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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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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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