How to use data to predict and prevent conflict

Worldwide, people are struggling to recover from political, religious, and ethnic conflicts. Conflict begins when grievances are expressed through violence and instability, and it helps violent extremism grow.

Extremist groups grow through creating social and political movements, gaining territory to legitimize their ideology, recruiting, exploiting populations with few choices, and expanding their funding apparatus through human, truck, or weapons trafficking.

{mosads}Those groups that “go global” exploit unstable environments, creating complex foreign challenges with terrorism, insurgencies, and internal conflicts fanned by external sponsors. Innocent people are suffering from extreme poverty and displacement, and extremist groups are taking advantage of them to amplify destabilizing messages.


Ending the reactive approach

Some might wonder how poverty could affect our national security. Does poverty create terrorism? No. Many experienced practitioners emphasize that there is no correlation. But claiming there is no connection between poverty and violent extremism and making sweeping judgments about people and their ideologies is dangerous.

We must place facts above ideology, and the best way is to understand data in context with conclusions informed by insights from people on the ground. We cannot study the connection between poverty and violent extremism as if violent extremism is the same everywhere. Casual explanations of terrorism that dismiss correlating elements such as poverty can obscure patterns that shed light on how these groups grow, which directly affects our national security strategy and plan for mitigating future conflict.

We cannot simply wait until the next war, major attack, or influx of refugees and respond using military intervention. Instead of reacting to the fallout, proactive work by humanitarian organizations can mitigate the need for such intervention.

Gen. John Allen, former commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, said: “While the hard power of the military can create trade, space, time, and a viable security environment, the soft power of USAID and the development community can deliver strategic effects and outcomes for decades, affecting generations.”

In dealing with this issue, data management intervention can help us better understand and prevent conflict in unstable areas.

Can predictive data analytics reduce conflict?

In conflict zones, it is critical to coordinate prevention approaches among defense, diplomacy, and development. There must be cross-discipline collaboration between data experts and experts who know the social, political, and geographic terrains.

These sectors typically operate in silos. To work together, they must establish interlinked value propositions and coordinate efforts. Each actor has its own strategic objectives and timelines, and data can identify where each sector can contribute in a given situation.

If U.S. diplomatic, political, and military actors working to end the spread of violent extremism adopted indices to monitor social, economic, political, and government inputs and were able to measure demographic pressures, poverty, human-rights violations, climate change, state legitimacy, and effectiveness of security apparatuses, they could mitigate the devastation armed conflict causes to innocent civilians.

Predictive data analysis will make it possible to stop conflict before it occurs or spreads by measuring an area’s resiliency trend compared to similar communities. Resiliency ratings indicate success because stability is a point in time, but resiliency is a continuum of strength.

Groups countering the spread of violent extremism can use data analytics to

Prevent vulnerable people from seeking hope in extremist groups

One-sixth of the world’s people live desperate lives, and they likely will look to any leader who steps into the vacuum. Ungoverned and fragile states in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia will be exploited by extremists and become breeding grounds for terrorism and disease.

Prevent violent extremist groups from taking advantage of vulnerable communities

Organizations such as the Islamic State group are wooing individuals in shattered communities by passing off international organizations’ food aid as its own, styling itself as the Islamic State Department for Relief. It relies on communities’ fragility to advance its agenda, employing fear tactics to help win insurgencies and offering food, medicine, and schools to increase support.

Prevent conflict from spreading beyond geographical borders

With the interconnectedness of our world, extremist groups can easily spread their ideologies beyond geographical borders. This is growing exponentially and is creating homegrown terrorists.

How does a predictive data strategy work?

Macro- and micro-level data analyses are necessary to shape humanitarian programs, allowing organizations to target their resources where they will be most effective. Macro-level data can identify where groups should engage, and micro-level data determines which specific communities are most at risk and why.

Micro-level data for areas of conflict and instability does not broadly exist, so collecting data on local drivers such as interreligious tension is the first step. The collection must be performed with integrity and must include targeted and randomized control groups to verify and assess progress. Humanitarian groups must restrain implicit bias — racial, sexual, ethnic, or class prejudice — so their efforts address actual needs.

Once a group determines a site to implement programming, it must be aware of the additional risks the community might face. We manage the risks by partnering with organizations such as Predata, which provides us access to its predictive geopolitical analysis platform. This identifies early warning signals of geopolitical volatility by mathematically processing open-source social and collaborative digital media.

The shift in the for-profit world from corporate social responsibility to creating shared value is an exciting opportunity to generate economic value for vulnerable communities while addressing their real needs and challenges. Only through coordinated, proactive, data-driven efforts among industries and sectors can we understand our roles in creating a safer world.

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization working in areas of instability and conflict. She currently serves as an International Security Program fellow with New America, focusing on National Security and Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE). Mina also served as a fellow with the United States Military Academy at West Point Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations, where she developed community-focused programs in humanitarian and disaster response. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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