Mining Social Networks – From retailing to U.S. counterterrorism

05Sep10

The ability to analyse social connections is proving increasingly useful.

Where is network analysis headed? The next step beyond mapping influence between individuals is to map the influences between larger segments of society. A forecasting model developed by Venkatramana Subrahmanian of the University of Maryland does just that. Called SOMA Terror Organization Portal, it analyses a wide range of information about politics, business and society in Lebanon to predict, with surprising accuracy, rocket attacks by the country’s Hizbullah militia on Israel.

Attacks tend to increase, for example, as more money from Islamic charities flows into Lebanon. Attacks decrease during election years, particularly as more Hizbullah members run for office and campaign energetically. By the middle of 2010 SOMA was sucking up data from more than 200 sources, many of them newspaper websites. The number of sources will have more than doubled by the end of the year.

Once these societal networks of influence can be accurately mapped, they can be used to promote the spread of particular ideas—those that support stability and democracy, for example. Last year America’s army, which jointly funds SOMA with the air force, began disbursing about $80m in five-year research grants for network analysis to promote democracy and national security. An authoritarian government, for instance, may have difficulties slowing the spread of a new idea in a certain medium—say, internet chatter about a book that explains how corruption undermines job creation. Diplomatic services can use this information to help ideas spread. Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who advises intelligence agencies on democracy-promotion analytics, says diplomatic services are mapping the “tipping point” when ideas go mainstream in spite of government repression.

SPADAC, a firm based in McLean, Virginia, performs such analyses on Egypt and other countries in Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. Clients include the United States, Mexico and various diplomatic services. Riots, bloody elections and crackdowns, among other things, can be forecast with improving accuracy by crunching data on food production, unemployment, drug busts, home evictions and slum growth detected in satellite images. Mark Dumas, the head of SPADAC, notes that societies with longstanding and strong social and business ties abroad weather change well. In relatively closed countries, like Egypt, rapid shifts in social networks can trigger upheaval, he says. Last year SPADAC’s revenue reached $19m; this year it will exceed $27m.

Country analyses have great potential in peacekeeping and counterinsurgency operations, according to Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She is developing a societal model of Sudan with a team of about 40 researchers. Foreign aid workers and diplomats frequently stumble in Sudan because they fail to work out which tribal and political leaders they should work with, and how.

Ms Carley’s model, known as ORA, analyses a decade of data on such things as weather, land and water disputes, cabinet reshuffles, reactions to corruption, court cases, economic activity and changes in tribal geographic maps. Within the information that emerges are lists of the locals most likely to co-operate with Westerners, with details of the role each would best play. This depth of insight, a demonstration of the power of network analysis today, will only grow.