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April 28, 2014

Big Data Gives Peace a Chance

George Leopold

As the amount of data derived via everything from social media to satellite surveillance soars, policy makers are beginning to take a closer look at big data as another tool in peace-keeping and disaster response.

The hope is that pouring through the torrent of new data in search of patterns may help policy makers, for example, prevent wars before they break out. Judging from their current record dealing with human conflict, peacekeepers need all the help they can get.

The Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace launched a PeaceTech Initiative in 2012 that, according to the congressionally funded group, operates at the intersection of technology, media and big data to find ways to reduce the chances of international conflict.

The group recently conducted a PeaceTech camp in strife-torn Iraq that attempted to connect Iraqi civil society organizations with international technology experts. Among the technology companies participating were Facebook, MIT Media Lab and the Social Media Exchange.

“The PeaceTech Camps in Iraq have enabled civil society organizations to better understand how to apply both data and technologies to address issues of corruption, violence and [the need for] innovative approaches for civil society participants to improve overall governance in Iraq,” said Noel Dickover, the Institute’s senior program officer. By training citizens to use big data tools to mobilize and communicate, the PeaceTech Camps seek to enhance the ability of Iraqi civilians to work together to reduce sectarian violence.

Sheldon Himelfarb, director of the PeaceTech Initiative, said the challenge is to find ways to analyze social media and other data available to peacekeepers. “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,” Himelfarb noted in a recent commentary for the publication Foreign Policy.

The group has been following the lead of government and international agencies. Himelfarb reported that the U.S. Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the United Nations have all launched initiatives aimed at analyzing data gathered from social media, blogs, market data and other sources.

Indeed, the Defense Department’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency uses social media and other geospatial data sources to map what it refers to as “human geography.” The spy agency tracks groups like al-Shabaab that have increasingly turned to social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to communicate with followers.

Among the key differences between these efforts and the PeaceTech initiative is that government agencies already possess sophisticated big data analysis tools to combat terrorist groups. The peace institute is trying to find ways to leverage big data in order to prevent wars before they start, help rebuild war-torn nations like Iraq, and mitigate natural and humanitarian disasters.

Meanwhile, another Pentagon program called Information Volume and Velocity seeks to use pattern recognition to spot destabilizing trends within unstructured data.

A separate U.N. initiative called Global Pulse attempts to track regional vulnerabilities in real-time while cushioning local populations from the effects of conflict and natural disasters. A recent project in Indonesia combined crowd-sourced data, social media and big data analysis to tackle chronic flooding in the capital city of Jakarta.

These and other big data initiatives seek to anticipate economic and political crises that could lead to war or track resource shortages or natural or humanitarian disasters to mitigate the effects, program officials said.

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