech Lab, the first organization of its kind where data scientists and social scientists, technologists and peace-builders, would work shoulder to shoulder every day.

It's a big idea still in development and reminiscent of the storied Bell Labs, where cross-discipline collaboration was key to its success in developing technologies that changed the world. But it's encouraging nonetheless for what it says about where the peace-building field is headed -- large and small institutions alike, innovating to combine evidence, expertise, and experience to take better, earlier actions. Only then will we be able to spend less time chasing the Holy Grail of conflict prevention and more time doing it.

Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images


When One Door Closes...

Could a surprising gift of disputed Russian islands to Japan end up pulling Tokyo away from Washington?

In the big, messy dance of international politics, the United States is trying to prevent Russia from partnering up. While in Tokyo this week for a state visit, Barack Obama may pressure Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to back U.S.-led sanctions against Russia -- just as Tokyo and Moscow have the best opportunity in decades to grow closer together.

One of the recurrent patterns of Russia's foreign policy is to look East when it is blocked in the West. Stonewalled by Europe and the United States following his mid-March annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought China's support. And although Moscow and Beijing have encountered frictions in their relationship, like protracted negotiations over Russian gas prices, overall Putin's engagement with China seems to be working. Sino-Russian relations, China's President Xi Jinping said in mid-April, have reached historic highs. And Putin, in a public Q&A session on April 17, said Russia's quasi-alliance with Beijing is a "substantial factor in international politics" that will influence the very "architecture of international relations."

However, Putin does not want to be smothered by China. He understands that his country's growing dependence on its mighty neighbor narrows his policy options, reduces his bargaining power, and undercuts Russia's global leverage. To hedge his bets, Putin has been trying to engage with other Asian players, including Vietnam and South Korea. Most importantly, since the beginning of his third presidential term in 2012, Putin has committed a major effort to improving relations with Japan.

The biggest obstacle to warming ties between Russia and Japan hasn't changed for almost 70 years: Japan's claims on what it calls the Northern Territories, the four islands of the Kurile chain just off the island of Hokkaido, which Tokyo lost to Russia at the end of World War II -- and has tried to recover ever since. The Southern Kuriles, as Russia calls them, are home to just over 16,000 people. They are strategically important to Moscow because they bar entry into the Sea of Okhotsk, playing an important role in facilitating Russia's naval deployment into the Pacific and securing air defense in the Far East.

Yet it is precisely because Moscow now feels so isolated, facing Western sanctions and international condemnation over its Ukraine policy, that Tokyo has an excellent opportunity to negotiate.

The last time Russia experienced something similar to its current international isolation was in the early 1980s, when, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the declaration of martial law in Poland, Moscow faced Western economic sanctions, and hostile rhetoric from Ronald Reagan. It was then that the Kremlin seriously considered making territorial concessions to Japan.

Declassified documents from the Russian archives shine light on a May 1983 meeting of the Soviet Politburo, in which the ruling body discussed how to respond to G-7 solidarity. General Secretary Yuri Andropov called for a "compromise" that would entice Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone away from his alignment with Reagan's anti-Soviet policies. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko proposed to give up the islands -- which he called "trivial dots in the ocean" -- if this could mean rapprochement with Japan. "This would be a prestigious offer," Gromyko said -- meaning that it was good enough to tempt Nakasone away from the United States.

That discussion did not translate into action, however. Acceptable to the diplomats, territorial concessions were unpalatable to the military. Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov felt the armed forces were already "entrenched" in the islands, and could not just hand them over. Andropov's declining health stalled decision-making, while an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations made an anti-USSR alliance in Asia seem much less likely. Nevertheless, even the hardliners Andropov and Gromyko, who was nicknamed Mr. No for his obstinacy, entertained territorial concessions for the sake of a better relationship with Japan.

Could the realist Putin also be open to a territorial settlement to achieve a much overdue peace treaty with Japan? There are indications that he is heading in that direction. Putin, an avid judo enthusiast, has agreed that Russia would seek a deal with Japan on the basis of hikiwake -- a judo term for a draw. As early as 2001, Putin, in a joint declaration with then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, signaled readiness to return at least two islands to Japan. The dialogue stalled for years but Mori's visit to Moscow as Abe's personal envoy in February 2013, followed by Abe's own talks with Putin in April, and again on the sidelines of the G20 summit in September, suggested that the two countries were edging towards a deal. Abe, conspicuously, was the only prominent "Western" leader to join Putin in Sochi for the opening of the Winter Olympics in February, a sign of Japan's readiness to deepen dialogue with Russia at a time when other G7 players shunned Putin.

Although Tokyo's official position remains unchanged -- all four islands in return for a peace treaty -- Japan watchers have been abuzz with speculation that the government may settle for less. Former diplomat and Russia specialist Kazuhiko Togo said in December that the two countries are now in a "unique situation" to achieve a breakthrough on the basis of a compromise, which would give Japan at least two of the four islands and, perhaps, a little more.

Likewise, Putin's annexation of Crimea has earned him ample patriotic capital that could be usefully expended on a hikiwake with Japan. Crucially, just like Andropov in the early 1980s, Putin desperately needs a breakthrough in foreign relations. Rapprochement with Japan would not only lessen Russia's international isolation but also help bring much-needed Japanese capital to the country's underdeveloped Far East. All of this makes for a unique opportunity to achieve a lasting territorial settlement.

Where do Tokyo's interests lie? Putin's annexation of Crimea -- unilateral revision of international borders through force -- is not the kind of precedent that bodes well for Japan, given China's claims on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers. Nor does it suit Tokyo's preference for peaceful, negotiated solutions.

Tokyo must also consider U.S. preferences. Washington still believes that a Russo-Japanese rapprochement would be bad for U.S. fortunes in Asia and for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In fact, throughout the Cold War, the United States resorted to arm-twisting to keep the Japanese in line on Russia -- perhaps most egregiously in 1956, when then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sabotaged prospects for a Soviet-Japanese settlement by threatening that if Japan relinquished its claims over the disputed islands, the United States would feel entitled to keep Okinawa for itself.

Today, the United States shuns naked pressure, though it clearly still expects Tokyo to follow suit on sanctions against Russia, which Abe now has reluctantly endorsed. Yet joining these sanctions may quash hopes of a territorial settlement with Russia and could also lead Putin to abandon his neutrality in favor of endorsing Beijing's position in the territorial dispute with Japan, a prospect made all the more likely by Obama's April 23 affirmation that the United States would defend Japan's rights to the Senkakus. 

These sanctions will also raise regional tensions. Here, 1983 also serves as a useful reference point. At the time, the Russians, unable to weaken the anti-Soviet front in Asia and agitated and frightened by perceived enemy encirclement, shot down a civilian Korean airliner, killing all 269 people onboard. The tragedy of the KAL 007 contributed to the spiral of military escalation in late 1983, bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war, in which Japan -- as Moscow was only too keen to remind -- would have served as one of the prime battlefields.

Putin is not quite as nervous. But his reaction to pressure will be to apply counter-pressure by building up military forces and conducting exercises in the Far East. Russia has already heightened military activities by sending bombers on flights around Japan, a move that the Russian Ministry of Defense has linked to Abe's support for U.S. sanctions. All of this is certainly not in Japan's interest.

Throughout the Cold War, when faced with a choice of a rapprochement with Russia or a closer alliance with the United States, Tokyo has consistently opted to lean to Washington's side. Nakasone did that much in 1983, to Moscow's undoubted frustration. "We must see the danger in relation to Japan," Gromyko argued 10 months after his "prestigious offer" that was never made. "Japan considers itself a kind of a NATO member. It kind of moved into the North Atlantic." If this is how Putin comes to perceive Japan's current policy, all the painstaking progress towards better Russo-Japanese relations will be rapidly undone.