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WikiLeaks data plus math
predict insurgent activity
By Rachel Ehrenberg
Anew advanced weapon may offer guidance on strategy for the war in Afghanistan: math. Using secret U.S. military logs
made public by WikiLeaks, scientists
have created a mathematical simulation
that may help predict the intensity and
whereabouts of future insurgent activity.
The simulation also evaluates its own
predictions, acknowledging that some
events may be impossible to foresee.
Such an approach might help decision
makers better weigh their options, the
researchers say online July 16 in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of
“If the model says there’s a lot of
uncertainty about what’s going to happen in an area, then you might act differently than if you were more certain
that you were going to see an increase
in activity,” says computer scientist
Guido Sanguinetti of the University of
Edinburgh, coauthor of the new study.
Sanguinetti and his colleagues took a
mathematical approach that’s typically
used by epidemiologists to predict the
spread of a virus or disease outbreak. But
instead of using data on the where and
when of newly infected individuals, the
researchers used details from the Afghan
Smoke billows from an Afghan police compound after a 2011 attack by suicide
bombers and gunmen in Kandahar, southwest of Kabul. A new study offers a way
to predict the locations and magnitude of insurgent activity.
War Diary, a blow-by-blow of the conflict
in Afghanistan that was published by the
whistle-blower website WikiLeaks in
2010. The documents contain more than
75,000 logs of military actions, from routine searches to major gunfights.
Data fed to the computer simulation
are represented as coordinates on a map,
generating a visual representation of
how and where in Afghanistan the conflict escalated from 2004 through 2009.
After training the model on the War
Diary data, the team asked it to predict the likelihood and whereabouts of
armed opposition group activity in 2010.
The program fared pretty well: In
Baghlan province, for instance, the
simulation predicted a median increase
of 128 percent in armed opposition
group activity from 2009 to 2010.
The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a
nonprofit group dedicated to protect-
ing aid workers in dangerous regions,
reported that activity in Baghlan actu-
ally rose by 122 percent, from 100
incidents in 2009 to 222 incidents in
2010. The group reported a 19 percent
decrease in insurgent activity in Bada-
khshan province in the northeast; the
simulation predicted a median decrease
of 23 percent. It also gave an 80 percent
probability that there would be between
15 and 85 insurgent attacks in Badakh-
shan in 2010; there were 35.