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NSF Grants Bring Together Computer, Political Scientists for International Conflict Projects

Dr. Patrick Brandt

Dr. Patrick T. Brandt

UT Dallas political and computer scientists have received nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation to collaborate on two projects focused on international conflict.

The first grant includes $1.5 million to create a research tool that uses big data to provide updated information on civil protests and unrest, and international conflicts.

A second grant totaling $401,051 will help researchers study Colombia's efforts to protect its power grid, pipelines and other infrastructure from decades of physical assaults and cyberattacks.

The National Science Foundation awarded the three-year grants jointly to faculty members in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences (EPPS) and the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, who will collaborate with researchers from other universities.

For the big data project, researchers will create a platform that can mine vast news feeds in multiple languages for political conflict and cooperation events, and code the locations of developments. The goal is to help drive decisions about foreign policy, international relations, civil war prevention and human rights policies.

Dr. Jennifer Holmes

Dr. Jennifer Holmes

“Previous similar projects have been limited by geography or used a small number of news sources,” said Dr. Patrick T. Brandt, professor of political science and lead principal investigator on the project. “The goal here is to have over 30 years of historical and real-time coverage of information coded from news reports. We will also include the latest techniques from computer science to improve how we detect new political interactions, actors and locations of their activities.”

Dr. Latifur Khan and Dr. Vincent Ng of UT Dallas will bring big data expertise and knowledge about how to extract the geographic and semantic meaning from the news. 

“We are dealing with a massive amount of data, and it will only grow over time,” said Khan, a professor of computer science. “There are challenges in handling data on this scale. If we want to mine for the location of a news article, and extract metadata from articles not only in English, but also in Spanish and Arabic, then we have to develop tools that can quickly sift through all the raw text.” 

Khan said he is excited about the interdisciplinary nature of the project, as working on big problems from different perspectives provides better understanding.  

“Our end goal is to build an open source tool not only for the UT Dallas community but for researchers from other universities doing political research,” he said. 

Other UT Dallas faculty involved include: Dr. Jennifer Holmes, professor and program head of political science, public policy and political economy, who will develop specialized searches for Latin American countries; and Dr. Vito D’Orazio, assistant professor of political science, who will lead efforts on visualization and analysis.

The second project will study Colombia’s response to five decades of attacks on its electrical grids, pipelines, power transmission lines, bridges and other infrastructure due to conflicts between the government, paramilitary groups and guerilla groups.;

Dr. Alvaro Cardenas

Dr. Alvaro Cárdenas

Dr. Alvaro Cárdenas, assistant professor of computer science and member of the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute, is principal investigator. Holmes is co-principal investigator. 

Cárdenas, a native of Colombia, specializes in computer security, cyber-physical systems, network intrusion detection and wireless networks. Holmes, an expert on political violence, has written extensively about Colombia. 

Cárdenas will focus on the development of a series of technologies, best practices and emergency response principles to protect and react quickly to attacks.

“Understanding the negative societal impact of attacks to critical infrastructures is a key component for risk management. We want to characterize the consequences of attacks in order to identify the right amount of resources to protect and respond to emergencies,” Cárdenas said. “Colombia has experienced over 2,000 attacks to their power grid in the last 15 years, giving us unique insights into the consequences of attacks and the interdependencies of different infrastructures."

Holmes will focus on strategic aspects of attacks and the policy implications of responding to them.

“It is important to understand when the grid or a pipeline is targeted. It may be a diversion to open up the ability to operate elsewhere to cause political pressure on the government,” she said. “Second, there are significant issues of policy coordination of multiple public and private actors.”

The projects also demonstrate the critical role that public policy plays in cybersecurity, said Dr. Bhavani Thuraisingham, executive director of the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute and the Louis A. Beecherl Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Jonsson School.

“If our security techniques are not rooted in realistic policies, then it will be difficult to make them applicable to real-world scenarios,” Thuraisingham said. “Both projects, one investigating policy-based critical infrastructure protection, and the other capitalizing on practical applications of extensive research in data mining and analytics, illustrate how interdisciplinary cybersecurity and analytics research is essential to develop useful solutions to hard problems.”

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma, University of Minnesota, University of Delaware, the City University of New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the University of Texas at Austin also will contribute to the projects.

Researcher to Help Update Database with Grant's HelpDr. Vito D'Orazio

The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant to a UT Dallas political science researcher to update a widely used database documenting uses of military force and threats of force among nations.

Dr. Vito D’Orazio, assistant professor of political science in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, will lead the project to extend coverage of the Correlates of War Projects’ Militarized Interstate Dispute (MID) data through 2017.

“The idea behind the MID project is to provide data to study conflictual interactions between countries that fall short of war to improve our understanding of events that lead to war,” D’Orazio said. “We hope the methods we’re developing to collect this data will be useful to researchers collecting data on all types of conflict. The goal is to collect the data quickly and efficiently without sacrificing the quality of the measures produced.”

The information historically has lagged several years behind because of a labor-intensive process in which researchers had to read, identify and code relevant news stories for the database, which covers 1816 to 2010.

D’Orazio aims to resolve a bottleneck in the workflow by changing the process. In a pilot project, he tested a faster method by crowdsourcing the work online. The researchers created algorithms to automatically classify documents and paid non-experts a small fee (up to 75 cents per story) to read and answer questions about news stories to identify possible militarized incidents and their features.

The NSF awarded $367,432 to UT Dallas over three years for the project. D’Orazio will work with public policy and political economy graduate student Dennis Okyere and faculty members from Penn State University.

D’Orazio joined UT Dallas this fall, adding to a growing team of experts in conflict studies. He is developing a new graduate class that will be offered in the spring that focuses on measuring concepts in social sciences.

“We don’t observe international war much anymore, but we still want to know the processes that could lead to war. The end goal of conflict studies, if you’re studying international war, is to learn so much about war that you can prevent it,” D’Orazio said. “We believe in doing that quantitatively. The MID data set provides a measure of international conflict that we can use toward that goal.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

Tagged: ECS EPPS research