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New Insights on Violence

October 6, 2017

Asked how he would describe his research to a junior high student, Ore Koren sums it up this way: “I take stuff like visual data, and I use it to explain why people kill each other or why people fight.”

As a PhD candidate in political science, Koren is using high-resolution data to study the micro-dynamics of violence and civil war. This includes global data on governments, leaders, individual civilians, and groups, what motivates them, and what they need to operate.

One might assume that states or leaders are initiating civil conflict and political violence, but Koren’s findings challenge this conventional wisdom. According to his research, climate extremes and the resulting food insecurity are just as important.

Koren draws on data from the Institute on the Environment to approximate local yields on wheat, maize, and other crops. He also looks at NASA images of Earth at night, to see where and when rebel attacks are happening.

He says it’s important to always balance this data with real-world case studies. “The main problem with large data is you can find a lot of patterns in there and some of those patterns might be contradictory. So you need to go look locally, on the ground, to contextualize and support those findings. It really helps, especially when talking to policymakers.”

Koren’s thinking on this topic came from a humanities perspective. He cared about what people do and what they need. Big data has given him a much deeper understanding of those actions and needs, and their impacts on the local level.

“To me, it’s really about bringing individuals to the forefront,” he says. “It may sound counterintuitive, but big data allows me to see what humans care about.”