Thailand’s Army chief General Prayuth announces the coup on television on 22 May 2014. Source: SCMP

This morning (May 22nd, 2014, East Coast time), the Thai military staged a coup against the caretaker government that had been in power for the past several weeks, after months of protests and political turmoil directed at the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who herself had been ordered to resign on 7 May by the judiciary. This follows a military coup in 2006, and more than a dozen successful or attempted coups before then.

We predicted this event last month, in a report commissioned by the CIA-funded Political Instability Task Force (which we can’t quite share yet). In the report, we forecast irregular regime changes, which include coups but also successful protest campaigns and armed rebellions, for 168 countries around the world for the 6-month period from April to September 2014. Thailand was number 4 on our list, shown below alongside our top 20 forecasts. It was number 10 on Jay Ulfelder’s 2014 coup forecasts. So much for our inability to forecast (very rare) political events, and the irrelevance of what we do.

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Recently, Syrian rebels (under EU embargo until mid-2013) have relied on weapons smuggled from neighboring states including Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey (source).

Recently, Syrian rebels (under EU embargo until mid-2013) have relied on weapons smuggled from neighboring states including Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey (source).  Image from

Why do arms embargoes fail? Despite their frequent use by international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union, arms embargoes suffer from a poor record of success. For half a century now, multilateral arms embargoes have been the primary tool used to fight the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) to conflict zones and perpetrators of mass violence. These agreements between countries prohibit the sale of weapons to a particular target country (or sometimes a target organization). However, official reviews and academic studies alike tend to conclude that small arms are still making their way to embargoed actors.

Black markets are often cited as a source of this failure. Still, no large-n studies have presented evidence of increased black market activity in the presence of embargoes. To remedy this, I look for evidence of black market activity in records of legal arms trades. The data reveal that arms embargoes are associated with a substantial increase in the value of arms imports into nearby states. Given previous research on the nature of black market arms trade, this seems likely to result from an incentive for neighboring states to import more weapons that will then be transferred illegally to the embargoed state.

Black market arms transfers are difficult to study. Most of what we know about illicit arms transfers comes from those cases where somebody has made a mistake and the illicit activity has been uncovered. Apart from those few select cases, reliable data on actual illegal arms transfers is unavailable. Nonetheless, the illicit arms trade is big business, measuring roughly one billion USD per year.

Embargoed states and their neighbors.

Embargoed states and their neighbors. Embargoes based on data from Erickson (2013), Journal of Peace Research.

Black markets are of particular concern in situations where the legal supply of weapons is low but the demand is high. These circumstances often apply to criminal organizations, rebel groups, and embargoed states. While these illicit trades are difficult to collect data on systematically, most of the weapons involved begin as legally-traded arms. They are traded legally and then diverted from their authorized recipients. Arms embargoes provide an interesting case for the study of illicit arms. Those countries that border embargoed states can take advantage of their shared border to traffic illegal arms to the embargoed neighbor without fear of discovery by a third party. Therefore, if embargoed countries circumvent those embargoes by purchasing arms illicitly, we should expect to see an increase in the arms imported to their neighbors.

I have used data on multilateral arms embargos and legal arms transfers to test this proposition. Statistical models reveal that arms embargoes are indeed associated with greater levels of weapons imports in nearby countries. In fact, the predicted increase is substantial: those countries that border embargoed countries are estimated to import 38% more arms than they would have had they not been neighboring an embargoed country (measured in value, constant 2000 USD). This can translate into hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars worth of additional weapons. Furthermore, this result takes into account both domestic and international conflict as well as other predictors of arms imports like the overall level of arms imports to the region, government type, and GDP per capita. On the other hand, this analysis indicates that arms embargoes are indeed effective at stemming the flow of legal arms into embargoed countries. Countries targeted by an embargo are predicted to import, on average, 63% fewer arms than they would otherwise.

Predicted levels of arms imports for a hypothetical median state bordering an embargoed state and not bordering an embargoed state.  Fixed effect uncertainty included.  Based on 100,000 simulations.

Predicted levels of arms imports for a hypothetical median state bordering an embargoed state and not bordering an embargoed state. Fixed effect uncertainty included. Based on 100,000 simulations.

Arms embargoes appear to effectively decrease the legal, or recorded, sale of arms to target states. However, this effect is accompanied by a significant increase in the level of arms imported to the surrounding region. Absent other possible explanations, it seems likely that many of these arms are destined for the embargoed country. Effective arms control measures must account for the regional conditions that may undermine nonproliferation efforts.

Large-scale event data based on worldwide media reports already help us to explain and forecast crises events such as civil wars or insurgencies. But the millions of data points provided by ICEWS or GDELT are a treasure trove for social scientists interested in all kinds of topics, whether they involve violence or not.

For example, they can be used to look at the way politicians interact with each other. A lot of research on political competition in the past two or three decades has focused on party positions and politicians’ ideological leanings, fueled by the convenient availability of suitable data (i.e. NOMINATE and the Comparative Manifestos Project). But political competition is about more than just ideology and policy positions. Recent contributions on the Monkey Cage (here and here) have pointed out that the discussion about polarization in the US is to a significant degree about the way politicians interact with each other: that they are more interested in attacking each other verbally, rather than “getting things done” for the good of the country. Arguably, this kind of behavior is responsible for at least part of the gridlock and lack of legislative productivity in Washington even in areas where there is significant bipartisan consensus about policy. However, serious empirical investigations into the way politicians interact with each other have been largely absent, the main reason being a lack of suitable data. But the availability of large-scale media event data can help to change that.

The machine-coded media stories that make up the ICEWS (or GDELT) data provide fine-grained information about how politicians publicly interact with each other, and with other societal actors. They record when one politician criticizes or denounces someone, and they also document when two actors praise each other or express a desire to work together. This allows us to analyze conflict and cooperation between political actors in a systematic manner. In a new working paper, I use the ICEWS event data to analyze the way parties interacted in the 11 Eurozone countries between 2001 and 2011.

I divide the events into two categories, cooperative (e.g. one actor praises another) and conflictual (e.g. one actor criticized another), based on the CAMEO codebook. For each country, the data provide between 2000 and 30,000 events, involving between 125 and almost 450 actors (parties, NGOs, military, etc.). The actors have a complex network of interactions with each other. To summarize them in a simple and intuitive manner, I estimate latent network models for each country-year. Without getting into the technical details, these models estimate the position of each actor in a hypothetical latent space. Actors that are positioned close together in the latent space have a higher probability of interacting with each other frequently in a cooperative way, while actors positioned far away from each other are likely to interact in a conflictual manner.

Posterior latent space estimates for Greece in 2002, 2006, and 2010. Parties: PASOK (green), ND (blue), KKE (red). All other actors in gray.

Latent space estimates for Greece in 2002, 2006, and 2010. Parties: PASOK (green), ND (blue), KKE (red). All other actors in gray.

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It is the end of the year, and we’re supposed to be reflective.  But not too much. After all, this is a blog. The colleagues in this lab are terrific and it serves to pause for a moment to reflect on one tiny aspect of their accomplishments this last year: their publications.  I do think publishing is broken, but not everyone is ready or able to abandon ship just yet.  You will read no whine about publishing here. Well, at least not today.  In any case, we have been remarkably successful as you can see below. Why?

One reason is that research in 2013 is a collaborative process. It took sixteen of us to produce the dozen or so articles listed below. This means that we can do a lot collectively, but each of us has to do a lot individually to make that happen.  Indeed, we can do more collectively than each of us can do individually. Partially, this is supported by good will and common purpose, but more than a sliver of dropbox, github, and skype are involved as well. And some tolerance for the 24/7 lifestyle that everyone leads.  We live in a fantastic world where anyone with a laptop and internet access can really collaborate with colleagues who might be (as “we” have been at various times) in London, India, Seattle, Pennsylvania, Korea, Mexico, Austin, Croatia, Madison, New York, Santiago, Berlin, or Boulder Colorado.

It is also important to recognize that we have made a decision to join together and work together on projects. Most of these projects have a common theme, sure. But that theme is fairly permeable and open. And, the amount of what we really do not know about political life remains enormous. As a result, opportunities abound. But “suddenly” we have a lot of new ways of thinking about and investigating the perplexing world we live in.  We are not really always stuck in the corner solving things the so-called Gell-man way (sitting in our office and thinking real hard).  That may be helpful, but so is doing proofs, writing simulation code, querying databases, and writing computer programs. These things are especially helpful after a bit of reflection, but it turns out that they work better if the ideas being investigated have been annealed by discussion and dialogue among interested colleagues, who often see weakness and nuance where if left to our own devices  we might not perceive even the most glaring imperfection, let along the smallest.

Collaboration with bright colleagues is terrifically fun, and I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to participate with them in this lab.  Here is a list of projects that we published in the year 2013, minus a few things still snagged by reviewer number three.. Stay tuned for more good things in 2014 and for a forthcoming post on current lab projects.

  1. Michael D. Ward, Nils W. Metternich, Cassy L. Dorff, Max Gallop, Florian M. Hollenbach, Anna Schultz, and Simon Weschle. “Learning from the Past and Stepping into the Future: Toward a New Generation of Conflict Prediction,” International Studies Review (2013) 15, 473–490.
  2. Michael D. Ward, Cassy L. Dorff. “Les réseaux, les dyades et le modèle des relations sociales.” Liber amicorum: Hommage en l’honneur du Professeur Jacques Fontanel. Ed. Liliane Perrin-Bensahel and Jean-Francois Guilhaudis L’Harmattan, March, 2013: 271-288.
  3. Kristin M. Bakke, John V. O’Loughlin, Gerard O’Tuathail, and Michael D. Ward. “Convincing State-Builders? Disaggregating Internal Legitimacy in Abkhazia.”International Studies Quarterly 58.3 (2013).
  4. Cassy L. Dorff and Michael D. Ward. “Networks, Dyads, and the Social Relations Model.” Political Science Research Methods 1.2 (December, 2013): 159-178.
  5. Nils W. Metternich Cassy L. Dorff, Max Gallop, Simon Weschle & Michael D. Ward. “Anti-Government Networks in Civil Conflicts; How Network Structures Affect Conflictual Behavior.” American Journal of Political Science 57.4 (October, 2013): 777-1028.
  6. Michael D. Ward, John S. Ahlquist, and Arturas Rozenas. “Gravity’s Rainbow: A Dynamic Latent Space Model for the World Trade Network.” Network Science 1.1 (March, 2013): 95-118.
  7. Xun Cao and Michael D. Ward. “Do Democracies Attract Portfolio Investment? Transnational Portfolio Investments Modeled as Dynamic Network.” International Interactions 39.1 (2013 in press): in press.
  8. Jacob M. Montgomery, Florian M. Hollenbach, and Michael D. Ward. “Aggregation and Ensembles: Principled Combinations of Data.” PS: Political Science & Politics 46.1 (January, 2013): 43-44.
  9. Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Michael D. Ward. “Forecasting is Difficult, Especially about the Future: Using Contentious Issues to Forecast Interstate Disputes.”Journal of Peace Research 50.1 (2013): 17-31.
  10. Jan Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach. “Technology and Collective Action: The Effect of Cell Phone Coverage on Political Violence in Africa.” American Political Science Review 107.2 (2013): 207-224.
  11. Matthew Dickenson. “Leadership Transition and Violence in Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations 2006-2010.”  Journal of Quantitative Criminology (2013): tba.
  12. Simon Weschle. “Two Types of Economic Voting: How Economic Conditions Jointly Affect Vote Choice and Turnout.” Electoral Studies in press (2013).
  13. December 30 update: Jacob M. Montgomery and  Josh Cutler. “Computerized Adaptive Testing for Public Opinion Surveys.” Political Analysis 21.2 (2013): 172-192. 

Gilbert F. White was a giant in the field of natural hazards, and a former colleague in Boulder at the University of Colorado, where he was an early director (beginning in 1970) of the Institute of Behavioral Science. Decades before that he had written his dissertation about how humans dealt with floods and his work led to the establishment in the early 1950s of a Federal framework that graded the probability of floods. Now it is easy to ascertain the 100-year flood plain for any locale in the United States, since by law this is required of city and state planners. The city to which he moved, and in which we were colleagues, has it’s own connection to the subject of his research, as Boulder experienced a massive flood that devastated the city about a century ago.

A Century Flood?

The 1894 Boulder Flood

The Boulder flood plain for 100 and 500-year floods developed in part as a result of White’s activism in planning for floods. Gilbert White’s office was just outside of the flood plain, up on a hill, overlooking it–near where I am temporarily sitting at this instance. But his last house in Boulder was not. And, anyone who followed the news this fall of the floods in Boulder–which were considered by many to be of the 100-year variety, may not know that Gilbert White’s advice probably saved many lives, as he argued for structures to be built that could interact with floods in a way to diminish risk (i.e., breakaway bridges, et cetera). Gil was famous for many things, including the quote “Floods are `acts of God’ but flood losses are largely acts of man,” which was taken from his dissertation. In the 1980s he convinced the Boulder City Council that Boulder had previously experienced a flood even larger than the huge flood of 1894. As a result building in the flood plain was restricted (a bit) and knockout bridges were built. I remember reading an article when I arrived in Boulder in the early 1980s about Gilbert’s warnings about a 100-year flood, which pictured Gilbert then in his 70s standing in the rushing Boulder Creek. You can listen to Gilbert discussing this issue as well as see a version of the Boulder floodplain.

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Reviewer 1
This turkey is a bit over done. I think the problem is that the authors need a better theory of turkey before they try to stick one in an oven for four hours and then serve it. A recent example is recently published in the Journal of Poultry and many earlier contributions in Giblets and Drumsticks have been overlooked. Many earlier scholars have actually caught their own turkeys and fed them assumptions and corn to produce a really substantial turkey, that not only reflects the theory of turkey, but also glistens with the implications of a well thought out turkey. Until a better theory of turkey is employed to motivate this particular baked turkey, it is hard to reach a satisfactory conclusion with this effort. While I appreciate the efforts, I don’t support revising this particular turkey for resubmission, though I am tempted to suggest that a soup be created with the remains.
Reviewer 2
Have the authors never tasted chicken? Neither duck? Medieval scholars knew that a combination of these fowl with turkey was necessary to provide a substantial empirical test of the “Thanksgiving Hypothesis.” Curiously, the authors have ignored this long standing research tradition, even though there is a Stata recipe that will undertake this effortlessly for them. Surely this could easily be done in revisions.
Reviewer 3
I appreciate the authors efforts to examine the “Thanksgiving Hypothesis,” but it would appear there is a serious flaw in their analysis. The turkey has been cooked, and we see the standard inclusions: sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, freshly cooked rolls, and even cranberry sauce. I even appreciate the introduction of oysters as an instrument into the stuffing to rule out the endogeneity that the turkey was actually fed ground fishmeal. But there is no adequate control–such as a tofurkey–introduced to examine the possiblity that a general triptophane coma is responsible for outcomes in the “Thanksgiving Hypothesis.” That and the absence of soup leads me to conclude that this project is not ready. But I am encouraged enough to recommend revisions.

Editor: The reviewers see much merit in your work, but point to serious missteps as well. I have personally tasted a Turkey dinner, and would like to suggest that after considering the comments above, you revise your procedures and resubmit the results. If you choose to do so, I will send the effort to a new round of reviewers, including one of the original critics. If you decide to accept this invitation, I will need to have your submission by November 27th, 2014.

The prediction community owes a great deal to Phil Tetlock, who has been involved in some of the largest and longest evaluations of expert forecasts to date. Tetlock is perhaps most widely known for his two-decade long study of political forecasters, which found that “foxes” (who know a little about a lot of different topics) typically outperform “hedgehogs” (who know a lot about one specific domain) in near-term forecasting. Over the last three years, Tetlock, Barbara Mellers, and Don Moore have led the Good Judgment Project, a large-scale forecasting tournament.

The Good Judgment Project began in mid-2011 as a forecasting tournament between five teams, sponsored by the US Government. (Read early coverage of the project from The Economist here.) Each of these teams had its own methods for leveraging the knowledge of its members to generate accurate forecasts about political and economic developments around the world. For example, the Good Judgment Team now assigns its forecasters to smaller teams of about a dozen members. This allows for collaboration in sharing information, discussing questions, and keeping each member motivated. Example questions include “What will the highest price of one ounce of gold be between January 1, 2014 and May 1, 2014?” or “Who will be the King of Saudi Arabia on March 15, 2014?” Predictions are scored both individually and as a team using Brier scores.

Season 3 of the tournament began this summer, and for the first time forecasters now have access to information from ICEWS, provided directly by the ICEWS project. ICEWS covers five events of interest (insurgency, rebellion, ethnic or religious violence, domestic political crisis, and international crisis) around the world on a monthly basis, and makes forecasts six months into the future. Two current Good Judgment questions related to ICEWS are:

  • Will Chad experience an onset of insurgency between October 2013 and March 2014?
  • Will Mozambique experience an onset of insurgency between October 2013 and March 2014?

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ICEWS is an early warning system designed to help US policy analysts predict a variety of international crises. This project was created at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2007, but has since been funded (through 2013) by the Office of Naval Research. ICEWS has not been widely written about, in part because of its operational nature, and in part because articles about prediction in politics face special hurdles in the publication process. An academic article (gated) described the early phase of the project in 2010, including assessments of its accuracy, and a WIRED article in 2011 criticized ICEWS for missing the Arab Spring–at a time when the project was only focused on Asia.

In an article (here for now) forthcoming in the International Studies Review, as one of the original teams on the ICEWS project, we highlight the basic framework used in the more recent, worldwide version of ICEWS. Specifically, we discuss our model that is focused on forecasting, which is our main contribution to the larger, overall project. We call this CRISP. We argue that forecasting not only increases the dialogue between academia and the policy community, but that it also provides a gold standard for evaluating the empirical content of models. Thus, this gold standard improves not only the dialogue, but actually augments the science itself. In an earlier article in Foreign Policy, with Nils Metternich, we compared Billy Beane and Lewis Frye Richardson (sort of).


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Political conflicts are rarely between two parties.  In Iraq, for example, there were as many as 19 different groups engaged, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Jihadist Leagues, and the Just Punishment Brigades. In Syria, we see a similar picture, including the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Liberation Front, the Syrian Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra. Many attempts to understand these kinds of situations group all the rebel forces together against a government.  But neither are the rebels unified, and monolithic. Nor, necessarily, is the government. We explore a theory of the interactions among these various kinds of factions in order to better understand what kinds of actions are most likely to be undertaken. To do so, we combine elements of strategic calculation and the analysis of networks. The basic insight is the old saw, often attributed to the 6th century (BCE) Chinese general, Sun Tzu: hold your friends close, and your enemies closer.

Thailand data

The top rug shows the different parties that are in power in Thailand during the observation period, with markers for changes in power. The bottom plot shows conflictual events in Thailand from 1998 on.

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GDELT ( is a global database of events which have been coded from vast quantities of publicly available text that is produced by the world’s new media. It has created a great deal of excitement in the social science community, especially within the field of international relations. But it has had wider visibility as well: in August 2013, there were 150,000 views of a map of protest activity around the world, based on the GDELT database.  Event data have been around for several decades, but the GDELT project has generated new interest.

ICEWS is an early warning system designed to help US policy analysts predict a variety of international crises to which the US might have to respond. These include international and domestic crises, ethnic and religious violence, as well as rebellion and insurgency. This project was created at the Defense Advanced Research Projects  Agency, but has since been funded (through 2013) by the Office of Naval Research. ICEWS also produces  a  rich corpus of text which is analyzed with powerful techniques  of automated event-data production.  Since GDELT and ICEWS are based on similar, though not identical methods and sources, it is interesting to compare them.

ICEWS data

ICEWS event data, gray line for stories and black line for events, 2001-2013

One area in which they are most conceptually different is that ICEWS follows a more traditional approach to event data in seeking to encode a chronology of events that reflects in some sense  the putative ground truth of what occurred. The figure on the right shows the corpus of stories in ICEWS (gray) and the resulting events (black): total events are fairly stable over time event though the number of media stories increases. GDELT is more concerned with getting a comprehensive catalogue of all media stories (and other text) on reported events, and the corpus of those media stories is increasing exponentially, as the figure below shows. As a result, the number of events in GDELT is also increasing over time, much more so than ICEWS.

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