Catalog of global political conflict offers insights for policy makers, public

Monday, Jan 21, 2013

A new data archive makes it easier for academics and the general public to access information gathered by governments and other sources about global conflicts, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other nations.

The Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC) contains data and analysis on insurgency, civil war and other politically motivated violence around the world. The goal, say its creators, is to provide the quality of data and information needed to address some of the most enduring and pressing challenges to international security.

ESOC was started by Jake Shapiro, a Navy veteran and assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs, and Joe Felter, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. They now serve as co-directors of the project.

 ESOC)The U.S. government and its allies collect massive amounts of data for their internal use, ranging from public opinion surveys to administrative tracking data on spending, to detailed incident reports on conflict. But this information is rarely made available outside official channels.

Shapiro and Felter launched ESOC with the goal of making conflict analysis easier for academic colleagues and to provide a mechanism to share the results with military and government decision-makers. Over the past four years, the two have built a team of scholars, from across multiple universities, committed to conducting high-quality, evidence-based conflict research.

"One of the critical barriers to getting more top-notch research done on policy-relevant problems in the areas of security and development is the huge investment it takes to build data on areas experiencing or emerging from conflict," said Shapiro.

"The ESOC website is designed to dramatically lower that barrier by making available a broad range of data which took our team years to develop. In doing so, we hope to promote careful empirical work on how to reduce conflict, rebuild order, and apply scarce aid and security resources more effectively."
A visit to the site reveals data on Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, Philippines and Vietnam, with more countries to be added in coming years. There are hundreds of maps, geographical, demographic and socioeconomic data files, links to publications and university databases, and other materials related to the study of conflict.

As a result of their research, ESOC members have uncovered significant new findings some of which have been briefed directly to decision makers in the field by ESOC members conducting research in conflict areas.

"In Afghanistan, we were able to provide empirical evidence that conflict episodes resulting in civilian casualties led to an increase in attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan," said Felter. "These findings were briefed to senior leaders in the International Security and Assistance Force as well as to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

ESOC members have also been able to facilitate the release of a wealth of data on insurgent attacks and aid spending in Iraq to test theories on what led to the dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq in 2007 and on how to use aid effectively in conflict zones. With aid spending, they found that the use of impromptu humanitarian relief projects could help gain popular support and cooperation, leading to a reduction in insurgent violence, but that large-scale aid projects could have the opposite effect.

"Four years ago, practitioners would ask us how to best implement development projects in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict zones. We could only shrug," said Eli Berman, a UC San Diego economics professor, research director for international security at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and ESOC member.

"Today, we can confidently give advice based on solid evidence: projects are likely to be violence-reducing if they are modest (say less than $50,000), secure from destruction and extortion, informed by development experts and conditional on government forces controlling the territory."

Felter and Shapiro hope that new discoveries by ESOC researchers and by scholars working with quality micro-conflict data made available by ESOC can help shape American counterinsurgency doctrine as it evolves going forward.

Other ESOC members include:

♦  James D. Fearon, Theodore and Frances Geballe Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of political science at Stanford University;
♦  David D. Laitin, the James T. Watkins IV and Elise V. Watkins Professor of Political Science at Stanford University; and
♦  Jeremy M. Weinstein, associate professor of political science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He serves as director of the Center for African Studies, and is an affiliated faculty member at CDDRL and CISAC.

The Empirical Studies of Conflict project was formed in 2009. It’s independent research is supported in part by a variety of research grants including the Defense Department’s Minerva Research Initiative, administered through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California - San Diego and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University have also provided critical resources and archival support. Private supporters include the Palo Alto-based data analysis software company, Palantir Technologies, which made a significant donation of software licenses for use by ESOC researchers.