Supercomputer forecasts political unrest

Posted by Emma Woollacott

A supercomputer at the University of Tennessee could have predicted the location of Osama Bin Laden to within 125 miles through analysis of the mood of international news stories and the geographical locations they mentioned.

Kalev Leetaru of the University of Illinois fed more than 100 million articles from the last 30 years into the University of Tennessee SGI Altix supercomputer, known as Nautilus.

'Automated sentence mining' examined the incidence of emotive words such as 'terrible' or 'good', while locations mentioned were converted into geographical coordinates.

A network of trillions of relationships was created by combining the two.

"Monitoring these qualitiative aspects of news coverage provides substantial benefits over the traditional quantitative political science event database approach. An event database can only capture that a bombing took place, but a church bombing in one country might result only in condemnations, while in another it might push it over the edge to revolt," says Leetaru.

"Measuring the global news tone essentially conducts a passive 'poll' of the press across the world, summarizing their combined views on the likely outcome of the event, recording whether a bombing results in only a few isolated factual reports, or widespread extreme negativity."

And, says Leetaru, when applied to the issue of where Bin Laden was hiding, the results pin down his position to a relatively small area of of northern Pakistan, just 125 miles wide. Meanwhile, most experts weer suggesting that he was hiding out in Afghanistan.

Similarly, when applied retrospectively to the events of the Arab Spring, the algorithm correctly predicted the ousting of Egyptian President Mubarak.

For the previous month, it shwed a level of disastisfaction in the country not seen since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

"Applying tone and geographic analysis to a 30–year worldwide news archive, global news tone is found to have forecasted the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, including the removal of Egyptian President Mubarak, predicted the stability of Saudi Arabia (at least through May 2011), estimated Osama Bin Laden’s likely hiding place as a 200–kilometer radius in Northern Pakistan that includes Abbotabad, and offered a new look at the world’s cultural affiliations," says Leetaru.

The next step will be to start applying the algorithms to future events, says Leetaru.