"Social radar": Can computer models predict civil wars?

The Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (W-ICEWS) project, led by Lockheed Martin, a large American defence contractor, goes even further. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Melinda Morgan of the office of the secretary of defence, in Washington, who is the government’s liaison officer for the project, it can crunch great quantities of data from digital news media, blogs and other websites, and also intelligence and diplomatic reports. It then uses all this to forecast—months in advance—riots, rebellions, coups, economic crises, government crackdowns and international wars. Colonel Morgan calls this process “social radar”.

Conflict forecasters are even joining the open-source bandwagon, in an attempt to improve their software. Last August IARPA, an American-government technology-development agency for the intelligence services, started the Open Source Indicators programme. This finances developers of software that can “beat the news”: forecasting political crises and mass violence in a reliable way. The programme’s manager, Jason Matheny, is now considering the proposals that have come in so far. These range from tracking Wikipedia edits to monitoring traffic with roadside cameras. The only proposals Mr Matheny will not consider are those designed to forecast conflict in America itself (the CIA is not supposed to spy on people in the United States), and those that rely on monitoring particular individuals, whether in America or elsewhere.

Rather than just foretelling the future, however, the best technology should concentrate on shaping it. W-ICEWS offers a bit of that. It has a “what if” capability, which allows users to change the inputs and see how things might develop differently given different events in the real world. But Venkatramana Subrahmanian of the University of Maryland proposes something more specific. The Temporal-Probabilistic Rule System, a program his team has developed using $600,000 of American-army money, looks at 770 social and political indicators and uses them to predict attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a guerrilla group based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. If it works, this process might be applied, using a different set of indicators, to other groups of rebels.