Can Big Data Stop Wars Before They Happen?

Foreign Policy: “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.
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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.

Out in the Open: An Open Source Website That Gives Voters a Platform to Influence Politicians

Klint Finley in Wired: “This is the decade of the protest. The Arab Spring. The Occupy Movement. And now the student demonstrations in Taiwan.
Argentine political scientist Pia Mancini says we’re caught in a “crisis of representation.” Most of these protests have popped up in countries that are at least nominally democratic, but so many people are still unhappy with their elected leaders. The problem, Mancini says, is that elected officials have drifted so far from the people they represent, that it’s too hard for the average person to be heard.
“If you want to participate in the political system as it is, it’s really costly,” she says. “You need to study politics in university, and become a party member and work your way up. But not every citizen can devote their lives to politics.”

Democracy OS is designed to address that problem by getting citizens directly involved in debating specific proposals when their representatives are actually voting on them.

That’s why Mancini started the Net Democracy foundation, a not-for-profit that explores ways of improving civic engagement through technology. The foundation’s first project is something called Democracy OS, an online platform for debating and voting on political issues, and it’s already finding a place in the world. The federal government in Mexico is using this open-source tool to gather feedback on a proposed public data policy, and in Tunisia, a non-government organization called iWatch has adopted it in an effort to give the people a stronger voice.
Mancini’s dissatisfaction with electoral politics stems from her experience working for the Argentine political party Unión Celeste y Blanco from 2010 until 2012. “I saw some practices that I thought were harmful to societies,” she says. Parties were too interested in the appearances of the candidates, and not interested enough in their ideas. Worse, citizens were only consulted for their opinions once every two to four years, meaning politicians could get away with quite a bit in the meantime.
Democracy OS is designed to address that problem by getting citizens directly involved in debating specific proposals when their representatives are actually voting on them. It operates on three levels: one for gathering information about political issues, one for public debate about those issues, and one for actually voting on specific proposals.
Various communities now use a tool called Madison to discuss policy documents, and many activists and community organizations have adopted Loomio to make decisions internally. But Democracy OS aims higher: to provide a common platform for any city, state, or government to actually put proposals to a vote. “We’re able to actually overthrow governments, but we’re not using technology to decide what to do next,” Mancini says. “So the risk is that we create power vacuums that get filled with groups that are already very well organized. So now we need to take it a bit further. We need to decide what democracy for the internet era looks like.”
Image: Courtesy of Net Democracy

Software Shop as Political Party

Today Net Democracy is more than just a software development shop. It’s also a local political party based in Beunos Aires. Two years ago, the foundation started pitching the first prototype of the software to existing political parties as a way for them to gather feedback from constituents, but it didn’t go over well. “They said: ‘Thank you, this is cool, but we’re not interested,’” Mancini remembers. “So we decided to start our own political party.”
The Net Democracy Party hasn’t won any seats yet, but it promises that if it does, it will use Democracy OS to enable any local registered voter to tell party representatives how to vote. Mancini says the party representatives will always vote the way constituents tell them to vote through the software.

‘We’re not saying everyone should vote on every issue all the time. What were saying is that issues should be open for everyone to participate.’

She also uses the term “net democracy” to refer to the type of democracy that the party advocates, a form of delegative democracy that attempts to strike a balance between representative democracy and direct democracy. “We’re not saying everyone should vote on every issue all the time,” Mancini explains. “What were saying is that issues should be open for everyone to participate.”
Individuals will also be able to delegate their votes to other people. “So, if you’re not comfortable voting on health issues, you can delegate to someone else to vote for you in that area,” she says. “That way people with a lot of experience in an issue, like a community leader who doesn’t have lobbyist access to the system, can build more political capital.”
She envisions a future where decisions are made on two levels. Decisions that involve specific knowledge — macroeconomics, tax reforms, judiciary regulations, penal code, etc. — or that affect human rights are delegated “upwards” to representatives. But then decisions related to local issues — transport, urban development, city codes, etc. — cab be delegated “downwards” to the citizens.

The Secret Ballot Conundrum

Ensuring the integrity of the votes gathered via Democracy OS will be a real challenge. The U.S. non-profit organization Black Box Voting has long criticized electronic voting schemes as inherently flawed. “Our criticism of internet voting is that it is not transparent and cannot be made publicly transparent,” says Black Box Voting founder Bev Harris. “With transparency for election integrity defined as public ability to see and authenticate four things: who can vote, who did vote, vote count, and chain of custody.”
In short, there’s no known way to do a secret ballot online because any system for verifying that the votes were counted properly will inevitably reveal who voted for what.
Democracy OS deals with that by simply doing away with secret ballots. For now, the Net Democracy party will have people sign-up for Democracy OS accounts in person with their government issued ID cards. “There is a lot to be said about how anonymity allows you to speak more freely,” Mancini says. “But in the end, we decided to prioritize the reliability, accountability and transparency of the system. We believe that by making our arguments and decisions public we are fostering a civic culture. We will be more responsible for what we say and do if it’s public.”
But making binding decisions based on these online discussions would be problematic, since they would skew not just towards those tech savvy enough to use the software, but also towards those willing to have their names attached to their votes publicly. Fortunately, the software isn’t yet being used to gather real votes, just to gather public feedback….”

HarassMap: Using Crowdsourced Data to Map Sexual Harassment in Egypt

Chelsea Young in Technology Innovation Management Review: “Through a case study of HarassMap, an advocacy, prevention, and response tool that uses crowdsourced data to map incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt, this article examines the application of crowdsourcing technology to drive innovation in the field of social policy. This article applies a framework that explores the potential, limitations, and future applications of crowdsourcing technology in this sector to reveal how crowdsourcing technology can be applied to overcome cultural and environmental constraints that have traditionally impeded the collection of data. Many of the lessons emerging from this case study hold relevance beyond the field of social policy. Applied to specific problems, this technology can be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of mitigation strategies, while facilitating rapid and informed decision making based on “good enough” data. However, this case also illustrates a number of challenges arising from the integrity of crowdsourced data and the potential for ethical conflict when using this data to inform policy formulation.”

The Unwisdom of Crowds

Anne Applebaum on why people-powered revolutions are overrated in the New Republic: “..Yet a successful street revolution, like any revolution, is never guaranteed to leave anything positive in its aftermath—or anything at all. In the West, we often now associate protests with progress, or at least we assume that big crowds—the March on Washington, Paris in 1968—are the benign face of social change. But street revolutions are not always progressive, positive, or even important. Some replace a corrupt tyranny with violence and a political vacuum, which is what happened in Libya. Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution of 2004–2005 produced a new group of leaders who turned out to be just as incompetent as their predecessors. Crowds can be bullying, they can become violent, and they can give rise to extremists: Think Tehran 1979, or indeed Petrograd 1917.
The crowd may not even represent the majority. Because a street revolution makes good copy, and because it provides great photographs, we often mistakenly confuse “people power” with democracy itself. In fact, the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all. Tunisia’s ratification of a new constitution earlier this year represented the most significant achievement of the Arab Spring to date, but the agonizing negotiations that led up to that moment were hard for outsiders to understand—and not remotely telegenic
Equally, it is a dangerous mistake to imagine that “people power” can ever be a substitute for actual elections. On television, a demonstration can loom larger than it should. In both Thailand and Turkey, an educated middle class has recently taken to the streets to protest against democratically elected leaders who have grown increasingly corrupt and autocratic, but who might well be voted back into office tomorrow. In Venezuela, elections are not fair and the media is not free, but the president is supported by many Venezuelans who still have faith in his far-left rhetoric, however much his policies may be damaging the country. Demonstrations might help bring change in some of these countries, but if the change is to be legitimate—and permanent—the electorate will eventually have to endorse it.
As we often forget, some of the most successful transitions to democracy did not involve crowds at all. Chile became a democracy because its dictator, Augusto Pinochet, decided it would become one. In early 1989, well before mass demonstrations in Prague or Berlin, the leaders of the Polish opposition sat down at a large round table with their former jailers and negotiated their way out of communism. There are no spectacular photographs of these transitions, and many people found them unsatisfying, even unjust. But Chile and Poland remain democracies today, not least because their new leaders came to power without any overt opposition from the old regime.
It would be nice if these kinds of transitions were more common, but not every dictator is willing to smooth the path toward change. For that reason, the post-revolutionary moment is often more important than the revolution itself, for this is when the emotion of the mob has to be channeled rapidly—immediately—into legitimate institutions. Not everybody finds this easy. In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, demonstrators found it difficult to abandon Tahrir Square. “We won’t leave because we have to make sure this country is set on the right path,” one protester said at the time. In fact, he should already have been at home, back in his neighborhood, perhaps creating the grassroots political party that might have given Egyptians a real alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood…”

After the Protests

Zeynep Tufekc in the New York Times on why social media is fueling a boom-and-bust cycle of political: “LAST Wednesday, more than 100,000 people showed up in Istanbul for a funeral that turned into a mass demonstration. No formal organization made the call. The news had come from Twitter: Berkin Elvan, 15, had died. He had been hit in the head by a tear-gas canister on his way to buy bread during the Gezi protests last June. During the 269 days he spent in a coma, Berkin’s face had become a symbol of civic resistance shared on social media from Facebook to Instagram, and the response, when his family tweeted “we lost our son” and then a funeral date, was spontaneous.

Protests like this one, fueled by social media and erupting into spectacular mass events, look like powerful statements of opposition against a regime. And whether these take place in Turkey, Egypt or Ukraine, pundits often speculate that the days of a ruling party or government, or at least its unpopular policies, must be numbered. Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.

This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment….

But after all that, in the approaching local elections, the ruling party is expected to retain its dominance.

Compare this with what it took to produce and distribute pamphlets announcing the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, and a few students sneaked into the duplicating room and worked all night to secretly mimeograph 52,000 leaflets to be distributed by hand with the help of 68 African-American political, religious, educational and labor organizations throughout the city. Even mundane tasks like coordinating car pools (in an era before there were spreadsheets) required endless hours of collaborative work.

By the time the United States government was faced with the March on Washington in 1963, the protest amounted to not just 300,000 demonstrators but the committed partnerships and logistics required to get them all there — and to sustain a movement for years against brutally enforced Jim Crow laws. That movement had the capacity to leverage boycotts, strikes and demonstrations to push its cause forward. Recent marches on Washington of similar sizes, including the 50th anniversary march last year, also signaled discontent and a desire for change, but just didn’t pose the same threat to the powers that be.

Social media can provide a huge advantage in assembling the strength in numbers that movements depend on. Those “likes” on Facebook, derided as slacktivism or clicktivism, can have long-term consequences by defining which sentiments are “normal” or “obvious” — perhaps among the most important levers of change. That’s one reason the same-sex marriage movement, which uses online and offline visibility as a key strategy, has been so successful, and it’s also why authoritarian governments try to ban social media.

During the Gezi protests, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Twitter and other social media a “menace to society.” More recently, Turkey’s Parliament passed a law greatly increasing the government’s ability to censor online content and expand surveillance, and Mr. Erdogan said he would consider blocking access to Facebook and YouTube. It’s also telling that one of the first moves by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia before annexing Crimea was to shut down the websites of dissidents in Russia.
Media in the hands of citizens can rattle regimes. It makes it much harder for rulers to maintain legitimacy by controlling the public sphere. But activists, who have made such effective use of technology to rally supporters, still need to figure out how to convert that energy into greater impact. The point isn’t just to challenge power; it’s to change it.”

The intelligent citizen

John Bell in AlJazeera: “A quarter century after the demise of the Soviet Union, is the Western model of government under threat? …. The pressures are coming from several directions.
All states are feeling the pressure from unregulated global flows of capital that create obscene concentrations of wealth, and an inability of the nation-state to respond.Relatedly, citizens either ignore or distrust traditional institutions, and ethnic groups demand greater local autonomy.
A recent Pew survey shows that Americans aged 18-33 mostly identify as political independents and distrust institutions. The classic model is indeed frayed, and new developments have made it feel like very old cloth.
One natural reflex is to assert even greater control, a move suited to the authoritarians, such as China, Russia or General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi‘s Egypt: Strengthen the nation by any means to withstand the pressures. The reality, however, is that all systems, democracies or otherwise, were designed for an industrial age, and the management of an anonymous mass, and cannot cope with globalised economics and the information world of today.
The question remains: What can effectively replace the Western model? The answer may not lie only in the invention of new structures, but in the improvement of a key component found in all: The citizen.
The citizen today is mostly a consumer, focused on the purchase of goods or services, or the insistent consumption of virtual information, often as an ersatz politics. Occasionally, when a threat rises, he or she also becomes a demandeur of absolute security from the state. Indeed, some are using the new technologies for democratic purposes, they are better informed, criticise abuse or corruption, and organise and rally movements.
But, the vast majority is politically disengaged and cynical of political process; many others are too busy trying to survive to even care. A grand apathy has set in, the stage left vacant for a very few extremists, or pied pipers of the old tunes of nationalisms and tribal belonging disguised as leaders. The citizen is either invisible in this circus, an endangered species in the 21st century, or increasingly drawn to dark and polarising forces.
Some see the glass as half full and believe that technology and direct democracy can bridge the gaps. Indeed, the internet provides a plethora of information and a greater sense of empowerment. Lesser-known protests in Bosnia have led to direct democracy plenums, and the Swiss do revert to national referenda. However, whether direct or representative, democracy will still depend on the quality of the citizen, and his or her decisions.
Opinion, dogma and bias
Opinion, dogma and bias remain common political operating system and, as a result, our politics are still an unaffordable game of chance. The optimists may be right, but discussions in social media on issues ranging from Ukraine to gun control reveal more deep bias and the lure of excitement than the pursuit of a constructive answer.
People crave excitement in their politics. Whether it is through asserting their own opinion or in battling others, politics offers a great ground for this high. The cost, however, comes in poor judgment and dangerous decisions. George W. Bush was elected twice, Vladimir Putin has much support, climate change is denied, and an intoxicated Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, may be re-elected.
Few are willing to admit their role in this state of affairs, but they will gladly see the ill in others. Even fewer, including often myself, will admit that they don’t really know how to think through a challenge, political or otherwise. This may seem absurd, thinking feels as natural as walking, but the formation of political opinion is a complex affair, a flawed duet between our minds and outside input. Media, government propaganda, family, culture, and our own unique set of personal experiences, from traumas to chance meetings, all play into the mix. High states of emotion, “excitement”, also weigh in, making us dumb and easily manipulated….
This step may also be a precursor for another that involves the ordinary person. Today being a citizen involves occasional voting, politics as spectator sport, and, among some, being a watchdog against corruption or street activism. What may be required is more citizens’ participation in local democracy, not just in assemblies or casting votes, but in local management and administration.
This will help people understand the complexities of politics, gain greater responsibility, and mitigate some of the vices of centralisation and representative democracy. It may also harmonise with the information age, where everyone, it seems, wishes to be empowered.
Do people have time in their busy lives? A rotational involvement in local affairs can help solve this, and many might even find the engagement enjoyable. This injection of a real citizen into the mix may improve the future of politics while large institutions continue to hum their tune.
In the end, a citizen who has responsibility for his actions can probably make any structure work, while rejecting any that would endanger his independence and dignity. The rise of a more intelligent and committed citizen may clarify politics, improve liberal democracies, and make populism and authoritarianism less appealing and likely paths.”

Can Twitter Predict Major Events Such As Mass Protests?

Emerging Technology From the arXiv : “The idea that social media sites such as Twitter can predict the future has a controversial history. In the last few years, various groups have claimed to be able to predict everything from the outcome of elections to the box office takings for new movies.
It’s fair to say that these claims have generated their fair share of criticism. So it’s interesting to see a new claim come to light.
Today, Nathan Kallus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge says he has developed a way to predict crowd behaviour using statements made on Twitter. In particular, he has analysed the tweets associated with the 2013 coup d’état in Egypt and says that the civil unrest associated with this event was clearly predictable days in advance.
It’s not hard to imagine how the future behaviour of crowds might be embedded in the Twitter stream. People often signal their intent to meet in advance and even coordinate their behaviour using social media. So this social media activity is a leading indicator of future crowd behaviour.
That makes it seem clear that predicting future crowd behaviour is simply a matter of picking this leading indicator out of the noise.
Kallus says this is possible by mining tweets for any mention of future events and then analysing trends associated with them. “The gathering of crowds into a single action can often be seen through trends appearing in this data far in advance,” he says.
It turns out that exactly this kind of analysis is available from a company called Recorded Future based in Cambridge, which scans 300,000 different web sources in seven different languages from all over the world. It then extracts mentions of future events for later analysis….
The bigger question is whether it’s possible to pick out this evidence in advance. In other words, is possible to make predictions before the events actually occur?
That’s not so clear but there are good reasons to be cautious. First of all, while it’s possible to correlate Twitter activity to real protests, it’s also necessary to rule out false positives. There may be significant Twitter trends that do not lead to significant protests in the streets. Kallus does not adequately address the question of how to tell these things apart.
Then there is the question of whether tweets are trustworthy. It’s not hard to imagine that when it comes to issues of great national consequence, propaganda, rumor and irony may play a significant role. So how to deal with this?
There is also the question of demographics and whether tweets truly represent the intentions and activity of the population as a whole. People who tweet are overwhelmingly likely to be young but there is another silent majority that plays hugely important role. So can the Twitter firehose really represent the intentions of this part of the population too?
The final challenge is in the nature of prediction. If the Twitter feed is predictive, then what’s needed is evidence that it can be used to make real predictions about the future and not just historical predictions about the past.
We’ve looked at some of these problems with the predictive power of social media before and the challenge is clear: if there is a claim to be able to predict the future, then this claim must be accompanied by convincing evidence of an actual prediction about an event before it happens.
Until then, it would surely be wise to be circumspect about the predictive powers of Twitter and other forms of social media.
Ref: Predicting Crowd Behavior with Big Public Data”

Phone Apps Help Government, Others Counter Violence Against Women

NextGov: “Smart and mobile phones have helped authorities solve crimes from beatings that occurred during the London riots to the Boston Marathon bombing. A panel of experts gathered on Monday said the devices can also help reduce and combat rapes and other gender-based violence.
Smartphone apps and text messaging services proliferated in India following a sharp rise in reported gang rapes, including the brutal 2012 rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi, according to panelists at the Wilson Center event on gender-based violence and innovative technologies.
The apps fall into four main categories, said Alex Dehgan, chief data scientist at the United States Agency for International Development: apps that aid sexual assault and domestic violence victims, apps that empower women to fight back against gender-based violence, apps focused on advocacy and apps that crowdsource and map cases of sexual assault.
The final category of apps is largely built on the Ushahidi platform, which was developed to track reports of missing people following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
One of the apps, Safecity, offers real-time alerts about sexual assaults across India to help women identify unsafe areas.
Similar apps have been launched in Egypt and Syria, Dehgan said. In lower-tech countries the systems often operate using text messages rather than smartphone apps so they’re more widely accessible.
One of the greatest impediments to using mobile technology to reduce gender violence is third world nations in which women often don’t have access to their own mobile or smartphones and rural areas in the U.S. and abroad in which there is limited service or broadband, Christopher Burns, USAID’s team leader for mobile access, said.
Burns suggested international policymakers should align plans for expanding broadband and mobile service with crowdsourced reports of gender violence.
“One suggestion for policy makers to focus on is to take a look at the crowd maps we’ve talked about today and see where there are greater incidences of gender-based violence and violence against women,” he said. “In all likelihood, those pockets probably don’t have the connectivity, don’t have the infrastructure [and] don’t have the capacity in place for survivors to benefit from those tools.”
One tool that’s been used in the U.S. is Circle of 6, an app for women on college campuses to automatically draw on friends when they think they’re in danger. The app allows women to pick six friends they can automatically text if they think they’re in a dangerous situation, asking them to call with an excuse for them to leave.
The app is designed to look like a game so it isn’t clear women are using their phones to seek help, said Nancy Schwartzman, executive director of Tech 4 Good, which developed the app.
Schwartzman has heard reports of gay men on college campuses using the app as well, she said. The military has been in contact with Tech 4 Good about developing a version of the app to combat sexual assault on military bases, she said.”

The Age of Democracy

Xavier Marquez at Abandoned Footnotes: “This is the age of democracy, ideologically speaking. As I noted in an earlier post, almost every state in the world mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” in its constitutional documents today. But the public acknowledgment of the idea of democracy is not something that began just a few years ago; in fact, it goes back much further, all the way back to the nineteenth century in a surprising number of cases.
Here is a figure I’ve been wanting to make for a while that makes this point nicely (based on data graciously made available by the Comparative Constitutions Project). The figure shows all countries that have ever had some kind of identifiable constitutional document (broadly defined) that mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (in any context – new constitution, amendment, interim constitution, bill of rights, etc.), arranged from earliest to latest mention. Each symbol represents a “constitutional event” – a new constitution adopted, an amendment passed, a constitution suspended, etc. – and colored symbols indicate that the text associated with the constitutional event in question mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic”…
The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848, as far as I can tell.[1] Participatory Switzerland and revolutionary France look like obvious candidates for being the first countries to embrace the “democratic” self-description; yet the next set of countries to embrace this self-description (until the outbreak of WWI) might seem more surprising: they are all Latin American or Caribbean (Haiti), followed by countries in Eastern Europe (various bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain), Russia, and Cuba. Indeed, most “core” countries in the global system did not mention democracy in their constitutions until much later, if at all, despite many of them having long constitutional histories; even French constitutions after the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 did not mention “democracy” until after WWII. In other words, the idea of democracy as a value to be publicly affirmed seems to have caught on first not in the metropolis but in the periphery. Democracy is the post-imperial and post-revolutionary public value par excellence, asserted after national liberation (as in most of the countries that became independent after WWII) or revolutions against hated monarchs (e.g., Egypt 1956, Iran 1979, both of them the first mentions of democracy in these countries but not their first constitutions).

Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City).[2] And no country that has ever mentioned “democracy” in an earlier constitutional document fails to mention it in its current constitutional documents (though some countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went back and forth – mentioning democracy in one constitution, not mentioning it in the next). Indeed, after WWII the first mention of democracy in constitutions tended to be contemporaneous with the first post-independence constitution of the country; and with time, even countries with old and settled constitutional traditions seem to be more and more likely to mention “democracy” or “democratic” in some form as amendments or bills of rights accumulate (e.g., Belgium in 2013, New Zealand in 1990, Canada in 1982, Finland in 1995). The probability of a new constitution mentioning “democracy” appears to be asymptotically approaching 1. To use the language of biology, the democratic “meme” has nearly achieved “fixation” in the population, despite short-term fluctuations, and despite the fact that there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past.[3]
Though the actual measured level of democracy around the world has trended upwards (with some ups and downs) over the last two centuries, I don’t think this is the reason why the idea of democracy has achieved near-universal recognition in public documents. Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (Though many constitutions that mention democracy were also produced by people who seem to have been genuinely committed to some such ideal, even if the regimes that eventually developed under these constitutions were not particularly democratic). What we see, instead, is a broad process in which earlier normative claims about the basis of authority – monarchical, imperial, etc. – get almost completely replaced, regardless of the country’s cultural context, by democratic claims, regardless of the latter’s effectiveness as an actual basis for authority or the existence of working mechanisms for participation or vertical accountability. (These democratic claims to authority also sometimes coexist in uneasy tension with other claims to authority based on divine revelation, ideological knowledge, or tradition, invented or otherwise; consider the Chinese constitution‘s claims about the “people’s democratic dictatorship” led by the CCP).
I thus suspect the conquest of ideological space by “democratic” language did not happen just because democratic claims to authority (especially in the absence of actual democracy) have proved more persuasive than other claims to authority. Rather, I think the same processes that resulted in the emergence of modern national communities – e.g. the rituals associated with nationalism, which tended to “sacralize” a particular kind of imagined community – led to the symbolic production of the nation not only as the proper object of government but also as its proper active agent (the people, actively ruling itself), regardless of whether or not “the people” had any ability to rule or even to exercise minimal control over the rulers.[4] There thus seems to have been a kind of co-evolution of symbols of nationality and symbols of democracy, helped along by the practice/ritual of drafting constitutions and approving them through plebiscites or other forms of mass politics, a ritual that already makes democratic assumptions about “social contracts.” The question is whether the symbolic politics of democracy eventually has any sort of impact on actual institutions. But more on this later….”

Assessing Zuckerberg’s Idea That Facebook Could Help Citizens Re-Make Their Government

Gregory Ferenstein in TechCrunch: “Mark Zuckerberg has a grand vision that Facebook will help citizens in developing countries decide their own governments. It’s a lofty and partially attainable goal. While Egypt probably won’t let citizens vote for their next president with a Like, it is theoretically possible to use Facebook to crowdsource expertise. Governments around the world are experimenting with radical online direct democracy, but it doesn’t always work out.

Very briefly, Zuckerberg laid out his broad vision for e-government to Wired’s Steven Levy, while defending, a new consortium to bring broadband to the developing world.

“People often talk about how big a change social media had been for our culture here in the U.S. But imagine how much bigger a change it will be when a developing country comes online for the first time ever. We use things like Facebook to share news and keep in touch with our friends, but in those countries, they’ll use this for deciding what kind of government they want to have. Getting access to health care information for the first time ever.”

When he references “deciding … government,” Zuckerberg could be talking about voting, sharing ideas, or crafting a constitution. We decided to assess the possibilities of them all….
For citizens in the exciting/terrifying position to construct a brand-new government, American-style democracy is one of many options. Britain, for instance, has a parliamentary system and has no constitution. In other cases, a government may want to heed political scientists’ advice and develop a “consensus democracy,” where more than two political parties are incentivized to work collaboratively with citizens, business, and different branches of government to craft laws.
At least once, choosing a new style of democracy has been attempted through the Internet. After the global financial meltdown wrecked Iceland’s economy, the happy citizens of the grass-covered country decided to redo their government and solicit suggestions from the public (950 Icelanders chosen by lottery and general calls for ideas through social networks). After much press about Iceland’s “crowdsourced” constitution, it crashed miserably after most of the elected leaders rejected it.
Crafting law, especially a constitution, is legally complex; unless there is a systematic way to translate haphazard citizen suggestions into legalese, the results are disastrous.
“Collaborative drafting, at large scale, at low costs, and that is inclusive, is something that we still don’t know how to do,” says Tiago Peixoto, a World Bank Consultant on participatory democracy (and one of our Most Innovative People In Democracy).
Peixoto, who helps the Brazilian government conduct some of the world’s only online policymaking, says he’s optimistic that Facebook could be helpful, but he wouldn’t use it to draft laws just yet.
While technically it is possible for social networks to craft a new government, we just don’t know how to do it very well, and, therefore, leaders are likely to reject the idea. In other words, don’t expect Egypt to decide their future through Facebook likes.”