Technological shortcomings for EU Conflict Early Warning and Conflict Analysis

Jenny Berglund

3 May 2017


One of the main ambitions of the EU Foreign and Security Policy is to prevent the emergence of conflicts globally (and more specifically, in the EU’s neighbouring countries). The EU-CIVCAP report “Technological Shortcomings in Early Warning and Conflict Analysis” (Deliverable 3.1, presented in January 2017) analyses and assesses the available and viable tools for the implementation of conflict early warning and conflict analysis carried out by the EU External Action Service (EEAS) and by the European Commission.

In accordance with the Treaty of Lisbon (Art. 21c), in 2011 the EU implemented its Conflict Early Warning System (EWS), which is tasked with the systematic collection and analysis of information to identify and understand the risk of violent conflict and to develop strategic responses to mitigate those risks. This process involves a variety of different institutional and political actors across the EU External Action Service and the Commission including, but not limited to:

Conflict analysis—another instrument in the conflict prevention process of the EU—is carried out across the EEAS and the Commission to assess the roots causes of a conflict. Conflict analysis follows a precise path defined in the EEAS’s “Guidance note on the use of Conflict Analysis in support of EU external action”, with the active participation of all EU stakeholders who need to own and use its findings.

This article presents the findings of the report and places them in relation to the ambitions and goals set out in the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) and the results of its ongoing implementation.

Technological means used by the EU today for early warning and conflict analysis

The Deliverable 3.1 report has found that the EU relies primarily on two sources of technology for its EWS and conflict analysis process:

  1. Earth Observation Geospatial Information, obtained by remote sensing techniques (satellites), processed and synthesised into Imagery and Geographical Intelligence products elaborated by the EU Satellite Centre; and
  2. The Global Conflict Risk Index (GCRI), a data analysis tool developed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) and Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) products serve to refute, complement or confirm information obtained from other sources. They add value by providing near real-time information on areas that are difficult to access, and they achieve this by combining different remote sensing techniques. The GCRI, in its role as a first assessment stage in the early warning cycle, serves as an evidence-based analysis tool for the EU external action towards “high-risk third countries”. Nevertheless, IMINT and GEOINT products based on remote sensing techniques can only detect physical signs of tension or change to a situation, and are not able to constantly monitor any given specific area. This could be tackled by using aerial imagery from Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), more commonly known as drones, however their use is often controversial in a context of political tension or conflict since they can be considered intrusive. Therefore, they must be operated under specific aerial navigation rules and with the consent of the national authorities. Drones are naturally more vulnerable to capture, sabotage or attack than satellites and can be easily jammed or destroyed. The GCRI is based on open-source data and collects 25 variables in five structural dimensions:

  1. social;
  2. economic;
  3. security;
  4. political; and
  5. geographical/environmental.

It should be underlined that the GCRI considers the data it collects without any expert judgement of the analysis being used in the biannual update of the model, and that the index is based on the “data in, data out principle”, meaning that if the data is erroneous, out-of-date or missing, the outcome will reflect that.

The EU’s technological capabilities for early warning and conflict analysis in a global context: new technologies

In light of the ambitions of the EU in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, the use of the capacities presented in the first section of this article seems to fall short of what is required, since they do not provide perception-based data. In other words, they do not produce data indicating a population’s sentiment or reaction towards an event, and therefore nor do they highlight potential triggering events. Bearing in mind the ways in which human communications occur today, and in view of the huge flow of information that we each generate daily through our use of new technologies, the two technologies used by the EU seem to fall short of assuring the collection of accurate and reliable information. But the problem is that this is required if the EU is to build a solid early warning and conflict analysis capability.

Information Communication Technologies (ICT) could provide the EU with far more information coupled with the capability to analyse and assess a situation and thus predict and prevent possible future conflicts. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 95% of the global population lives in an area covered by mobile networks, while mobile broadband networks (3G or above) reach 84% of the population.[1] As such, the use of ICT today is on a global scale.

Probably the best and most frequently referenced example of how these new technologies can be used to influence society is the Arab Spring (2010–12). A project entitled “The Project on Information Technology and Political Islam”, carried out by the University of Washington, analysed the use of mobile phones and social media in the North African countries concerned by the events of the Arab Spring. The project revealed evidence that suggest that social media “carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising”.[2] Software collecting and combining information from ICT and social media has existed since a decade back. For instance, Ushahidi, an open-source software platform for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping, was originally created in the aftermath of the Kenyan presidential elections of 2007, with the purpose of collecting eyewitness reports of violence communicated by email and SMS. Today, Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events.

Data serving early warning and conflict analysis purposes—be it data obtained from geospatial information, or data extracted from ICT and social media—could hugely benefit from Big Data technologies in terms of process data faster, as well as extracting knowledge and analysing data in a distributed manner. In fact, Emmanuel Letouzé, Patrick Meier and Patrick Vinck have demonstrated that Big Data could help reveal key insights into the drivers, triggers and early signs of violent conflict, thus ultimately supporting and improving conflict prevention initiatives. In so doing, Letouzé and colleagues have coined the concept of “Big Data for Conflict Prevention”, which has built on the application of Big Data for development put forward by the UN Global Pulse initiative, which identifies three categories of Big Data for Conflict Prevention:

  1. “digital breadcrumbs”, i.e. traces of human actions picked up by digital devices, or the digital translation of human actions (making a phone call, making a purchase, online research, updating a Facebook profile, etc.);
  2. open web data (social media, blogs, online news, and so on), most of which is unstructured; and
  3. remote sensing data using satellite imagery.[3]

As such, Big Data may serve objectives in conflict prevention such as:

  1. early warning (the early detection of anomalies in how people use digital devices and services);
  2. real-time awareness (i.e. how Big Data can paint a fine-grained representation of reality that is also accurate to the present situation); and
  3. real-time feedback (making it possible to understand where policies and programmes are failing, and thus facilitating decision-making for necessary adjustments).[4]

However, those with the power to authorise the collection and analysis of data through ICT or Big Data technologies would need to consider carefully issues of personal and digital privacy, data protection and the so-called digital divide, i.e. the social, geographical and economic gap in access to, the use of and the impact of ICT.

The way ahead

To enable the EU to carry out an effective early warning and conflict analysis, this EU-CIVCAP report suggests that these technological developments and possibilities are considered and analysed by the EU to deduce how they could be integrated into its structure and thus enhance its conflict prevention and peace building capacities. Big Data could, for example, process the data received from Earth observation geospatial information sources in a fast, efficient and systematic manner. This is certainly pertinent in view of the current and continuing technical developments within the remote sensing area, such as the use of satellite constellations[5] and the launch of micro-satellites that will generate a greater amount of data than was ever possible previously. Combined with the role of the EU SatCen and the Copernicus programme’s services in support of EU external action, this will supply the EEAS and the European Commission with better quality, more regularly updated information. The performance of the current technologies used by the EU so far could be further enhanced if they are used in combination with the new technologies identified, which can provide the perception-based data that is not offered by tools such as the GCRI. As an example, a piece of software similar to Ushahidi, but adapted to the EU’s needs and concerns, could be useful for the Delegations in their collective role as one of the information analysis providers to EWS and conflict analysis.

The Deliverable 3.1 report also finds that the EU could take stock of the findings of the various Horizon 2020 projects that are currently being developed within the area of conflict prevention and peacebuilding, such as (just to mention a few):

  • The REACHING OUT project (“demonstRation of EU effective lArge sCale tHreat and crIsis maNaGement OUTside the EU”);
  • CIVILEX (“Supporting European Civilian External Actions”);
  • iTRACK (“Integrated system for real-time TRACKing and collective intelligence in civilian humanitarian missions”);
  • WOSCAP (“Whole-of-Society Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding”); or
  • the EU-CIVCAP project itself (“Preventing and responding to conflict: developing EU CIVilian CAPabilities for a sustainable peace”).

However, the integration of the instruments and technologies for conflict prevention and peace building as advised in this report would most certainly require an extensive review of the EU’s early warning and conflict analysis structures, and of its staff and their expertise. Additionally, this report has found that the EU’s current information exchange system is highly fragmented, outdated and not connecting all actors, with almost every EU policy area and service instead having its own classified information system. This is also true of the various Delegations in their communication with Brussels. Good interpersonal communication and cooperation between different actors and services that are willing to share information and collaborate will be key conditions for a smooth and effective exchange and sharing of information among the assorted Brussels-based bodies and EU Delegations. On the contrary, the findings of the report point towards a fragmentation as well on the physical level, as the EU’s conflict prevention structures are based in different premises and there is little coordination between them.

In view of the outcome and recommendations of the report, the best technological option for the improvement of the efficiency of the EU’s external action is a combination of existing and future geospatial information capabilities, with data obtained from different sources such as ICT, social media, internet and other digital sources. This can be achieved by creating a “Big Data Platform for Conflict Prevention”, as proposed by Letouzé, Meier and Vinck.

The EU Global Strategy stresses that targeted approaches to resilience, conflict prevention and resolution require deeper situational awareness, which means investing in the EEAS, equipping the Delegations and advancing the EU Conflict Early Warning System, amongst other improvements.[6] The EUGS, when treating the issues of security, terrorism and hybrid threats, also stresses that the EU must feed into and coordinate intelligence extracted from European databases, and put ICT—including big data analysis—at the service of deeper situational awareness.[7]

The Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, which sets out proposals for the implementation of the Global Strategy as directed by the HR/VP, underlines that preventing conflicts from erupting or escalating remains of paramount importance. However, it only mentions Early Warning in its eighth action point, in which it charges the EEAS with the responsibility to:

take stock of capabilities at hand in INTCEN and EUMS INT and develop short-, mid- and long-term proposals for Member States’ consideration for upgrading such capabilities in line with the level of ambition. Reinforce links between INTCEN/EUMS INT with other EU and Member States’ entities providing situational awareness in order to further support the development of a European hub for strategic information, early warning and comprehensive analysis.[8]

The plan uses terms such as “anticipation”, “situational awareness” and “strategic foresight” as means for preventing conflicts.[9] Whether or not this shift in terms and references will lead to a reformulation of the EU Conflict Early Warning System and conflict analysis is too early to predict. The implementation of the EUGS is “work in progress” and in June this year, a progress report should be submitted as part of the overall implementation process of the EUGS.


As highlighted in this article, the EU is encouraged to consider the recommendations of the report on “Technological Shortcomings in Early Warning and Conflict Analysis”, which can facilitate the implementation of the ambitions of the Global Strategy in the field of external action and more precisely in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Particularly, the EU should take note of the following recommendations:

  1. Reflect on how new technologies such as ICT and Big Data could be added, in a sustainable manner, to the existing technological tools for early warning and conflict analysis.
  2. Update, mainstream and coordinate the various capacities and their use within different conflict early warning and conflict analysis services, thereby bridging gaps, improving interconnectivity and avoiding duplication.
  3. Properly familiarise staff involved in the early warning and conflict analysis cycle with the available tools.
  4. Assure that technological tools for early warning and conflict analysis are aligned with EU policies on conflict prevention and vice versa.


[1] ITU (n.d.), “ICT Facts and Figures 2016”, International Telecommunication Union, no date [accessed 3 May 2017], available from:

[2] O’Donell, C. (2011), “New study quantifies use of social media in Arab Spring”, UW Today, 12 September [accessed 3 May 2017], available from:

[3] Letouzé, E., P. Meier and P. Vinck (2013), “Big Data for Conflict Prevention: New Oil and Old Fires”, in: F. Mancini (ed.), New Technology and the Prevention of Violence and Conflict, New York: International Peace Institute, 4–27: 11.

[4] Ibid.: 8–9.

[5] For example, the constellation of the Copernicus Sentinel Satellites supports the various services of the Copernicus programme with Earth observation data. The Sentinels constitute six different “families” of satellites, with each “family” consisting of two satellites operating in tandem.

[6] EU (2016), “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe – A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy”, European Union, June [accessed 3 May 2017], available from: 48.

[7] Ibid.: 50.

[8] Council of the EU (2016), ‘Implementation Plan on Security and Defence’, European External Action Service, Brussels, Belgium, 14 November [accessed 3 May 2017], available from: 5.

[9] Ibid.: 5, 11, 15, 17, 26.

Related Deliverable

dl_3-1DL 3.1: Report on Technological Shortcomings in Early Warning and Conflict Analysis

Authors: Berglund, J. and D. Bruckert
Institution: European Union Satellite Centre

Published: 30 January 2017

[PDF, ~1.5MB; click to access]


About the Author

Jenny Berglund

Jenny Berglund joined the EU Satellite Centre in 2002, where she is currently holding the post as Capability Development Officer, supporting the management of the Capability Development Division in the operational and strategical coordination.

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