The sort of conflict dealt with by RiftLand—a war of all against all in countries where central government is light or non-existent—has been particularly characteristic of this part of Africa in recent years. Further north, where states are stronger, urban insurrection of the sort seen at the beginning of the Arab spring is a more common threat. Politicians faced with such uprisings may thus be interested in yet another piece of software, known as Condor, which has been developed by Peter Gloor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Gloor is certainly not in the business of saving the jobs of Middle-Eastern dictators. He is actually a consultant to the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s largest political party. But all politicians in power, whether democrats or dictators, share a distaste for demonstrations and protests on the streets.
Condor works by sifting through data from Twitter, Facebook and other social media, and using them to predict how a public protest will evolve. It does so by performing what Dr Gloor calls “sentiment analysis” on the data.
Sentiment analysis first classifies protesters by their clout. An influential Twitter user, for instance, is one who has many followers but follows few people himself. His tweets are typically upbeat (containing words or phrases such as “great”, “fun”, “funny”, “good time”, “hilarious movie”, “you’ll love” and so forth), are rapidly retweeted, and appear to sway others. In a nod to the methods developed by Google, Dr Gloor refers to this process as “PageRanking for people”.
Having thus ranked protesters, Condor then follows those at the top of the list to see how their output changes. Dr Gloor has found that, in Western countries at least, non-violent protest movements begin to burn out when the upbeat tweets turn negative, with “not”, “never”, “lame”, “I hate”, “idiot” and so on becoming more frequent. Abundant complaints about idiots in the government or in an ideologically opposed group are a good signal of a movement’s decline. Complaints about idiots in one’s own movement or such infelicities as the theft of beer by a fellow demonstrator suggest the whole thing is almost over.
Condor, then, is good at forecasting the course of existing protests. Even better, from the politicians’ point of view, would be to predict such protests before they occur. Not surprisingly, several groups of researchers are trying to do this too.
Aptima, a firm based in Woburn, Massachusetts, is one. Its program, called E-MEME (Epidemiological Modelling of the Evolution of MEssages) uses sentiment analysis to see how opinions and states of mind flow across entire populations, not just activists. It employs data from online news sources, blogs and Twitter, and attempts to rank the “susceptibility” of certain parts of the populace to specific ideas. According to Robert McCormack, the project's chief technologist, E-MEME can determine things as different as which places in Egypt contain people who will care a lot about a border incident with Israel, and which parts of a country most need water in times of drought.
The Worldwide Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (W-ICEWS) project, led by Lockheed Martin, a large American defence contractor, goes even further. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Melinda Morgan of the office of the secretary of defence, in Washington, who is the government’s liaison officer for the project, it can crunch great quantities of data from digital news media, blogs and other websites, and also intelligence and diplomatic reports. It then uses all this to forecast—months in advance—riots, rebellions, coups, economic crises, government crackdowns and international wars. Colonel Morgan calls this process “social radar”.
Conflict forecasters are even joining the open-source bandwagon, in an attempt to improve their software. Last August IARPA, an American-government technology-development agency for the intelligence services, started the Open Source Indicators programme. This finances developers of software that can “beat the news”: forecasting political crises and mass violence in a reliable way. The programme’s manager, Jason Matheny, is now considering the proposals that have come in so far. These range from tracking Wikipedia edits to monitoring traffic with roadside cameras. The only proposals Mr Matheny will not consider are those designed to forecast conflict in America itself (the CIA is not supposed to spy on people in the United States), and those that rely on monitoring particular individuals, whether in America or elsewhere.