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The Geopolitical Reading List: Small Wars, Big Data

As a follow-on from our 2018 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review Eli Berman, Joseph Felter and Jacob Shapiro’s “Small Wars, Big Data“; a cutting-edge study into the impact of extensive new data sets collected in various counterinsurgencies on the field of conflict analysis.

Small Wars, Big Data is one of the more hard-hitting pieces reviewed by the Encyclopedia Geopolitica team as part of our Reading List series, however given the extensive combination of academic punch and field-experienced credibility of Berman, Felter and Shapiro (all three of whom are military veterans as well as academics), this is of little surprise. Drawing from their own experiences in conflicts ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Philippines, the authors examine in extensive detail where conventional warfighting wisdom often fails when held up to scrutiny under the light of hard data, and how strategy on the ground can be improved through data science.

Conflict analysis is – as Small Wars examines – a historically murky topic for academic study. What little data existed on the various aspects of fighting a counterinsurgency would inevitably end up classified and out of reach of universities and data scientists. This problem has been offered a remedy through the Pentagon-approved work of Berman, Felter and Shapiro as part of the U.S. government’s efforts to improve their approach to the Global War on Terror, as the team has been able to work with the titanic sets of classified SIGACT (Significant Activities) data compiled across both major theatres. With accurate data on the locations, times and types of all incidents, ranging through roadside bombs, firefights, civilian casualties and protests, the team have been able to ask questions of the conduct of these counterinsurgencies and divine answers in an attempt to better shape policy, and by extension win the wars more efficiently. The team has also been able to unpick some of the fallacies associated with conflict data, such as – in one example – why massive drops in recorded violence in one area of operations in Afghanistan may not be  quite the optimistic news that political leaders had presented it as; the incident levels dropped because ISAF forces withdrew, leaving data uncollected for that region!

The first trend motivating our book is that small wars and their tragic costs are here to stay; the second is that society is increasingly using data to understand our world.

-Small Wars, Big Data

I would call Small Wars, Big Data essential reading for advanced students of counterinsurgency strategy, especially those operating in military intelligence functions. My own experiences working as an Intelligence Officer in Helmand Province (and probably contributing in some amount to this book’s SIGACT data set) feel significantly better understood as a result of reading Small Wars, Big Data. While the book is data-heavy and may not be the most accessible read to more entry-level geopolitical readers, it is still a valuable addition to the reading list of anyone seeking to wrestle with the modern way of waging war. The book also presents a strong case for the importance of data-driven research today. As “fake news” circulates with ever-increasing frequency, and adversaries seek to undermine democratic institutions through the misappropriation of the truth, hard data presents a firm defence. Understanding and interpreting that data correctly is no longer simply a way to make counterinsurgency strategy more efficient; it may prove to be a critical component in saving liberal democracy.

Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “Small Wars, Big Data” from Princeton University Press for this article. 

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

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