The revolution may be forecasted

Check out this Verge article about using algorithms to predict revolutions using Big DataThe forecast comes from WardLab. Check out the sources it references.

Yes, they all may have their flaws and shortcomings, but the only way to get better at something is to keep doing and improving it.

In case you haven’t noticed, I think The Verge is cool. And I need to follow the blog Predictive Heuristics.


Predicting where crime will take place

Cop shows up for roll call before patrolling the beat. On her department-issued tablet is a map showing where on her beat crime will likely occur. The map is annotated by notes from veteran cops.

She spends a little more time in those spots, maybe talks up some of the locals about what’s happening. Maybe the predictions  heighten her observations of people in these areas and she learns something actionable. Maybe just by being there she cools tensions. Maybe some of her chats with the residents dissuades them from something. Maybe crime declines by chance.

That’s not some deleted scene from Minority Report, or a scenario from Person of Interest, that’s happening right now, at least according to the marketing hype of PredPol’s site. Its customers claim that it is better than human-based prediction, and a useful tool.

Has this been properly tested to minimize the possibility that the results are not a matter of random chance, or that the Hawthorne Effect is in play? The Predpol site has some results, but they don’t come close to satisfying a social scientist. If it does work, what happens when programs like it improve? And what if it can expand beyond property crimes? What if that cop visits a house the day before a domestic disturbance would occur and prevents an assault or even a death?

Projecting the future one person at a time: MINT6

As I have mentioned on my nonfiction page, in my day job I get to play with projections of the future thanks to a microsimulation model called MINT (Modeling Income in the Near Term) that projects the retirement outcomes of a couple hundred thousand actual people based on their lifetime earnings and their responses to an in-depth Census survey.

The model’s latest iteration is MINT 6, and a report on how it works is now available at the Urban Institute’s site. (Social Security contracted with Urban to build it.) MINT 6 is to MINT 5 like the Enterprise-D was to the Enterprise-C: a totally different class of awesome. If you are skeptical that projecting the future is viable, or want to know more about how it’s done, check it out.

If you want to see how me and my fellow analysts use MINT projections, check out some samples (based on MINT 5) here. Sorry, estimates based on MINT 6 won’t be posted until later this year.

Projecting the future is a difficult area, but it is steadily improving on many issues (marketing, politics, demographics, economics, retirement, financial). These incremental and sometimes revolutionary upgrades all keep building to a future where we will be projecting the future in ways that are strictly science fictional-sounding at this point.

Forecasting, Eucatastrophe and Wicked Problems

Sci Fi author Karl Schroeder has been guest blogging on Charlie Stross’ blog about forecasting the future, which of course is total must-read material for me. He had me just by saying that he has a Master’s degree in Strategic Forecasting and Innovation. This caused a spate of actual academic envy in me, a very rare phenomenon in this universe, I can assure you.

For those who think the future is a completely unknowable thing, or who have the inkling of a hope that maybe we can somehow prepare for or anticipate the future, this is also must-read. Money quote:

We seem to do everything about our future except try to design it. It’s a funny thing: nobody ever questions your credentials if you predict doom and destruction. But provide a rosy picture of the future, and people demand that you justify yourself. Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important. The foresight programme has given me a lot of tools to do that in a justifiable way, so I might as well use them.

So say we all. Unless some evil people also use it, right? Well, then…

He also has a great post on Eucatastrophe, which is kind of the opposite of a catastrophe, when everything goes right. Wouldn’t it be fun to pull that off by forecasting the future? And if you really want your brain to hurt in the other direction, he discusses ‘wicked‘ problems that we as a human race seem to be utterly failing to solve for pretty mundane reasons.

I should say something intelligent about all of this, but it’s too late at night (for me) to put coherent, intelligent thoughts together. Suffice it to say that these ideas play a central role in my sci-fi thriller novel about saving the world through shaping the future by studying projections of it.

Check out “The School Counselor” at

My first published short story (yay!).

What if someday high school students expect their guidance counselor to accurately predict their futures? This story began with that question and ended with how students may rethink their friendships in cold probabilistic terms because of those projections.

As someone who greatly benefitted from high school friendships with people headed in different directions than me, I found this intriguing, horrifying and likely to happen.

This story happened pretty quick. I went from the what-if to the characters grabbing the plot and peeling the layers back to get at the real story underneath.

Some of the feedback I received made it sound like I had provided an ‘after school special’ kind of service for their high school age children. That was a bit of a surprise, and completely unintended. It just goes to show that your writing can touch people more than you think, and not how you may predict.