The State Department is using cutting-edge data gathering technology to help keep the peace in some areas and keep violence from flaring in others, saving both physical and fiscal costs of conflict.
"We are about breaking and interrupting, stopping and preventing atrocities and destabilizing violence, for the good of the people in the countries where we work, as well as the good of the American people," said Jerry White, deputy assistant secretary for partnerships and learning in state's newly formed Conflict and Stabilization Operation (CSO) office.
White, a Nobel laureate, encountered first-hand consequences of miscalculated foreign policy decisions, violence, and instability, when he lost a leg to a land mine during a hike in Israel in 1984. That led him to co-found Survivor Corps, which is the first international network of survivors helping survivors to recover from war, rebuild their communities, and break cycles of violence.
CSO analyzes "large data sets" as well as "civil society" generated data -- essentially the sum of patterns, human behaviors, electronic signals, social media elements and everything tangible that creates masses of technological and non-technological data.
"As observers of patterns, data, and focal points, we look at violence as an epidemic that can ultimately spread," White said. "As interrupters of violence, by using the nuances such as data analytics we now have the technology to prevent, interrupt and break these cycles of violence."
Iraq and Afghanistan
State Department officials said they didn't want to speculate the "should have, could have, would haves," but Mark Abdollahian, a political-scientist and co-creator of "Senturion", a "large data" predictive analysis tool, says otherwise.
In conjunction with the National Defense University, Abdollahian ran a forecast using big data analytics during the run-up to the war in Iraq, which was a fairly accurate preview of where the conflict would go.
Abdollahian's model anticipated what the Iraqi and international political support would look like if the United States went into Iraq with and without the United Nations support. It found very early on that if the United States entered Iraq on its own, "it would be the ultimate source of Iraqi sectarian and domestic violence."
It also predicted "the situation in Iraq would worsen throughout 2003 and 2004 in terms of Iraqi attitudes toward the U.S. presence as well as insurgent activity," said Abdollahian, whose Senturion model is now used by White and his team at CSO.
The model produced very specific predictions about the behavior of factions and accurately predicted the timing of defections as well as the potential support from unexpected allies -- such as the specific behavior of Shia leaders after Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed --- to the point of even accurate sequencing of defections among different factions.
"When we published our findings with NDU, everyone was asking how we did this -- questioning whether or not we had inside deals. And we simply responded by saying we only looked at patterns, behaviors, and ran data -- yet everyone was shocked," Abdollahian recalled.
An alternative to 'top-down' approach
Both White and Abdollahian believe that this "large data analytic technology" provides a "focal point" and identifies the players in what Abdollahian calls a political "tug of war."
Software allows analysts to map "different people, players, stakeholders, and people with interests, in various targeted political landscapes." Then the computer chip tracks interactions among these elements -- Abdollahian's "tug of war" -- and therefore "anticipates if people are going to agree, and if so, what are the compromises, and if not, what are the potential outcomes."
The technology allows U.S. policymakers to frame responses in a timely manner and avoid conflicts that might require the introduction of military forces, reducing the cost in both money and casualties by identifying innovative courses of action that may have not been spotted without the use of this new technology.
White suggests the data-driven approach is somewhat contrary to the conventional "top-down" wisdom, since "many believe that it take decades to get into conflicts and consequently it would take the same amount to come out."
Amir Bagherpour, a senior analyst at CSO and former student of Abdollahian, suggests "mixing new technologies with conventional methods of developing policy strategies, creates "pockets of hope that allow advanced planning around the patterns of violence for the future."
AB Paul, cyber strategist and former policy adviser at the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command, believes that people's emotions are a pivotal element in data analysis and capturing these human elements are a huge challenge.
"If you could apply human judgments, it's wonderful, otherwise substituting human judgment and talent with computing analytics does not work," Paul said.
Paul's argument is central to what White and Bagherpour regard as pivotal element in their work at the CSO.
"The key to success is to combine this nuance and technology with the invaluable talent, knowledge and human power of our diplomats and civilian responders through a comprehensive team effort," Bagherpour said.
One of the main areas of focus for the year-old agency is Syria, which is similar to many less-developed countries that lack cyber data availability.
Gary Shiffman, a former chief of staff of customs and border protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said "you want data to allow you to see" life's normal patterns.