It has been almost two decades exactly since conflict prevention shot to the top of the peace-building agenda, as large-scale killings shifted from interstate wars to intrastate and intergroup conflicts. What could we have done to anticipate and prevent the 100 days of genocidal killing in Rwanda that began in April 1994 or the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica just over a year later? The international community recognized that conflict prevention could no longer be limited to diplomatic and military initiatives, but that it also requires earlier intervention to address the causes of violence between nonstate actors, including tribal, religious, economic, and resource-based tensions.
For years, even as it was pursued as doggedly as personnel and funding allowed, early intervention remained elusive, a kind of Holy Grail for peace-builders. This might finally be changing. The rise of data on social dynamics and what people think and feel — obtained through social media, SMS questionnaires, increasingly comprehensive satellite information, news-scraping apps, and more — has given the peace-building field hope of harnessing a new vision of the world. But to cash in on that hope, we first need to figure out how to understand all the numbers and charts and figures now available to us. Only then can we expect to predict and prevent events like the recent massacres in South Sudan or the ongoing violence in the Central African Republic.