finding Bin Laden: the usefulness, and the shortcomings, of abstract geographic analysis

Wired‘s Danger Room has a great new piece by Richard Wheeler about a 2009 paper by a couple of UCLA geography professors that tried to predict Bin Laden’s most likely hiding spot based on, among other things, a theory called “island biogeography.” The theory is usually used to predict species richness in isolated environments. But it’s also used to predict survivability for endangered species, and the professors and their class of undergraduate helpers attempted to predict where Bin Laden would likely have the greatest chance of survival.

The whole exercise sounds more than a little tongue-in-cheek, but news outlets at the time got a bit overheated with their claims, and after Sunday’s kill-or-(ahem)capture raid, the media revisited the paper, in some cases again suggesting, at least in headlines, that it had accurately predicted Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

But Wheeler says that’s not quite right, and that thinking science works like the magical, 30-second “intelligence analysis” of shows like Alias and 24 obscures the potential value of this kind of model — which is to say, as a useful heuristic to be included in an overall program of intensive, long-term, culturally-aware analysis based on specific information.

Wheeler details some of the assumptions in the paper that didn’t hold water (as well as some of the assumptions people have made about what the paper actually says). E.g.,

[T]he paper said that the likelihood that he would be somewhere within 300 kilometers of Tora Bora would be [88.44%]…. But even though Abbottābad falls within this area of 88.44% probability, so does Islamabad, Kabul, and numerous other urban areas. And the model doesn’t give any indication of the likelihood that bin Laden in one of those places or any other point in the 282,743 or so square kilometers defined by the 300 kilometer radius circle whose center is at Tora Bora, only that he is 88.44% likely to be somewhere in that circle.

So Gillespie and Agnew did not claim that they knew where bin Laden was hiding in 2009, and they aren’t now….


[T]he authors identify 26 urban islands where bin Laden could be, and this more or less works. They then chose Parachinar from this list based on a set of assumptions — which turn out to be questionable.

For example the authors fail to take into account important cultural factors. A 2009 response to the paper by Murtaza Haider notes “Since I am from the Northwest Frontier Province, I find it a little odd that Osama [a Sunni Muslim] may be hiding in the only Shiite majority town in the entire tribal region of Pakistan.”….

Finally, once they had narrowed down their search to Parachinar, the authors used high-resolution satellite imagery from Digital Globe’s QuickBird satellite to perform manual imagery analysis of structures to assess whether they might be potential hideouts. But here at the last mile their methodology breaks down even further….

For example, based on the characteristic “Is 6′ 4″ tall” the authors assume “Tall building.” But tall people do not get tall buildings and short people do not get short buildings — all people usually get buildings that are about the same size. Next, the authors assume that bin Laden had kidney problems that required access to a dialysis machine. But as Danger Room’s 2009 review points out, “the professors accept as fact that bin Laden requires a kidney dialysis machine. That means he must need to be close to an electrical grid or generator, the UCLA pair reason. Too bad the thing is complete folklore — debunked again and again.”

Read the whole thing — it’s short, clear, and interesting!

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One Response to finding Bin Laden: the usefulness, and the shortcomings, of abstract geographic analysis

  1. Nathan says:

    I was looking at one of those articles the other day…the ones trying to say they had gotten it right with their formula. I didn’t do the math, but it seemed to me that a circle with a 300km radius wasn’t exactly pinpoint spotting when you consider that a single person occupies approximately 9 sq. meters at any given moment (assuming you give him plenty of elbow room.

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