Friday, October 3, 2008

Interesting Visualization Of Pre-Election Polls ( has created an interesting scheme for visualizing poll data for the November 2008 US Presidential Election. Along the left hand side (the rows) are the various polling services such as the Associated Press and the New York Times. Across the top (the columns) are the 50 states sorted by whether they are considered strongly Democrat or strongly Republican with toss up states in the middle.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fast And Frugal Conflict Early Warning In Sub-Saharan Africa (Original Research)

Now that AFRICOM has officially stood up, there is likely to be a much greater emphasis on understanding the culture, economics, politics and seemingly inevitable conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa. While a number of authoritative sources are busy cranking out some really good products on Africa, simple, effective conflict early warning systems seem to be in short supply.

With this as background, one of Mercyhurst's graduate students, Bradley Perry, recently took a stab at trying to come up with such a system in his thesis, "Fast and Frugal Conflict Early Warning in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of Intelligence Analysis."

Bradley was in a unique position to write this thesis. In the first place, he came to us a bit later in life than most grad students, having spent a number of years in Ghana. In addition, while technically here, he completed his strategic intelligence project (on local reactions to a planned expansion of a national park) from a tent in Malawi. He was in Kenya about the same time as the recent upheavals there and is now working for iJet (where he was a member of the iJet team that recently took a share of the prize at the ODNI's Open Source Conference).

Riffing on Gerd Gigerenzer's research (outlined in his fascinating book, Gut Feelings) regarding "fast and frugal" evaluative systems, Bradley went looking for "good enough" indicators of potential conflict that he could chain together to form a predictive model. He found three promising indicators in the literature, political freedom, ethnic homogeneity, and income inequality, and proceeded to build exactly what he wanted to build -- a fast and frugal model for conflict prediction for Sub-Saharan Africa.

He tested the model on previous conflicts and got reasonably good results. The model tended to overpredict conflict in some cases but never failed to predict confict where one ultimately occurred. He was also able to rank order the potential conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa by likelihood. Using recent data and plugging it into his model, he believes that, from most likely to least likely, Swaziland, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Cameroon, Cote D'Ivoire, Eritrea, Chad, Guinea and Sudan will see violent conflict (See the map below from the thesis).

Beyond the model and the predictions it makes, the literature review on other early warning systems concerning Africa and on the validity of various indicators that predict conflict is definitely worth the read. It is an excellent work and, if interested, you can download the entire thesis here.

Related Posts:
Non-State Actors In Sub-Saharan Africa
Security Sector Reform In Sub-Saharan Africa

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Push Vs. Pull Sources And Killer Intelligence Apps (Indiscriminate Intelligence)

I had a nice talk with the good people at Laancor this morning (They have an interesting plain language search product called QUADRA that seems worth a look) and the discussion made me reflect (in the random, almost indiscriminate, way I think about this stuff ) on the nature of intelligence sources and how to describe them.

Of course, there are many ways to describe a source (not the least of which is along the lines of a traditional INT). One of the most useful ways to think about collection generally and sources specifically, however, is whether the source pushes information to the intelligence professional or whether the intelligence professional has to pull information from the source. Subscribing to a magazine or an email-based list are both good examples of push sources. In both cases, the information source pushes the information to the intelligence professional. The job of the intelligence professional then becomes one of filtering through the information to find bits and pieces that are relevant.

One of the most powerful features of the internet is its ability to push mounds of potentially relevant data to intelligence professionals. This has become particularly true since the advent of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. This feature of virtually all modern internet sites with dynamic content allows users to subscribe to particular feeds and have them sent directly to their email inboxes or to an RSS feed reader, such as or Google Reader, in order to manage the influx of information. Modern services such as these allow users to tap into a variety of information sources including traditional news outlets but also social networks and personal and professional blogs.

Pull sources require effort on the part of the collector to acquire. Typically the collector must search for and identify a pull source and then attempt to make "contact" (though this contact might be as fleeting as clicking on a hyperlink) with that source in order to get the information necessary.

The question itself determines much of the difficulty inherent in collecting from a pull source. An easy question, such as the number of telephone lines in a foreign country can be pulled from a variety of sources including encyclopedias, the CIA World Factbook or the International Telecommunications Union’s database. A more difficult question, such as the specific brand name of the equipment purchased by a specific telephone company in a foreign country, would require a more specific pull source.

As a result, operational security is a much more important consideration, generally, with pull sources than with push sources. A specific question to a sensitive pull source is very likely to generate the question, “Why are YOU so interested in this?” from the source. The mere asking of a question, might, in this way, reveal or even compromise some of your own organization’s plans.

Push sources are generally easier to manage than pull sources. Getting websites, listening devices or agents to push information ensures that the intelligence unit is staying ‘in the loop”, that potentially relevant information is coming into the unit in a regular stream and that the main problem is sorting the wheat from the chaff. This, in turn, allows the intelligence unit to better focus its collection efforts on pull sources for information that is outside of the routine information flows and to manage the oftentimes considerable operational security risks associated with the most sensitive of these sources.

What struck me is that I could not think of a single system that dealt as effectively with push sources as Google Reader AND as effectively with pull sources as Zotero COMBINED with an easy storage, search and retreival function like Scrapbook AND a citation management system (think Zotero again). I think the first company that does this will have a killer app on their hands.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Funnies: If SEALS Were Issued Rubber Band Guns... (YouTube Via Danger Room)

I have written about the awe inspiring power of a really well designed rubber band gun before, but the model in the video below, with its rugged design and all weather, night ops, hand-held capabilities, needs to be seen to be believed...