Defense IT

DARPA looks to tap social media, big data to probe the causes of social unrest

The Pentagon's top research agency wants to leverage global connectivity and big data techniques in an attempt to figure out why humans can't seem to get along with one other.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced this week it is launching a social science research effort designed to probe what unifies individuals and what causes communities to break down into "a chaotic mix of disconnected individuals." The Next Generation Social Science (NGS2) program will seek to harness steadily advancing digital connections and emerging social and data science tools to identify "the primary drivers of social cooperation, instability and resilience."

Adam Russell, DARPA's NGS2 program manager, said the effort also would address current research limitations such as the technical and logistical hurdles faced when studying large populations and ever-larger datasets. The project seeks to build on the ability to link thousands of diverse volunteers online in order to tackle social science problems with implications for U.S. national and economic security.

Another goal is to combine social science research, including sociology, economics, political science and psychology with computer and data science, physics, biology and math, the agency said. Among the technologies being considered for the NGS2 program are virtual and "alternate" reality technologies, Web-based gaming and other massively distributed platforms.

The resulting methods and models could be applied to studying larger, more diverse groups of individuals. Program officials said the effort would seek to validate new tools to empower social scientists "in the same way that sophisticated telescopes and microscopes have helped advance astronomy and biology."

DARPA said NGS2 would fund research in three core areas: predictive modeling and hypothesis generation; new experimental approaches and platforms; and strengthening interpretation and reproducibility of research results. Researchers would use publicly available data along with the results of studies using gaming and other digital platforms.

The research agency has scheduled a NGS2 proposer’s day at its Arlington, Va., headquarters on March 22.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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