Can Algorithms Predict Political Unrest? These Data Scientists Believe So

The Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department are already using the technology.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Who can forget the attack on Capital last January 6th? For those who do remember it well, there is an urgency to do something to avoid it ever happening again. One way to do that is to predict these events before they happen just like you can predict weather patterns.

Some data scientists believe they can achieve exactly that, according to The Washington Post“We now have the data — and opportunity — to pursue a very different path than we did before,” said Clayton Besaw, who helps run CoupCast, a machine-learning-driven program based at the University of Central Florida that predicts coups for a variety of countries.

This type of predictive modeling has been around for a while but has mostly focused on countries where political unrest is far more common. Now, the hope is that it can be redirected to other nations to help prevent events like that of January 6th. And so far, the firms working in this field have been quite successful.

The nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), another organization involved in this type of work according to the Post, warned in October of 2020 that there was a potential risk of an attack on a federal building.

“People will see threats like we see the fronts of a storm — not as publicly, maybe, but with a lot of the same results. There’s a lot of utility for this here at home," said Philip Schrodt, one of the fathers of conflict-prediction.

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Now, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department have already begun using artificial intelligence to track unrest overseas, but the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have yet to get on board. Supporters of the new tech, however, argue that the organizations should reconsider.

“It’s not perfect, and it can be expensive,” said Sheldon Himelfarb, chief executive of PeaceTech, a lab that works to reduce violent conflict by using technology, media, and data to accelerate and scale peacebuilding efforts. “But there’s enormous unrealized potential to use data for early warning and action. I don’t think these tools are just optional anymore.”