Technology for Conflict Assessment

Published June 18, 2012
By Krista Hendry
The Failed States Index
One of the greatest challenges in assessing the potential for violent conflict or state collapse is data collection. Despite ten years of constant work to find or develop new ways to collect or create data, there is still much left to be done. Working with partners in the air and on the ground, we are trying to improve our ability to perform assessments with greater efficiency, accuracy, and at levels of granularity that makes the analysis more useful in the design of responses.

The Failed States Index (FSI) is a very high-level view of the world. It is possible to generate the Index each year for the entire world because we allow ourselves to focus on the nation-state. We recognize, however, that areas within each nation-state can be vastly different. We are also combining data for an entire year, and as we all know, the world changes much more dramatically. Sometimes a single event – one perhaps not foreseen even just the day before – can start a series of events that can lead to sudden violence or collapse.

While the FSI has utility, we need to understand the impacts of events around the world faster and better. We need to be able to react more quickly – whether we are a government, a company, a development or aid organization, or just a citizen. Gathering, integrating, and sharing this data and the resulting analysis is a focus of our efforts going forward. We are looking at several potential ways to use new technologies to help with not only better production of analysis but better dissemination. We also want to find ways to share data so others can do their own analysis, focusing on specific issues or areas of interest.

As part of our quest to find new and innovative methods for conflict analysis, we have begun working with DigitalGlobe’s Analysis Center, which has access to real-time and archival satellite imagery captured by DigitalGlobe’s own fleet of satellites that have been made famous for their role in the Satellite Sentinel Project over Sudan and South Sudan. We are exploring these new forms of data to watch human patterns change and understand the impact on potential for conflict, or how a change in patterns may be an indicator of conflict. We also want to see how digital imagery – and data generated from the analysis of it – can be integrated into our data, both that used for the high-level FSI and other more granular analysis.

Working with organizations like Creative Associates, a woman-owned international development organization implementing community-based programs around the world, we also hope to be able to find new ways to collect and distribute both data and analysis. As the Internet and wireless technologies become more common, new ways of working with local communities to empower them with data and learn from them are becoming more possible.

There are also amazing new innovations in social media, which has become so critical in the last couple years for dissident movements. We still need to learn, however, how to turn the large amount of noise that is generated into actual data that can be integrated into existing streams and analyzed. Social media is connecting people all over the world as well as those who could not meet safely in person.

New platforms are also being built every day that help link people with data and analysis. MapStory, for example, allows a global user community to organize all knowledge about the world spatially and temporally to enable “MapStorytelling” as a way to accumulate and improve the global body of knowledge about global dynamics, worldwide, over the course of history. Other organizations are developing software that allows users to share pictures, videos and reports of events more rapidly and are even looking at how to collect new types of data, such as the location and type of graffiti, to improve our understanding of human geography.

When we started producing the FSI in 2005, we had to create our own software, because what we needed simply did not exist. Now, in 2012, we are constantly thrilled to learn of new products and services that do things we could never have previously imagined. When we first started looking at how to partially automate our analysis so we could produce an annual ranking for the world, we found quickly that there were limitations to what we could analyze well. In fact, the FSI represents only a piece of what we believe is necessary to understand to really develop policies and programs to help address the challenges of weak and failing states and increase human resiliency and security.

The FSI looks at the pressures on the states, as these are often event-driven and thus amenable to content analysis or well-covered by quantitative methods. The capacities of a state, however, which we are introducing for the first time in this publication, are more difficult to measure using the current methods we employ and data we find or generate. Though capacities really are the missing piece, a gap we hope to have begun to cover with our new measures, it still remains very much a work-in-progress.

New and innovative technologies for data generation and sharing will certainly be core to our creating, in the course of the next year, more robust methodologies so that we can assess the full range of capacity indicators. We recognize as an organization working on peace and stability that state institutions are the key. But fundamental to the health of state institutions are non-state actors, like the business sector, which drives economic development as the only generators of wealth, or civil society, which organizes and provides a collective voice for community need and concerns. Academic institutions and the media also play critical roles and a country’s present and future can only be understood if we also know about their capacity. We hope to better understand – and measure – the capacity of these actors as we continue to develop and refine our capacity indicators in the future.

The challenges of weak and failing states will not be solved quickly or easily. They will also not be solved by any one sector. It will only be by all sectors working together, creating better understanding and utilizing innovative technologies, that we will be able to improve conflict assessment so we can find ways together to prevent conflict and state failure.