Using Data to Fight Terrorism
Brandeis professor creates database to understand terrorist attacks
On March 22, an attacker drove his car into crowds of people on Westminster Bridge in London. On April 7, four pedestrians died when a man drove his truck into a crowd in Stockholm. On April 20, a police officer was shot and killed in Paris. On May 22, 22 people died at a concert in Manchester after a bomb exploded. On June 3, men drove a car into pedestrians on the London Bridge and stabbed those nearby. On Aug. 17, a van drove into Barcelona crowds, killing 13 people.
And at Brandeis, Prof. Jytte Klausen (POL) compiles information from attacks like these into her Western Jihadism Project database.
Started in 2006, this global terrorism database began in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Klausen began the project as a way to study Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist offenders in Western Europe, Canada and the United States. It has since expanded to a Django-based administrative framework, which allows for the digital creation of a user interface to examine the data points.
“There aren’t a lot of projects focused on collecting as much data as we have; we’re definitely unique in that sense,”Priyanka Renugopalakrishnan said in an interview with the Justice. Renugopalakrishnan is a project manager for the Western Jihadism Project and is a master’s candidate at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. She has experience in data and project management from her time working for the United States Army and experience in the non-profit and private sectors. “I’m a very proactive person, so about a month before my program started, I started looking online for on campus jobs ... and when I saw there was a lab on campus that focuses on Western Jihadism and understanding the phenomenon of terrorism as it affects the West, I just knew immediately that I had to be involved,” she explained. After beginning as a research assistant, Renugopalakrishnan was promoted to the role of project manager three months ago.
She oversees the daily goals of the project, whether that be assisting in the collection of data for publication or working to advance the computer science aspects of the project to improve the user interface.
The project staff is currently comprised of students. “Over the years, we’ve had students from a variety of different departments from Brandeis, even some outside students. We’ve had students from Islamic Studies, Anthropology, [from] more technical degree [programs] like Computer Science, Economics and even Business,” Renugopalakrishnan said. She credits a great deal of the project’s success to having such a diverse team. “Each department the students come from provides … a unique perspective in which they view the world or conflicts and issues they encounter.”
Most students involved in the project are research assistants in charge of documenting data. “The work we do really lights a passion in many of our students,” Renugopalakrishnan said. Over 5,500 individuals, 797 terrorist plots, local and international organizations linked to extremists, and approximately 23,000 links between data points have been recorded as part of this project, according to the project website.
When looking at data for entry, the Western Jihadism Project team doesn’t designate an individual as a global terrorist; the individuals they examine have already been classified by an outside authority. “Our determination of whether or not we would enter them into the database is dependent on how much data is available on said individual,” Renugopalakrishnan explained.
The data information gathered is all publically available. The team makes use of government reports, press releases, court documents, news articles and even social media to gather information.
Another unique element of the project is the nature of the data itself. “The thing is, when you go into the world of research and data analytics, people focus on qualitative data or quantitative data,” Renugopalakrishnan explained. The Western Jihadism Project makes use of both.
The project really aims at understanding the bigger picture of global terrorism. The team has outside collaborators who use the data for academic research, although there is a protocol that must be followed regarding access. “There’s even the DOD [Department of Defense] that accesses our database, and they use it for their specific mission, whatever that may be,” Renugopalakrishnan said.
Klausen also publishes scholarly articles based on the data regularly. Her most recent article, “British Intelligence Fails Again: Will the London Attack Lead to Reform?” was published by Foreign Affairs Magazine. “Dr. Klausen is very knowledgeable in this field, and it’s been an absolute pleasure working with her,” said Renugopalakrishnan.
As the project moves forward, Renugopalakrishnan predicts the data from new attacks will push their focus in the direction of certain regions. Yet the objectives of the project won’t change. The Western Jihadism Project will still work to understand the broader picture of global terrorism through data and the dedication of its students.