Can Data Predict Political Revolutions?

First Tunisia, then Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, and Morocco seemingly spontaneously combusted from the bottom up. Last weekend there were online calls for mass protests in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities; Libya is in a full-blown state of revolution as of this writing, with much of the country in the hands of rebels and government security forces firing on demonstrators in Tripoli.

Clearly, 2011 already ranks as one of history's great revolutionary epochs alongside 1848, 1918, 1949, and 1968. Something powerful and seemingly irresistible is being unleashed. But what is it exactly?

The conventional explanation is that frustration with corrupt regimes has been pushed to the tipping point, propelled by legions of unemployed young people who are connected as they never have been before by social media like Facebook and Twitter.

The "Shoe-Throwers' Index" (see chart below) is The Economist's attempt to quantify all of these factors. It is weighted to the age structure of the population (specifically, the percent of people under 25 years of age) and accounts for the number of years a government has been in power, its lack of democracy and excess of corruption, the prevalence of censorship, and the level of economic development as measured by GDP per person. The Economist notes that Jordan comes out surprisingly low on the index and suggests that its weighting might benefit from some additional tweaks.

Inspired by The Economists' efforts and emboldened by its self-criticism, I decided to try to build an index of my own--the Index of Potential Unrest (IPU). With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, we pulled together statistics from 152 nations and sorted them according to eight key variables: human capital levels in combination with percent of the workforce in the creative class, life satisfaction, GDP per capita, perceptions about local labor market conditions, Internet access, freedom, tolerance, and honesty in elections. The data comes from the World Bank, the International Labor Organization, and the Gallup Organization. The map below shows how these nations stack up.


The IPU does reasonably well in predicting the unrest and revolutionary activism that are spreading across the Middle East today. Among the highest-scorers are the West Bank/Gaza Strip (.75), Yemen (.75), Egypt (.74), and Iraq (.72).  Seven more Middle Eastern and North African nations have relatively high IPU scores:  Morocco (.68), Lebanon (.64), Syria (.61), Jordan (.61), Algeria (.6), Tunisia (.57), and Libya (.51), while Saudi Arabia (.4) and Bahrain (.4) show more moderate levels.  On the other hand, Kuwait (.23), Qatar (.22), and the United Arab Emirates (.21) score in the same range as Luxemburg, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada. Obviously this metric is not infallible--things are much less stable in Bahrain than its moderate score (.4) would suggest; Libya's score fails to reflect the outsized role of its insane dictator.

That said, it's interesting to note that the real powder kegs are not even in the Middle East. The nation with the highest ranking on the IPU is Togo (.93), followed by Mongolia (0.83), Armenia (.81), Haiti (.8), and the Ukraine (.79). China's IPU score of .51 is on par with Libya's.

On the other side of the ledger, the world's most stable nations are the Netherlands (.15), Norway (.15), Australia (.17), Finland (.18) and Canada (.19). The United States is in 20th place (.3).

In my next post, I will add a new wrinkle to the broader story of what's been driving these waves of revolution, focusing on the unprecedented role played by techies, social media types, videographers, musicians, the intelligentsia and artists, as well as business, legal, and medical professionals who make up the creative class.