Conflict data analysis issues and the dirty Dirty War Index

In the previous post on building bias into your database, I outlined seven modelling tricks to build your preference into the information system. Here, I will look at some of those databases and a tool/calculation built on top of such conflict databases (the ‘dirty war index’).

Conflict databases

The US terrorism incident database at MIPT suffers from most of the afore-mentioned pitfalls, which drove a recently graduated friend, Dr. Fraser Gray, to desperation asking me if I could analyse the numbers (but, alas, the database has some inconsistencies). I have more, official, detail about the design rationale and limitations of the civil war incident databases developed by Weinstein and by Sutton. In his fascinating book Inside Rebellion [1], Weinstein has described his tailor-made incident database in Appendix B; so, although I’m going to comment on the database, I still highly recommend you read the book.

Weinstein applies organsational theory to rebel organisations in civil war settings and tests his hypotheses experimentally against case studies of Uganda, Mozambique, and Peru. As such, his self-made database was made with the following assumption in mind: “civilians are often the primary and deliberate target of combatants in civil wars… Accordingly, an appropriate indicator of the “incidence” of civil war is the use of violence against noncombatant populations.” Translated to the database focus, it is a people-centred database, not, say, target-centred. Not only deaths are counted, but also a range of violations, including mutilation, abduction, detention, looting, and rape, and victim charactersitics with name, age, sex, affilitation and affiliation groups, such as religious leaders, students, occupation of civilian, and traditional authorities (according to Appendix B).

Geography is coded only at a high level—at least, the information provided in chapter 6 that deals with the quantitative data discusses only (aggregated?) rough regions, such as Mozambique’s “north”, “centre” and “south”, but for Sendero Luminoso-Huallaga no sub-regions at all. To its merit, it has a year-by-year breakdown of the incidents, although one has no access to which type of incidents exactlyeven though they are supposed to be in the database. It does not discuss quantitatively the types of arms and the targets; it certainly makes a difference to understand the dynamics of the conflict if, say, targets like water purification plants are blown up or military bases attacked and if sophisticated ‘non-conventional arms’ are used or machetes. If we want to know that, it seems we have to redo the data collection process. No statistical analysis is performed, so that for, e.g., the size of the victim groups we get indications of ‘relatively more’, and barely even percentages or ratios to make cross-comparisons across years or across conflicts but which could have been done based on the stacked-bar charts of the (yet again aggregated) data. The huge amount of incidents marked as “unclear” for Peru only has guessed explanations, due to data collection issues (e.g., for 1987 some 500 “unclear” versus about 40 attributed to Sendero Luminoso-Nacional and 30 government)—try feeding such data into the DWI (see below). The definitions of “civilian” and “non-combatant” are not clear, not even sort of inferable as with Sutton’s database (see below).

Overall, it merely gives a rough idea of some aspects of the examined conflicts, but maybe this already suffices for comparative politics.

UPDATE (21-1-2009): Jeremy Weinstein kindly responded via email, being aware of the aggregations used in the data analysis, because they intended to serve a descriptive role, and pointing me to an effort of more detailed data collection, finer-grained analysis, and online data (in proprietary Strata format) of the conflict in Sierra Leone, which was published in American Political Science Review. That freely available paper, Handing and manhandling civilians in civil war, also gives an indication what the reader can expect of the contents in the book, and has a set of 8 hypotheses that are tested against the data (not all of them could be confirmed).

The Dirty War Index

There are people who build tools upon such conflict databases. Garbage In, Garbage Out? I will highlight one of those tools, which received extensive coverage in PLoS Medicine recently [2,3,4]: being able to calculate a “Dirty War Index” for a variety of parameters that follow the pattern of DWI = \frac{nr\_of\_dirty\_cases}{total\_nr\_of\_cases} \times 100 . The cases and their aggregates to nr of cases come from the conflict’s incidents databases. Go figure. It’s not just that, but one could/would/should assume that the examples Hicks and Spagat give in their paper [3] are to illustrate, but not to invalidate, their DWI approach.

Let us take their first example, the DWIs for the actors in the Colombian civil conflict as the measure \frac{nr\_of\_civilians\_killed}{total\_nr\_of\_ civilians\_killed + combatants\_killed} \times 100 . The ‘guerillas’ (presumably FARC) have a DWI of \frac{2498}{5444} \times 100  = 46, the ‘government forces’ \frac{593}{659} \times 100 = 45 , and the ‘illegal paramilitaries’ (a pleonasm) \frac{6944}{6985} \times 100 = 99 (numbers taken from the simple Colombia conflict database [5]). Hicks and Spagat explain that “Guerrillas rank 2nd in killing absolute numbers of civilians”, as if the government forces deserve a laurel for having the best (closest to 0) DWI—with a mere 1-point margin—and as if paramilitaries are independent of the government whereas it is the norm, rather than the exception, that governments tend to arrange for a third party to do the dirty work for them (with or without external funding) so as to look comparatively good in the international spotlights. Aggregating by ‘opponents of FARC’, we get a DWI of \frac{593+6944}{659+6985} \times 100 = 98.6 , which is substantially more dirty than FARC that cannot be explained away anymore by data collection biases [4]; to put it differently, FARC is in this DWI the proverbial ‘lesser of two evils’, or, if you support their cause then you could say they have good reason to be annoyed with the current violent governance in the country. This also suggest that requiring “recognition in Colombia’s paramilitary demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration process” [3] alone may not be enough to achieve durable peace for Colombians.

The other main illustration is the conflict in Northern Ireland by using two complementary DWIs: “aggressive acts (killing civilians) and endangerment to civilians (by not wearing uniforms)”[1]. The ‘British Security Forces’ (BSF) have a “Civilian mortality DWI” of 52, the ‘Irish Republican Paramilitaries’ (IRP) 36, and the ‘Loyalist paramilitaries’ (LP) 86—note the odd naming and aggregations, e.g., are we talking IRA, or lumping the IRA together with the Real-IRA and Continuity-IRA, and all UFF, LVF…? Consulting the extensive source database, it lists 29 groups. In addition, [3]’s “number of civilian + civilian political activist” are, respectively, 190+738+873=1801, but the source’s data has 1797 civ.+ 58 civ.pol.activists = 1855, and then a series of statuses such as “ex-British army”, “ex-IRA” and so forth, who, while being “ex-” are not real civilians according to the database. Much more data for compiling your preferred DWI and preferred details or aggregates can be found here [6].

The “Attacks without uniform DWI” are “approaches 0” (BSF), “approaches 100” (IRP) and “approaches 100” (LP) without actual values to do the calculation with; nevertheless the vagaries, for the IRP they prefer the adjective “extremely high rate” but for the LP it is only “very high rate”. They try a comparatively long explanation for the nastyness of the IRP, but it is plain that the BSF and LP have the dirtiest civilian DWI and that LP killed most civilians, no matter how one wants to explain it away and dress it up with DWIs (maybe not so coincidentally, the authors are affiliated with UK institutions).

I will leave Hicks and Spagat’s “female mortality DWI” of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the “child casualty DWI” of Chechnya for the interested reader to analyse (including the term ‘unexploded ordnance’ that injured or killed children—by exploding).

Although the idea of multiple DWIs can indeed be interesting to give a rough indication, there is the real danger of misuse due to unfair sanitation of data: it can easily stimulate misinterpretation by showing some neat aggregated numbers without having to assess the source data and by brushing over the reality on the ground that a bean-counting person may not be aware of and more readily can set aside in favour of the aggregated numbers.

Hicks and Spagat do have a section on considerations, but that their two main worked-out examples with Colombia and Northern Ireland are problematic already just proves the point about possible dubious use for one’s own political agenda. Perhaps they would say the same of my alternative rendering being politically coloured, but I do not try to give it a veneer of credibility and advantages of DWIs, just that it is simple to turn around and play with the DWIs to suit one’s preferences, whichever they may be.

UPDATE (5-6-’09): a more comprehensive review of Hicks and Spagat’s paper will be published in the autumn 2009 issue of the Peace & Conflict Review.

[1] Weinstein, Jeremy M. (2007). Inside rebellion—the politics of insurgent violence. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Sondorp E (2008 ) A new tool for measuring the brutality of war. PLoS Med 5(12): e249. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050249

[3] Hicks MH-R, Spagat M (2008 ) The Dirty War Index: A public health and human rights tool for examining and monitoring armed conflict outcomes. PLoS Med 5(12): e243. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050243.

[4] Taback N (2008 ) The Dirty War Index: Statistical issues, feasibility, and interpretation. PLoS Med 5(12): e248. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050248.

[5] The numbers originate from CERAC’s Colombia conflict database as reported in [3]; both Hicks and Spagat are research associates of CERAC; database available after registration, which has substantially less types of information and less explanation than Sutton’s [6] database.

[6] CAIN Web Service as reported in [3]; database freely available, including data, querying, and design and data collection choices.

[1] The latter DWI is theoretically problematic, because the distinction between actors who use violence and their supporters in the population (be it passively or actively with food, shelter, and logistics) is often not that clear, and off-duty soldiers are not necessarily automatically civilians; but the argument is long. Hicks and Spagat’s table 3 has a longer list than just this item, and I shall not digress further on the topic here.


IFIP TC9 workshop on ICT uses in war and not-peace

I had the honour of being allowed to attend the IFIP TC 9 (“relationship between Computers and Society”) Workshop on “ICT uses in Warfare and the Safeguarding of Peace” yesterday, which was held at the CSIR Convention Center in Pretoria, South Africa, that covered an array of topics, such as cyber threats, network warfare, ICT for command & control and for socio-tech, and militarizing the FIFA Worldcup 2010, summarized further below and sandwiched between general comments on IT and the military.

Pre-workshop event and considerations

Beforehand, there had occurred some attempts to ‘massage’ me, in that one of the organisers already had figured out that, possibly, I would not be interested in the second part of the workshop that would focus on ICT for destruction and damage control, and I had participated in a meeting with the CSIR Department of peace, Safety & Security (DPSS) earlier in the week, of which they thought I might be interested—in contributing my knowledge to enhance, as it unfolded during that meeting, the PsyOps section as part of Information Warfare. PsyOps is an abbreviation for Psychological Operations, which is a euphemism for (1) torturing detainees to beyond breaking point, which does not leave physical scars so proving it in court is more difficult[n1], (2) mind manipulation of the masses-at-home to swallow all sorts of things that either violate the country’s constitution (magna carta, whichever), or UN declaration of Human Rights, or fall under plain propaganda to distort reality. (3) mentally preparing and patching up soldiers for battlefield operations. Not surprisingly, a psychologist signing up for PsyOps has to de-register from the list of accredited psychologists (at least, in South Africa they have to).

Unfortunately also not surprisingly, some of the computer science attendees of that meeting were not against hooking up with the DPSS for enhancing PsyOps; after all, PsyOps has project money to give away. Researchers and engineers hooking up with third parties—be it the military or industry that produces for the military—is a well-known thing (barely an issue) in computer science and engineering, as well as in other disciplines (though to a lesser extent), for there is plenty of money to burn, unlike government funding (in Italy, the Berlusconi government even has reduced the amount of project funds, and they were already at the bottom in the OECD %GDP raking).
Setting aside the US, of which hearsay says that at least 80% of computer science research is funded by the military or military-industrial complex, I could equally take an example in Europe, though not exemplary for all of the European Union member states (!!): some history [1], an analysis that shows that 31% of UK government funding goes to military type of projects [2], and, more recently, Nature spent another article on the topic of which the title says quite a lot, being “UK Universities in bed with military” [3] where it is not just the amount of collaboration but also the secrecy around it that raises several issues, and yet another, scholarly, paper that looks at the links between universities and the military with its focus on destruction [4]. Regarding the latter, it is not necessarily the case that the military focuses on destruction. This is partially due, or thanks to, the UN Peace Support Operations (PSOs), which include also peacekeeping and peacebuilding. In the case of the above-mentioned DPSS meeting, it is intended, however, to be the peace making and peace enforcing type of PSOs—“those that are actually war”, to quote organizer Leenen.

The workshop

Now, after the ‘massaging’ attempts earlier in the week, let us take a look at the IFIP workshop on war and not-peace, which, in fact, does not suit well with the TC9 description on computers and society—that what war destroys, among other things; hence, we would have a ‘TC9 on computers and anything as long as it is not society’.
Anyhow, the first stream in the morning was about socio-technical aspects, which was content-wise rather behind on available theory of PSOs. Noteworthy was Col. Xaba’s correction of a comment by Maj. Dr. Falkson’s talk about emotional factors in PSOs (including a slide on “African warrior role exposure” and differences between “war fighting” and PSO-er). Falkson showed a photo of blue-helmets in a crowded street, saying that this gives high stress to the soldier/peacekeeper because it is difficult to identify the enemy. Correctly so, Col. Xaba pointed out that in PSOs, and peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations in particular, there are no enemies from the viewpoint of a blue-helmet; at least: according to PSO doctrine there none. But, as it seemed, he was the only defence person who had a notion of PSO principles. Ben du Toit of the Defence Institute talked about cultural issues, without realizing he is well-embedded in one himself, being the military tunnel vision that states that resorting to violent ‘solutions’ is unavoidable. On the flipside, he is aware of ICT4Peace, analysed the notion of the “cultural smartie box”, and added the relatively new term ethnocomputing. Prof. von Solms, IFIP president, looked at critical information infrastructure (CII) management and tried to get the message across through scaremongering that CII failure can “cause” war. It might help in being the last straw, but the occasional temporal inconvenience of, say, denial of service attacks on government websites or ATM machines is unlikely going to cause a revolution on its own (I’m not asking you to disprove this assumption!). Simon Nare elaborated more on a “Computer Security Incident Response Team”, though upon probing the defence people as to their interest, Col. Coetzee was only “taking note of the information”. A buyers market?

Lt. Col. Theron demonstrated his joys regarding the chaos of operational battlespace visually, with battle photos, and moving and swishing figurines in the ppt presentation. The comment aside on the Information Warfare layers—being the communications grid, physical network, command and control, and doctrine—that doctrine is often copied from the US one, which therefore makes the non-US defence forces vulnerable [know thy enemy], was not lost, neither the sarcasm of the ‘alternative’ US OODA loop (Orientate, Overreact, Destroy, and Apologise). All in all, they seem to have a rather large information integration problem, which was discussed in more detail by Harris who is working on an “integrated development environment” (IDE) to hook up hardware and software across Joint Operations divisions. There is still a lot of work to do in that area. There is a basic version of this IDE as “command and control environment” already, which a gullible CSIR systems engineer, Venter, would like to test during “big events”, such as the FIFA Worldcup, to be held in South Africa in 2010—after all, a world cup is just like war and one surely would need to “have a 3-block war approach”, according to Venter. He even foresaw soldiers patrolling and interacting with fans, hooligans, and more of those terror and crime suspects. So, at the end, I could not resist throwing in a few comments, by first asking if he actually realized he was trying to militarize a civilian event, upon which he drew a blank. He’s been indoctrinated effectively, I suppose. Arrogant Maj. Gen. (Ret) Dr. M. du Toit jumped in to try to lecture me in a condescending tone that the defence is only part of the whole command and control operation—uhh, not of the event management, cross-organizational coordination, and co-operation?! It may well be the case it is one of the 7 pillars—and hopefully they all did get the message that soldiers harassing soccer fans isn’t a good idea at all and, in fact, is asking for trouble—but my point was that the gullible systems engineer was brainwashed. His boss, Harris, also took a more nuanced position, in a civilised, humane way. Perhaps the “Maj. Gen. (Ret) Dr.” is the cause of insistence on unidirectional chat against a young, female, civilian researcher; either way, it does not make him suitable for non-WarDefence interactions and events.

Last, Naude and Voster had nice reflections on trying to define Information Warfare. They discussed the lack of a widely accepted definition and the “US and UK-dominated wikipedia definition of Information Warfare” that includes “…propaganda or disinformation…”, and, according to Naude, most of the Information Warfare material comes from the USA, whereas it is unknown what other countries are doing, if anything, other than copying the US; hence, the current wiki definition might as well be recursive, in that the definition and related material itself is disinformation. The fantastic “sense making” might as well be, as it effectively demands, as a minimum (!), that most, if not all, artificial intelligence problems have to be solved to get a “sense making environment” up and running.

As for a next time of an IFIP TC9 WG 9.4 workshop, to have the “…safeguarding of peace”-part of the workshop scope properly included, as well as to have more ‘entertainment’ during the workshop by inviting people with more diverse backgrounds, the organisers may want to consider sourcing people from, among others, ICT4peace for engineering aspects and the UN-mandated UPeace for peace education and research to provide a balance that, in theory, the defence forces ought to have provided already, given that “war fighting” is only one of the five pillars (in the South African constitution, at least). In addition, it would be a rather dubious ‘honour’ and legacy of the organisers and current IFIP president (Prof. Solms from South Africa—the first African IFIP president) to be the ones who took the lead in institutionalizing an “ICT uses in warfare” Work Group in IFIP. Last, given that IFIP events are, as far as I know, civilian events, there ought not be a perceived need to instruct the defence people[n2] that one of the organizers was the “commander in chief for the day”—who, if that was not clear enough already, was ‘overlooked’ by Col. Xaba as counting as a woman because “her dress was too straight”, i.e. not feminine and sexy enough; proper education—or should I say, indoctrination—conformant to the now supposedly multifunctional defence forces is an area were there is still plenty of work to do.

UPDATE (Aug 11, 2008): the proceedings and presentations etc of the workshop are online now, in case you wnat to have a look at it yourself.

Last, but not least

Clearly, the whole issue of responsibility—is the scientist who discovers x responsible, or the engineer that uses it in a malicious way, or the government that deploys it, or the masses that do not complain—and the ‘what do you want to do with your knowledge’ is not new at all, but after the fall of the Berlin wall it got pushed to behind the scenes, whilst quietly a growing amount of money for military research is being made available. Some people do stand up, even get organised in a collective of scientists for global responsibility, but, thus far and in the vast majority of cases, the siren of short-term research funding wins it over any moral obligation to use knowledge responsibly.
Should one reform the scientists, engineers, research funding policy, or wake up the masses? This ‘million dollar question’ is out for a long time already, but that does not mean one can stick one’s head in the sand and take blood-stained research money until there is a final solution. Of course, with that kind of research funding in your pocket, you could say “In research, I don’t do politics and I don’t take sides…”, but that just means you are indifferent who gets harassed, bugged, occupied, tortured, and killed more efficiently; hence, by the same logic—despite how implausible it might seem now—it might just be used against you or your loved ones some day, too, so you can swallow the bitter pill of reaping what you sow.
Or you can take the other pill, and use your knowledge constructively to, say, use computers for benefit the environment, facilitate biosciences to understand nature, for stability of society—of an open society—or at least for the post-war reconstruction efforts to clean up the disasters that warmongers leave behind and contribute to planting the seeds for a, or nurturing a budding, stable society to achieve positive peace.

[1] book review of “Surviving the Swastika; Scientific Research in Nazi Germany” by Kristie Macrakis. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993. 280 pages.
[2] Ball, Philip. (2005). Science lobby urges UK to divert funds from military fields. Nature, 433: 184.
[3] Brumfiel, Geoff. (2008). UK Universities in bed with military. Nature, 453: 967.
[4] Chris Langley. (2008). Universities, the military and the means of destruction in the United Kingdom. The Economics of Peace and Security Journal, 3(1): 49-55.
[5] Forrest, Drew. (2008). The nature of greatness. Mail & Guardian, 24(29): 14.


note1: To give an example of antique, early days PsyOps experiments: Nelson Mandela was “swinging a pick in a lime quarry, half-blinded by the glare”, for no purpose whatsoever, each day, for 13 years in a row, in an attempt to crush the morale of political prisoners [5]. Those things are calculable and can be simply demonstrated by physical damage to the eyes, unlike, say, humiliation, severe sleep deprivation (which distorts the sense of what’s real and what not and make you go crazy), and the like.

note2: Once a soldier always a soldier, 24/7, regardless if s/he participates in non-military events?