Can we finally quantify the science of civil unrest?


Regrettable orientalist jingoism aside, the “Angry Mob” feature in Command and Conquer: Generals was an interesting example of the struggle of computer programming to track civil strife in a way that realistically reflected social and political tension. A recent article in The Economist suggests that this is a difficulty private firms and military researchers are only just now learning how to quantify and model scientifically:

One of the best-known projects in this field is SCARE, the Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine, developed at the United States Military Academy at West Point by a team led by Major Paulo Shakarian, a computer-scientist-turned-soldier. SCARE operates at the most militarily conventional end of the irregular-conflict spectrum: the point where an army of guerrillas is already in being and is making life hard for a notionally better-armed army of regular troops. That, of course, has been the experience of American forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Major Shakarian and his team have analysed the behaviour of guerrillas in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and think they understand it well enough to build reliable models.

Their crucial insight is the local nature of conflict in these countries. In particular, bombs directed at occupying forces are generally planted close to the place where they were made, and on the territory of the bombmaker’s tribal kin or co-religionists. That is not a surprise, of course. Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops. But it does give Major Shakarian and his team a convenient way in. Using the co-ordinates of previously bombed sites, data from topographical and street maps, and information on an area’s ethnic, linguistic and confessional “human terrain”, SCARE is able to predict where guerrillas’ munition dumps will be to within about 700 metres. That is not perfect, but it is close enough to be able to focus a search in a useful way.

The article gives many different examples, some far more nuanced and complex than others. Though all make use of a rising trend towards what is now called “sentiment analysis,” a form of scientific inquiry that probably could not have existed without the help of twitter and informs a new type of strategy evolving for political and military leaders. How soon will it be before it enters into the next generation of real time strategy games? Will the next Command and Conquer or Sim City have the player monitor the tweets of their virtual citizens?

[via The Economist]