Category Archives: Successes

Launching PeaceTXT to Prevent Violence

[Cross-posted on Ushahidi blog]

CeaseFire began operations 10 years ago in one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Within a year, the project reduced shootings by 67%. These results have since been replicated dozens of times in Chicago, other US cities and abroad including Iraq. An extensive three-year independent evaluation funded by the US Department of Justice provided statistical proof that CeaseFire’s model was directly responsible for the dramatic decline in killings. Indeed, “this evaluation scientifically-validated CeaseFire’s success in reducing shootings and killings by 41% to 73% and demonstrated a 100% success rate in reducing retaliatory killings in five of the eight communities examined.”


Thanks to PopTech, I was able to meet with the CeaseFire team in Chicago on two occasions this year. This is truly one of the most stunning projects I’ve come across in a long time. Members of the CeaseFire team are true professionals. They prove that preparedness is fundamental to successful tactical early warning and response. Having worked in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response for years, I’ve always known that a people-centered approach to violence prevention would be far more effective than a state-centric approach. CeaseFire demonstrates this beyond the shadow of a doubt. The model itself is based one how diseases are controlled, which is fascinating.

I’m incredibly excited to be part of PeaceTXT, a joint PopTech, CeaseFire, FrontlineSMS:Medic and Ushahidi initiative to explore how technology might help the team leverage and scale their incredible work. From the PopTech website:

The PeaceTXT project brings together some of the world’s best technologists and social innovators to explore how mobile tools and mobile messaging might further accelerate CeaseFire’s ability to engage communities, change social norms, improve its efficacy and find new paths to scale. Our investigation is broad but intensive, exploring and rigorously evaluating several possible applications.

While the initial work will focus on CeaseFire’s efforts in its model sites in Chicago, there is clear potential to apply key insights and methods to the global context. Experience and learning gained from this project is expected to prove invaluable to conflict resolution and violence prevention efforts, nationally and globally.

The project was publicly launched and announced last week at PopTech 2010 thanks to seed funding from the Rita Allen Foundation. My colleague Josh Nesbit and I have already learned a lot from the conversations we had in Chicago, but we know that we’re just scratching the surface. So I’m eager to get back to Chicago and pilot some projects with the CeaseFire team.

Thank you PopTech for bringing us together!

DARPA’s Crisis Early Warning and Decision Support System

The International Studies Review just published a piece by Sean O’Brien entitled “Crisis Early Warning and Decision Support: Contemporary Approaches and Thoughts on Future Research.” Sean outlines the latest attempt by the US military (ie, DARPA) to develop a crisis forecasting tool. This time, the platform is called ICEWS for Integrated Crisis Early Warning System.

O’Brien gives a brief overview of recent efforts in this space including Bueno de Mesquita’s Policon and Senturion forecasting systems, which are said to be 90%+ accurate. That said, O’Brien notes that Mesquita himself acknowledges that “he is not exactly sure how to interpret this accuracy claim since most of the reported assessments he has were not explicit about how accuracy was measured.” Incidentally, I like how this rather important qualifier is buried at the bottom of a footnote.

Some of Policon’s/Senturion’s supposedly accurate predictions had to do with questions like:

  • What policy is Egypt likely to adopt towards Israel?
  • What is the Philippines likely to do about US bases?

Keep in mind that millions of dollars were spent on these sophisticated systems and yet I can’t help but think that paying some experts on Egypt and the Philippines a few thousand dollars would have more or less accomplished the same task. Apparently, Senturion accurately predicted the deteriorating disposition of Iraqis toward US forces. Really? Shocking, who would have expected Iraqi public opinion to shift? Yes, that was sarcasm.

O’Brien also references a forthcoming study by Ward, Greenhill and Bakke, which “delivers a serious blow to the predominant way in which most conflict models are evaluated using statistical significance.” These include the predictive models developed by Fearon and Latin (2003) and Collier and Hoeffler (2004). Ward et al. show that these models predict few if any civil war cases at a reasonable probability cut off of 50%. In fact, the Fearon and Latin model “does not even appear to generate a probability of greater than 30%.” In sum, Ward et al. conclude that we cannot correctly predict over 90% of the cases with which our models are concerned.

Many of the most interesting, policy-relevant theoretical questions are also the most complex, nonlinear, and highly context-dependent. They demand consideration of hundreds of massively interacting variables that are difficult to measure systematically and at a level of granularity consistent with the theory. In such cases it is at best impractical and at worst impossible to apply standard regression techniques within the context of a Large N study, short of invoking unreasonable, oversimplifying assumptions. This may in part account for contradictory findings in the literature relative to the validity of alternative theoretical claims.

So lets keep in mind that previous “breakthroughs” have since been largely discounted.

ICEWS phase one of three consisted of a competition between different groups to successfully predict events of interest (EoI) on a set of historical data. The most successful team was Lockheed Martin-Advanced Technology Laboratories (LM-ATL) in cooperation with a number of established scholars and industry partners. The team integrated and applied six different conflict modeling systems, including:

  1. Agent-based models drawn from Barry Silverman’s Factionism and Ian Lustick’s Political Science-Identity (PSI) computational modeling platforms. The latter is created with “agents representing population elements of various ethnic ⁄ political identities organized geographically and in authority structures designed to mirror the society being studied.”
  2. Logistic regression models developed by Phil Schrodt and Steve Shellman, which use “macro-structural and event data factors commonly analyzed in the academic literature.” Shellman’s approach uses a Bayesian statistics model.
  3. Geo-spatial network models built by Michael Ward, which uses “structural factors, event counts, and various types of spatial networks—trade ties, people flows, and ‘‘social similarity’’ profiles—that embody potential EOI co-dependencies between proximate countries.”
  4. “A final model was developed by aggregating the forecasts from the above mentioned models using Bayesian techniques.

I’m particularly interested in the use of Agent-based models (ABM) for conflict analysis. O’Brien references a very interesting project at Virginia Tech which I was unaware of:

Scholars at Virginia Tech have already developed a 100 million agent simulation that includes synthetic versions of many American citizens, and plan to expand to 300 million agents this year (Upson 2008). Each synthetic agent has as many as 163 variables describing age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, and various attitudinal factors. The simulation is used to assess how different types of pandemics could spread across the United States under different scenarios.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Chapter 5: Theoretical Justifications for FCE’s Early Warning and Early Response System

This chapter by Dinidu Endaragalle is definitely my favorite chapter of the entire book. I highly recommend a close read to anyone interested in the field of conflict early warning.

Endaragalle draws on two contemporary theories identified by Professor Joseph Bock Bock to justify early response interventions by the FCE’s Early Response system. The first relates to timing and nature of interventions while the second addresses the capacity to intervene.

Timing and Nature

Donald Horowitz (2001) has provided insights about the timing and nature of intervening to prevent ethnic violence. Through an extensive comparative study, he identified how collective ethnic violence displays a marked pattern. Where there has been a hostile relationship between ethnic groups and usually, but not always, after there has been a ‘precipitating event,’ there is a period of time (a ‘lull’) when consensus building for violence occurs.

The attacking group develops intense emotions. Its members build a consensus around a moral argument justifying violence (which is commonly linked to religious beliefs). They assess the threat posed by another group (often exaggerating that threat). And they downplay the anticipated risks of participating in violence.

This focus on the tactical level is one that definitely resonates with me. Understanding patterns of conflict in large part requires an understanding of what military strategies and tactics are employed. See, for example, Jen Ziemke’s excellent research on spatial patterns of civilian targeting during the Angolan civil war.

Capacity to Intervene

The second theory that can be applied to the science of early response originates from Ashutosh Varshney’s work. Varshney has “provided empirical evidence that formal inter-ethnic associations, especially in urban areas, constitute an effective capacity to intervene to prevent violence. […] he wound that violence was much less likely when associations were formalized […] and inter-ethnic in their membership.”

Taken together, Endaragalle argues that “the essence of Horowitz’s theory of intensity and timing of a ‘lull’ and Varshney’s theory of capacity to intervene provide important insights to the science of early warning and early response.” Endaragalle then applies this framework to two real case studies from Sri Lanka.

Developing a theoretical framework and then being able to apply it and draw preliminary conclusions is the mark of serious applied academic research. For example, Endaragalle relates Varshney’s formal association theory to the FCE’s Co-Existent Communities (CECs) as these are formal interethnic associations with different religions represented. By applying the theoretical framework to actual case studies, Endaragalle finds that “after a precipitating event […], the early response interveners should concentrate on diminishing the degree of consensus building for violence by conflicting parties.”

I found this insight interesting as it relates to the idea of patterns and anti-patterns that I have described here in the context of conflict and crisis mapping.

Insider Partial Mediators

Endaragalle also adds a third component to the two-pronged theoretical framework originally proposed by Bock. This one focuses on the concept of “insider partial mediation” developed by Paul Wehr and John Paul Lederach (1996). These authors suggest that the “insider partial mediators often prove beneficial in reaching a successful settlement.” Wehr and Lederach define this type of mediator as “an entity (an individual or institution) that is already involved in the conflict and, at least to some extent, is aligned with one side or other.”

In general, this means that these mediators “are people of high stature and as a result, they have credibility with stakeholders on all sides of the conflict.” Endaragalle combines this concept with the theories developed by Horowitz and Varshney. Insider partial mediators already have network ties with local communities and may thus have the contacts necessary to identify upcoming lulls in inter-ethnic conflict. “The mobilization of ‘insider partials’ can also increase the capacity to intervene in conflicts rapidly in most instances.”

There are a few points in this chapter that deserve to be written in more detail. Endaragalle refers to the FCE’s GIS maps: “they zoom into the databases and the GIS maps and single out the events data relating to the precipitating events,” but does not expand further. How are the events singled out? Do the maps facilitate this singling out in terms of spatial patterns?

Like other chapter authors, I would press Endaragalle to be more specific when writing that FCE’s early warning system “intervened in a recorded number of 174 cases of conflict.” Namely, 174 out of a total of how many incidents? And out of this 174, how many can clearly be shown to have been successful? I don’t doubt the probable success of the system, but having specifics would make the 174 figure a stronger case.

In the same paragraph Endaragalle writes that the next task for the FCE’s early response system is to “estimate the time period of the actual time period [i.e., the lull] for the actual onset of the violence.” I agree that timing is important, of course, and would be curious to know why Endaragalle does not draw on William Zartman’s concept of ripeness. I would also liked to have seen a discussion on William Ury’s Third Side approach vis-a-vis capacity to intervene.

In any case, the plan to analyze lulls is a very good one. But I’m biased given that I’m doing similar research with colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute and the Technical University in Zurich. There is evidence from other scientific research that the “wait times” between certain events often follow a specific statistical distribution, often a poisson distribution.

Chapter 4: FCE’s Early Warning and Early Response System

Written by Priyan Senevirathna, this chapter of the book is a good overview of the conflict early warning methodology employed by the FCE. While labeled as a “unique” system, we should keep in mind that several other third generation conflict early warning and response systems exist, such as in Timor-Leste and Kyrgyzstan.

Of note, however, are the 30 field monitors attached to FCE field offices and the use of SMS. The latter is “primarily targeted at activating those who are in [sic] the ground for immediate [preventive] action […].” This is an important component of the FCE’s system.

Senevirathna suggests that, “by activating an immediate ground level conflict preventive agent, the FCE Early Warning system can first contain violence that may erupt in a given location and take immediate action for spreading further into different parts of the region which are still unaffected.”

I liked this description because it reminded me of the spread of contagious diseases and the need to quarantine or contain this spread. And we know from the field of preventive health that one once of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What strikes me as missing from the FCE approach is a strong focus on preparedness. There are no vaccines for conflict, but perhaps the equivalent is preparedness. While FCE staff members “plan out the early response strategy for the respective issues at hand,” this is still reactive rather than preparative.

Related to this is Senevirathna’s definition, or stated purpose of early warning; the function of an early warning system is to send “the right information at the right time to the right people to take timely action for prevention of conflicts.”

I like this approach because it is simple and a good contrast to more traditional definitions which would focus on sending the right information to the right officials, thus sidelining civil society altogether. I also like the definition because of the link to timely action for prevention. What Senevirathna’s definition lacks however, is any reference to preparedness—which for me is a centerpiece of third generation early warning systems.

I was pleased to see Senevirathna tackle the issue of early warning for whom and for what. The author refers to Chapter 3 in which Kanno writes that “closeness to conflict areas enables one to understand the situation better and intervene rapidly and appropriately.” This important shift in discourse from mainstream approaches to conflict early warning.

In the past, the mind-set was that we could not draw on local field monitors because they would be too biased, which would skew the information collection process. Another thought was that local field monitors would be “too close” to the conflict, and like frogs in slowly heating water would not notice the increase in temperature. The chapters by Senevirathna and Kanno suggest a different and refreshing approach; one in which local communities are finally given the trust and respect that they deserve.

I was also pleased to read that a number of Embassies are involved in the FCE initiative—something I have not seen done in other third generation approaches. Representatives from the British High Commission, the Delegation of the European Commission and several others meet on a monthly basis with the FCE and other multi-lateral organizations as well as international NGOs. These meetings are mean to serve as an “advocacy forum somewhat similar to the approach taken by the Crisis Group.”

Senevirathna writes that the FCE’s “GIS tool has been very effective in generating conflict early warnings within the FCE system” but the author produces absolutely no evidence to back up this claim. My main question is whether the FCE actually leverages geospatial analysis for pattern recognition of conflict.

In closing, I completely agree with Senevirathna when he writes that “the success of every conflict early warning [and] early response system depends on how well it is customized to fit into the environment within which it will operate.”

Video: Early Warning of Financial Crisis

Peter Schiff is the author of “Crash Proof: How to Profit From the Coming Economic Collapse,” published in 2007. He is well known for his “bearish views on the United States economy and for his prescient predictions of the economic crisis of 2008.”

The short video interview below is shocking and reminds me of Cassandra from Greek mythology who foreswaw the destruction of Troy but no one believed her. Note how the journalists from Fox News and other channels laugh at and ridicule Peter Schiff for his “outlandish” predictions.

Click on video below to play the interview.

Click to play Video

Click to play Video

We observe the same dynamic in the field of conflict early warning. In Barney Rubin’s book: “Blood at the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action,” published in 2002, he notes that at-risk communities may not believe rumors of impending armed violence; “to the Hitlerian technique of the Big Lie we must add that of the Horrendous Truth—a truth so awful that one can hardly credit it” (p 139). No pun on credit.

So my question is, if the early warning is there, in a published book, on news programs, etc., is warning or response the problem?

100 Year Early Warning from 1900?

In December 1900, The Ladies’ Home Journal published a fascinating article by Elfreth Watkins on “What May Happen in the Next 100 Years” (PDF of original article here). Elfreth opens with the words “These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet they will have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America.”

Here are some of the 29 prophesies that ensued:

  • There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted.
  • There will be no street cars within our large cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above the ground.
  • Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there is a battle in China in a hundred years hence, snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later.
  • There will be airships, but they will not successful compete with surface cars and water vessels but they will be maintained as deadly war vessels by all military nations.
  • There will be no wild animals except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated. The horse will have become practically extinct.
  • Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theatres will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient. The instrument bringing these distant scenes to the very doors of people will be connected with a giant telephone apparatus transmitting each incidental sound in its appropriate place. Thus the guns of a distant battle will be heard to boom when seen to blaze, and thus the lips of a remote actor or singer will be heard to utter words or music when seen to move.
  • Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn. By an automatic signal they will connect with any circuit in their locality without the intervention of a “hello girl”.
  • A university education will be free to every man and woman. Several great national universities will have been established.
  • Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. These tubes will collect, deliver and transport mail over certain distances, perhaps for hundreds of miles. They will at first connect with the private houses of the wealthy; then with all homes. Great business establishments will extend them to stations, similar to our branch post-offices of today, whence fast automobile vehicles will distribute purchases from house to house.

Hindsight is, of course, always 20/20. But note that the lack of any reference to global wars and global institutions despite the note in passing about “air ships” being used for warfare.

Conflict Early Warning Blog: One Year On

I started this blog one year ago and it’s been great fun! I owe the Fletcher A/V Club sincere thanks for encouraging me to blog. Little did I know that blogging would so stimulating or that I’d be blogging from the Sudan. I have authored a total of 48 blog posts on conflict early warning and early response.

The Top 10 posts:

  1. Crimson Hexagon: Early Warning 2.0
  2. CSIS PCR: Review of Early Warning Systems
  3. Conflict Prevention: Theory, Police and Practice
  4. New OECD Report on Early Warning
  5. Crowdsourcing and Data Validation
  6. Sri Lanka: Citizen-based Early Warning/Response
  7. Online Searches as Early Warning Indicators
  8. Conflict Early Warning: Any Successes?
  9. Ushahidi and Conflict Early Response
  10. Detecting Rumors with Web-based Text Mining System

I also started the iRevolution blog at the same time and have authored a total of 212 blog posts there. That makes 260 posts in 12 months. Now I know where all the time went!

The Top 10 posts:

  1. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence
  2. The Past and Future of Crisis Mapping
  3. Mobile Banking for the Bottom Billion
  4. Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes
  5. Towards an Emergency News Agency
  6. Intellipedia for Humanitarian Warning/Response
  7. Crisis Mapping Africa’s Cross-border Conflicts
  8. 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation
  9. Digital Resistance: Digital Activism and Civil Resistance
  10. Neogeography and Crisis Mapping Analytics

I look forward to a second year of blogging! Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it!

Patrick Philippe Meier