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Data sets and counter-insurgency: summer school in Chicago

A University of Canterbury (UC) student spent an American summer researching how insurgents in Afghanistan modify their terrorism techniques.

UC management and economics student Manish Muthukrishnan applied for the four-week Data and Policy Summer Scholar programme at University of Chicago (UChicago), in the United States, to improve his data analytics skills.

The programme gave Muthukrishnan the chance to work on a research project analysing data about Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. The research lead was Assistant Professor at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, Austin Wright, who gave the scholars access to a constrained data set collected by the US Armed Forces.

“The data was related to IEDs – when they were found, how many were neutralised and how many activated. This data can be overlaid with other events such as timing of elections to gather meaningful insight about the insurgent’s strategies,” Muthukrishnan says.

“We were asked to find trends and insights and create a policy memo at the end of the capstone project that summarised the findings.”

The students first learnt “R” and quantitative analysis skills. “R” is a powerful statistical environment and programming language used for data analyses, as well as other tasks. Analysis using these tools revealed some interesting trends, he says.

“One of the key findings from our analysis was that the insurgents are actively learning and modifying their techniques in response to the counter-insurgent's neutralisation technologies and strategies. In fact, there is no long-term improvement in the clearing rate [proportion of IED neutralised to total IED events], even though the counter-insurgents have spent billions of dollars on IED neutralisation.”

Muthukrishnan was one of 40 students selected globally for the programme and he felt extremely lucky to be part of a diverse team of scholars.

“All of my peers were passionate and driven people who cared deeply about knowledge and learning. I learnt a lot from them by engaging in group work and discussions.”

The participants had a choice of three capstone projects: insurgent learning in Afghanistan, hate crime in the United States and changing nature of refugee camps around the world. Although he worked on the insurgency project, Muthukrishnan also gained insights into the other projects.

“I was also interested in learning more about hate crime in the USA. I was able to understand some of the risk factors that increase hate crime in a region. That was quite eye-opening. Apparently, district-wide income inequality is one of the strongest correlated factors with hate-crime incidence.

“A lot more work can be done to improve collection and reporting of hate-crime data in the US. That would really improve the efficacy of hate-crime research. ”

While at UC, Muthukrishnan is absorbing as much knowledge as possible.

“I have used my time at university to explore many different experiences and topics. This project was part of that learning process. I was also keen on attending UChicago because of its reputation in the economics world.

“I was able to visit a room there with Professor Milton Friedman's Nobel Prize and I found that experience to be very moving.”

UC Business School supported Muthukrishnan to attend the UChicago summer programme.


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