Tag Archives: #PopTech2011

Applying Earthquake Physics to Conflict Analysis

I really enjoyed speaking with Captain Wayner Porter whilst at PopTech 2011 last week. We both share a passion for applying insights from complexity science to different disciplines. I’ve long found the analogies between earthquakes and conflicts intriguing. We often talk of geopolitical fault lines, mounting tensions and social stress. “If this sounds at all like the processes at work in the Earth’s crust, where stresses build up slowly to be released in sudden earthquakes … it may be no coincidence” (Buchanan 2001).

To be sure, violent conflict is “often like an earthquake: it’s caused by the slow accumulation of deep and largely unseen pressures beneath the surface of our day-to-day affairs. At some point these pressures release their accumulated energy with catastrophic effect, creating shock waves that pulverize our habitual and often rigid ways of doing things…” (Homer-Dixon 2006).

But are fore shocks and aftershocks in social systems really as discernible as well? Like earthquakes, both inter-state and internal wars actually occur with the same statistical pattern (see my previous blog post on this). Since earthquakes and conflicts are complex systems, they also exhibit emergent features associated with critical states. In sum, “the science of earthquakes […] can help us understand sharp and sudden changes in types of complex systems that aren’t geological–including societies…” (Homer-Dixon 2006).

Back in 2006, I collaborated with Professor Didier Sornette and Dr. Ryan Woodard from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) to assess whether a mathematical technique developed for earthquake prediction might shed light on conflict dynamics. I presented this study along with our findings at the American Political Science Association (APSA) convention last year (PDF). This geophysics technique, “superposed epoch analysis,” is used to identify statistical signatures before and after earthquakes. In other words, this technique allows us to discern whether any patterns are discernible in the data during foreshocks and aftershocks. Earthquake physicists work from global spatial time series data of seismic events to develop models for earthquake prediction. We used a global time series dataset of conflict events generated from newswires over a 15-year period. The graph below explains the “superposed epoch analysis” technique as applied to conflict data.


The curve above represents a time series of conflict events (frequency) over a particular period of time. We select arbitrary threshold, such as “threshold A” denoted by the dotted line. Every peak that crosses this threshold is then “copied” and “pasted” into a new graph. That is, the peak, together with the data points 25 days prior to and following the peak is selected.

The peaks in the new graph are then superimposed and aligned such that the peaks overlap precisely. With “threshold A”, two events cross the threshold, five for “threshold B”. We then vary the thresholds to look for consistent behavior and examine the statistical behavior of the 25 days before and after the “extreme” conflict event. For this study, we performed the computational technique described above on the conflict data for the US, UK, Afghanistan, Columbia and Iraq.

Picture 4Picture 5Picture 6

The foreshock and aftershock behaviors in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be similar. Is this because the conflicts in both countries were the result of external intervention, i.e., invasion by US forces (exogenous shock)?

In the case of Colombia, an internal low intensity and protracted conflict, the statistical behavior of foreshocks and aftershocks are visibly different from those of Iraq and Afghanistan. Do the different statistical behaviors point to specific signature associated with exogenous and endogenous causes of extreme events? Does one set of behavior contrast with another one in the same way that old wars and new wars differ?

Are certain extreme events endogenous or exogenous in nature? Can endogenous or exogenous signatures be identified? In other words, are extreme events just part of the fat tail of a power law due to self-organized criticality (endogeneity)? Or is catastrophism in action, extreme events require extreme causes outside the system (exogeneity)?

Another possibility still is that extreme events are the product of both endo-genous and exogenous effects. How would this dynamic unfold? To answer these questions, we need to go beyond political science. The distinction between responses to endogenous and exogenous processes is a fundamental property of physics and is quantified as the fluctuation-dissipation theorem in statistical mechanics. This theory has been successfully applied to social systems (such as books sales) as a way to help understand different classes of causes and effects.

Questions for future research: Do conflict among actors in social systems display measurable endogenous and exogenous behavior? If so, can a quantitative signature of precursory (endogenous) behavior be used to help recognize and then reduce growing conflict? The next phase of this research will be to apply the above techniques to the conflict dataset already used to examine the statistical behavior of foreshocks and aftershocks.

The Mathematics of War: On Earthquakes and Conflicts

A conversation with my colleague Sinan Aral at PopTech 2011 reminded me of some earlier research I had carried out on the mathematics of war. So this is a good time to share some of the findings from this research. The story begins some 60 years ago, when British physicist Lewis Fry Richardson found that international wars follow what is called a power law distribution. A power law distribution relates the frequency and “magnitude” of events. For example, the Richter scale, relates the size of earthquakes to their frequency. Richardson found that the frequency of international wars and the number of causalities each produced followed a power law.

More recently, my colleague Erik-Lars Cederman sought to explain Richardson’s findings in his 2003 peer-reviewed publication “Modeling the Size of Wars: From Billiard Balls to Sandpiles.” However, Lars used an invalid statistical technique to test for power law distributions. In 2005, I began collaborating with Pro-fessors Neil Johnson and Michael Spagat on related research after I came across their fascinating co-authored study that tested casualty distributions in new wars (internal conflicts) for power laws. Though he was not a co-author on the 2005 study, my colleague Sean Gourely presented this research at TED in 2009.

In any case, I invited Michael to present his research at The Fletcher School in the Fall of 2005 to generate interest here. Shortly after, I suggested to Michael that we test whether conflict events, in addition to casualties, followed a power law distribution. I had access to an otherwise proprietary dataset on conflict events that spanned a longer time period than the casualty datasets that he and Neils were working off. I also suggested we try to test whether casualties from natural disasters follow a power law distribution.

We chose to pursue the latter first and I submitted an abstract to the 2006 American Political Science Association (APSA) conference to present our findings. Soon after, I was accepted to the Santa Fe Institute’s Complex Systems Summer Institute for PhD students and took the opportunity to pursue my original research in testing conflict events for power law distributions with my colleague Dr. Ryan Woodard.

The APSA paper, presented in August 2006, was entitled “Natural Disasters, Casualties and Power Laws:  A Comparative Analysis with Armed Conflict” (PDF). Here is the paper’s abstract and findings:

Power-law relationships, relating events with magnitudes to their frequency, are common in natural disasters and violent conflict. Compared to many statistical distributions, power laws drop off more gradually, i.e. they have “fat tails”. Existing studies on natural disaster power laws are mostly confined to physical measurements, e.g., the Richter scale, and seldom cover casualty distributions. Drawing on the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) International Disaster Database, 1980 to 2005, we find strong evidence for power laws in casualty distributions for all disasters combined, both globally and by continent except for North America and non-EU Europe. This finding is timely and gives useful guidance for disaster preparedness and response since natural catastrophes are increasing in frequency and affecting larger numbers of people.  We also find that the slopes of the disaster casualty power laws are much smaller than those for modern wars and terrorism, raising an open question of how to explain the differences. We show that many standard risk quantification methods fail in the case of natural disasters.


Dr. Woodard and I presented our research on power laws and conflict events at SFI in June 2006. We produced a paper in August of that year entitled “Concerning Critical Correlations in Conflict, Cooperation and Casualties” (PDF). As the title implies, we also tested whether cooperative events followed a power law. As far as I know, we were the first to test conflict events not to mention cooperative events for power laws. In addition, we looked at conflict/cooperation (C/C) events in Western countries.

The abstract and some findings are included below:

Knowing that the number of casualties of war are distributed as a power law and given a rich data set of conflict and cooperation (C/C) events, we ask: Are there correlations among C/C events? Is there a correlation between C/C events and war casualties? Can C/C data be used as proxy for (potentially) less reliable casualty data? Can C/C data be used in conflict early warning systems? To begin to answer these questions we analyze the distribution of C/C event data for the period 1990–2004 in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Switzerland, UK and USA. We find that the distributions of individual C/C event types scale as power laws, but only over approximately a single decade, leaving open the possibility of a more appropriate fit (for which we have not yet tested). However, the average exponent of the power law (2.5) is the same as that found in recent studies of casualties of war. We find low levels of correlations between C/C events in Iraq and Afghanistan but not in the other countries studied. We find that the distribution of the sum of all conflict or cooperation events scales exponentially. Finally, we find low levels of correlations between a two year time series of casualties in Afghanistan and the corresponding conflict events.


I’m looking to discuss all this further with Sinan and learning more about his fascinating area of research.

The Best of PopTech2011 in Tweets and Pics

@CauseGlobal: Zolli opens PopTech2011 , A World ReBalancing:
“We are not in Kansas, nor are we in Oz.
We are in the whirlwind”

@eileenlambert: Tablet in US $300, tablet in India $35.
Eastern countries are innovating
for radical affordability.

@storylaura: the rural poor only exist as numbers.
by taking pictures they are removed from anonymity.
Shahidul Alam

@rperezzz: At PopTech2011 @shahidul: introduced term “The Majority World” – better than third world. I don’t want to be third of anything.

@SarahNelson: Check out majorityworld.com to see the work of photographers from developing nations

@frogdesign: American dream is alive and well –
just not in U.S -it is in India. -Anand G.

@dgilford: “Destiny is something you make rather than inherit.” @AnandWrites on India’s revolution against tradition of “know your place

@rperezzz: PopTech2011: @AnandWrites :In India, we-centric societies
are moving toward me-centric societies.

@thedelk: “China’s economic dominance is more imminent, larger in magnitude, and broader in scope than is currently believed.”

@wlabar: “By 2030 there will be a G1 – China” – Arvind Subramanian

@priyaparker: Cover of @arvindsubraman‘s book #eclipse is photo of
Obama bowing to a fully-standing Hu.

@brainpicker: Ooh! @PopTech launches fantastic new iPad app,
visualizing the World Rebalancing theme j.mp/oUY853

@artate: check out @unglobalpulse piece in the new @poptech ipad app:
mobile surveys to get a pulse of the planet http://bit.ly/pdwKRm


@poptech: “Rebalancing is not something you do once,
it’s a way of life” -@StephanieCoontz

@rperezzz: Countries most resistant to women’s rights are countries where women have least access to labor force, says @StephanieCoontz

@xtinem: Coontz #PopTech2011 “US is dead last of all western countries
in work family policies”

@storylaura: I used to say US neanderthal in family/work policy. I’ve studied Neanderthals & they took great family care. Stephanie Coontz 

@storylauraIf we redefine gender to include women’s right to work,
we must redefine work to include workers’ rights to family life.

@bookpickings: Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy – intriguing new book by Robert Neuwirth http://j.mp/pIXUh0

@AnandWrites: 1.8 billion people, half of world workers,
work off the books in informal economy: Robert Neuwirth

@dgilford: Informal economy is profitable: avg.
Lagos street shoe seller has higher margin than Payless Shoe Stores.
-Robert Neuwith

priyaparker: @nils_gilman predicts rise of “survival entrepreneurship”
in places like Greece, Egypt, Syria

@poptech: “Reminders that we’re not masters of the universe.”
– President of Iceland on the events of past decade

@AnandWrites: How Iceland dealt with its crisis so different from US,
acc. to president. He says they purged all the people responsible

@brainpicker: “Bank failure should not become the responsibility of
the people.” The president of Iceland tells it like it is

@AnandWrites: “What we are now seeing is people power on its purest form”: Iceland president on power of social media

@storylaura: protests and action in Iceland successful because
1) mobilized thru internet
2) demands concrete and measurable.
Prez Grimson

@JMathewAllen: Pres of Iceland Social Media has empowered the people
and made institutions a “sideshow”

@AnandWritesPrez: When Iceland had financial crisis, China was more helpful than West. He hosts more delegations from China than Europe.

@poptechAnnouncing PopTech Reykjavik 2012: Toward Resilience,
June 27-29, 2012 http://poptech.org/iceland

@PatrickMeier: On the Role of Technology in Building Resilient Societies http://tinyurl.com/3aw4tsb

@wlabar: Best estimate by IPCC is an increase in temp. of 1.8 to 4C

@AnandWrites2.7 billion humans have no access to financial services,
even merely to save: Bhagwan Chowdhry http://pic.twitter.com/beNS0bot

@AnandWritesCellphones will become the banks for the poor

@rperezzz: PopTech2011 Social Innovation Fellow Rose Goslinga takes stage.
“I insure the rains” – micro-insurance for Kenyan farmers.

@brainpicker: “850,000 girls in Kenya miss school because
they don’t have sanitary pads.”

@ZanaAfrica: Spread the word: pads + health education
can break cycles of poverty for girls.

@rperezzz: I ❤ Rothberg’s PopTech2011 preso title: High Speed DNA Sequencing: Outbreaks, Honey Bees, Neanderthals, Watson, Moore and Your Genome.

@deliciousblur: High speed genome sequencing offers a new way
to develop therapeutic drugs

@storylaura: It’s okay to be down, it’s a chance to step back and say,
“maybe we did it wrong.” Rothman

@storylaura: By sequencing Neaderthal DNA we learned ~200 places different
btwn human and Neanderthal and chimpanzee. Cool! Rothman
@ConnectMinds: Did you know that the current spacesuit weighs 140 kilos?
MIT’s Dava Newman is out to make things slimmer and more mobile
@audreylinnloves: imagine using a space suit to help kids with cerebral palsy partake in day to day activities
@colincolin: “Maybe the future of science will be in creating puzzles,
then handling them to the world to solve.” – Adrien Treuille
@jdsutterFoldIt game creator: “We’ve in fact crowdsourced the entire scientific method, from hypothesis to experiment to results”

@brainpicker: Wow. 6 months into Eterna experiment
the worst player design was better than
the best computer design. http://j.mp/pBSq2g

@patrickmeier: The next frontier: time-critical #crowdsolving

@brainpicker: “Crowdsourcing has the potential to democratize the economics
and the joys of basic science.”
@ChristieNic: CDC is going to do real time #crowdsourcing to find solutions during next disease outbreak. (wow!) —Rothberg

@rperezzz: PopTech2011 Social Innovation Fellow Michael Murphy from @MASSDesignLab talks about buildings that heal. twitpic.com/739o8n