Counting conflict


How do we conceptualize conflict? Before even attempting to count conflict, or gauge its impacts, we must first define what conflict encompasses. According to the Igarapé Institute, conflict metrics “should proxy for the frequency, intensity and related pain and suffering generated by warfare” and are important to tell the stories of people affected by violence.

Yet, there are currently no official global standards for measuring or tracking conflict.

In the absence of an internationally accepted measure, conflict data is overwhelming provided by international research institutes, each with their own conception of what constitutes conflict and the best metrics to measure this understanding.

This diversity, argues Kristine Eck, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Conflict Data, can cause confusion for those unfamiliar with the field.

To help understand what metrics are out there, we looked at four prominent sources of conflict-related data, their methodologies, and the concepts used to inform these.

1. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program

The Uppsala Conflict Data Program has recorded ongoing violent conflicts since the 1970s, and its data has been harnessed extensively throughout the research community.

The program defines conflict as “a contested incompatibility that concerns government or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths”, and definitions for other concepts related to conflict are exhaustively outlined.

There are a number of datasets available for download in CSV, Excel, SQL, SHX, R, and KLM formats, indicating:

  • Individual events of organized violence (phenomena of lethal violence occurring at a given time and place) geocoded down to the level of individual villages, with temporal durations disaggregated to individual days
  • Armed conflict where at least one party is the government of a state in the time period 1946-2014, with variables containing information on conflict/dyadic onset and incidence at country level
  • Specific start- and end- dates for conflict activity and means of termination for each conflict episode
  • Intentional attacks on civilians by governments and formally organized armed groups
  • Communal and organized armed conflict where none of the parties is the government of a state
  • Battle-related deaths in the conflicts from 1989-2014
  • Conflict actors
  • Peace agreements signed between at least two opposing primary warring parties in an armed conflict 1975-2011
  • Existence, type, and provider of external support for all warring parties
  • Measures taken by third parties in low-intensity intrastate dyad-years in the time period 1993-2004
  • Third party interventions in conflict dyads in Africa between 1993 and 2007

Each dataset is offered with a codebook that explains the variables and definitions used to derive its data.

In addition, data can be explored via an interactive visualization, and the program also publishes annual charts and graphs.


Image: The program’s exploratory visualization.

2. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project codes the dates and locations of all reported political violence and protest events in over 60 developing countries in Africa and Asia.

As of early 2016, ACLED has recorded over 100,000 individual events, with ongoing data collection focused on Africa and ten countries in South and Southeast Asia. The data can be used for medium- and long-term analysis and mapping of political violence across developing countries through use of historical data from 1997.

Drawing upon political violence and protest metrics, rather than conflict per say, the project uses the following definition:

Political violence is the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation, as indicated by constituent events, the intent of which is to produce a comprehensive overview of all forms of political conflict within and across states.

ACLED collects information on nine distinct events that, together, capture the activity that occurs within political violence. These include three types of battles, violence against civilians, remote violence, rioting (violent demonstrations) and protesting (non-violent demonstrations), and three types of non-violent events. Battle type are distinguished by whether control of a location is unchanged as a consequence of the event; whether a nonstate group has assumed control of a location; or whether a government has resumed control of that location. Battles make up approximately one third of the dataset. Violence against civilians comprise another third of the collected data; non-violent headquarter and base establishment is under 1%; non-violent activity including recording incidences of looting, peace talks, high profile arrests, recruitment into non-state groups etc. account for 6%; non-violent takeover of territory is also under 1%, riots assume 7.5% and protests 14%.

3. The Armed Conflict Database

The Armed Conflict Database (ACD), maintained by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, provides detailed information on more than 70 conflicts worldwide.

The ACD covers the world’s international, internal and terrorist conflicts, whether active, subject to a ceasefire, or halted by a peace accord. Users can generate reports and download data as well as browse year-by-year analyses and fact sheets.

Statistics are available from 1997 onwards, when applicable, and cover fatalities, refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Reports can be generated for several years and across regions.


Image: ACD.

A detailed definition for each indicator and term is provided alongside the database.

The ACD currently monitors conflicts in Central America’s Northern Triangle, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, China, Cyprus, Kosovo, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, the Sahel, Yemen, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, West Papua, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Cote D’ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and worldwide terrorism.

Yet, unfortunately, for the time being ACD data is only available via subscription.

4. The Correlates of War project

Founded in 1963 at the University of Michigan, The Correlates of War Project seeks to systematically accumulate scientific knowledge about war.

As of April 2016, the Project offers a large number of free to use datasets covering:

  • Lists of wars
  • Militarized interstate disputes
  • National capabilities
  • Alliances
  • Territorial change
  • Direct Contiguity
  • Intergovernmental organizations
  • Diplomatic exchanges
  • Bilateral trade

Of particular noteworthiness, the Project’s data touches on more subjective concepts related to conflict, like power. In this case, six indicators - military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population – are used to create a composite indicator of national capability, as a means of representing the amount of power welded by any one nation.


Image: An example of how the project's more unconventional metrics can help gauge power distributions.

To further understand the research and concepts behind the Project’s datasets, it offers a comprehensive bibliography and extensive list of conflict data resources.

Image: Whatknot.