We are finally getting better at predicting organized conflict

Tate Ryan-Mosley at MIT Technology Review: “People have been trying to predict conflict for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But it’s hard, largely because scientists can’t agree on its nature or how it arises. The critical factor could be something as apparently innocuous as a booming population or a bad year for crops. Other times a spark ignites a powder keg, as with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in the run-up to World War I.

Political scientists and mathematicians have come up with a slew of different methods for forecasting the next outbreak of violence—but no single model properly captures how conflict behaves. A study published in 2011 by the Peace Research Institute Oslo used a single model to run global conflict forecasts from 2010 to 2050. It estimated a less than .05% chance of violence in Syria. Humanitarian organizations, which could have been better prepared had the predictions been more accurate, were caught flat-footed by the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in March 2011. It has since displaced some 13 million people.

Bundling individual models to maximize their strengths and weed out weakness has resulted in big improvements. The first public ensemble model, the Early Warning Project, launched in 2013 to forecast new instances of mass killing. Run by researchers at the US Holocaust Museum and Dartmouth College, it claims 80% accuracy in its predictions.

Improvements in data gathering, translation, and machine learning have further advanced the field. A newer model called ViEWS, built by researchers at Uppsala University, provides a huge boost in granularity. Focusing on conflict in Africa, it offers monthly predictive readouts on multiple regions within a given state. Its threshold for violence is a single death.

Some researchers say there are private—and in some cases, classified—predictive models that are likely far better than anything public. Worries that making predictions public could undermine diplomacy or change the outcome of world events are not unfounded. But that is precisely the point. Public models are good enough to help direct aid to where it is needed and alert those most vulnerable to seek safety. Properly used, they could change things for the better, and save lives in the process….(More)”.