Modern methods of data collection are increasingly being used to inform conflict research, but apparently scientists are still quite a way away from actually being able to accurately predict the next civil war. What advancements have been made in the field, and are we humans just so very unpredictable?
The new technologies inherent in the collection of big data are being used for more than just developing targeted advertising on Facebook, or suggesting your next purchase on Amazon. In fact, big data is already playing a big role in peace building, and in forecasting, mapping and mitigating conflicts around the world. But according to a new essay penned by scientists from the ETH Zurich and the University of Constance, while advancements have been made in the field, there’s still no technology that can accurately predict the next conflict, and a fully automated system may never be possible to realise.
While risk factors can easily be identified in advance using this kind of technology – precarious political situations, oppression of ethnic minorities, for example – conflicts are incredibly complex and people’s actions are (think about the latest US election) ultimately still inherently illogical and unpredictable. Looking back at the past in order to try and predict the future is also, according to Lars-Erik Cederman, Professor of International Conflict Research at ETH Zurich, not as reliable as people might think.
So How Does Modern Data Science Help?
Computer analytics can be used to track developments by looking at news reports, online trends and posts being made on social media channels, and this information can flow into the evidence for developing a prediction. Key words used in media reports can also be analysed to recognise nationalistic developments or other social changes which have the potential to lead to conflict. Computers can help here by speeding up the process and coming up with conclusions more quickly. But human intervention is still required – certain languages still can’t be analysed by the system yet and in many regions prone to conflict, news sources are biased, or even worse, certain topics are completely censured.
And what about places that have no internet at all? No problem, computer methods can be used there too. Technologies such as satellite imaging can be used to produce field reports on the state of conflicts at border regions, analyse light emissions from above to draw conclusions about economic prosperity and inequality, and generate rapid responses to human security concerns.