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April 7, 2013

Predicting Violence

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U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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Every day there are reports of sectarian violence in Iraq that threaten to tear that country apart. But as this ScienCentral News video shows, a new mathematical model may be able to spot areas of the world that are "powder kegs" of ethnic tension, so that something can be done to head off an explosion of violence.

Dramatic Departure

Today, Iraq and Darfur are shocking examples of violence stemming from differences in ethnicity, religion, or culture. Similar conflicts have claimed 100-million lives during the last century.

Physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute has developed a new computer model that could provide an early-warning system for conflict-prone areas, based solely on where different ethnic groups live. It’s a dramatic departure from traditional analysis, which involves studying underlying social and political causes of ethnic tension.

Bar-Yam and his New England Complex Systems Institute colleagues May Lim (also of Brandeis University) and Richard Metzler (also of MIT) used complex systems concepts to model the behavior of large groups of people.

"There are many ideas about what social, economic, institutional conditions might give rise to violence. Our model does not include that," says Bar-Yam. "It includes only the geographic distribution of the population, and still it makes very successful predictions about where violence takes place. That means that while the other things may play a role, it’s sufficient to consider the spatial distribution."

Map of conflict areas in former Yugoslavia.
image: Yaneer Bar-Yam
They tested their model on a real-world region with a known outcome: the former Yugoslavia, which erupted in ethnic violence in the early 1990s. Using census data taken shortly before the war, they created a map that predicted locations most likely to see conflict. When compared against actual reports of violence, their model matched remarkably well. They also looked at India in the period between 1999 and 2002 which saw outbreaks of violence in Kashmir, Punjab, and areas in the Northeast. Again, the model accurately predicted areas that saw violence during that time.

However, Lily Adhiambo, of the Early Warning and Contingency Planning Section at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, maintains that many conflicts arise because of the disparity between "haves" and "have-nots."

"Causes of conflict," she says, "is more boiled down to economics, and it's covering all this issue of unequal distribution of wealth or resources." Adhiambo was quite intrigued by the model, though. "For once, somebody's looking at numericals as a possible contribution to conflict," she says. "I think it's something that should be looked into."

Oil and Water

Green oil droplets in water collect into larger regions.
image: courtesy Professor Irving Epstein, Brandeis University
The model, reported in the journal Science, has two parts. The first illustrates a phenomenon called coarsening. Like oil in water that gradually clusters into larger regions, ethnic groups tend to segregate themselves. The second part of the model shows that when population areas reach a certain size, violence becomes likely.

"Violence is going to happen when they’re partially separated and the boundaries between them are not very well defined," Bar-Yam explains. "So that each group begins to associate its behavior with this space that they're living in, but the other group is entering that space intermittently, causing friction and leading to a circumstance where there's likely to be violence." The lack of clear boundaries is a key factor in determining where violence will occur, he says.

Bar-Yam says the same principles that allow for prediction also suggest a solution to the conflict: either encourage groups to mix more, or clarify and strengthen boundaries between them. The hope is that it will prevent groups from fighting over shared space. Bar-Yam says that policy-makers must consider many factors, but geographic distribution is an important element that has been overlooked until now.

Adhiambo would like to see it applied to today’s conflict-prone regions. "We are trying to find a solution. We are trying to create a more peaceful world for everybody, so anything that comes up is worth a try."

This research was published in the journal Science, Vol. 316. September 14, 2007, and was funded by the New England Complex Systems Institute and the U.S. Government.

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