Fellows Friday with Sean Gourley

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Sean Gourley analyzed real-time data from the Iraq war and discovered a precise mathematical model underlying it. Now he’s expanding on that research at Quid, his startup that maps trends in technology. Having unearthed such powerful information, Sean takes time to help kids understand the importance of math, even while he grapples with the eternal Frankenstein question.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Sean asks:

What are some of the lessons from war we can apply to other human endeavors?

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It was a big undertaking to collect and analyze data for the size and timing of violent events in the Iraq war. What made you begin?

I was sitting down with James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA. He was at a dinner at Oxford where I was a PhD student, and we were discussing the impending war in Iraq. It was one of those classic Oxford dinner conversations, where you sit around these high tables, Harry Potter-style, and you discuss the things of the world.

It was 2003 and the Iraq war was on everyone’s mind. I don’t want to say which side of the argument either of us was on, but the fact is we disagreed. We couldn’t reconcile our differences in any meaningful way because I could see his point of view, and he could see my point of view, but who was right? Without empirical data and a set of testable models, you could discuss your views all night without progressing any further. It seemed like there had to be a better way.

So I went and looked at what research was being done on the topic. The reality was there was very little being done in this space. Back in 2003 we were just getting the first blogs out of Iraq, with real-time information, with news media being published and accessible through the Internet.  At that time there were also other mathematical models beginning to emerge, models that were starting to explain human behavior.

I had a hunch that there might be some mathematical pattern that might emerge once we’d looked inside Iraq. No one had ever looked inside a conflict as it was happening. No one had ever pulled apart individual attacks and no one had ever dissected these things in real time. That was the big challenge.

Why was it such a surprise to find the model you did?

It’s more that it was such a good fit. We had a hunch that there might be something. We were looking for a signal — but didn’t expect to be hit over the back of the head with it. We didn’t think it would have been that clean and that obvious.

That was the surprise — you just don’t expect that to come out of a war zone, much less a place like Iraq, where everyone was saying that it was one of the most chaotic places in the world. And yet it had this startling mathematical order beneath it. It was really just the cleanness of the mathematical signature that struck us.

You’ve found that this pattern can be seen in other situations … it applies to startups in Silicon Valley, for example.

Yes, that’s precisely it. What underlies the mathematical signature we see in Iraq is really part of a broader type of system — an asymmetric system. How is it, in the world we live in, that we get small groups start to emerge quite rapidly, and take on and often beat the incumbent players? That’s the case whether they are large companies, corporations, political movements, or indeed, military forces. How do you understand the mathematics that allows small things to win?

It’s sort of something that we think really shouldn’t be able to happen. You shouldn’t really be able to get a small group to take on a larger group. You shouldn’t have a small startup that can beat Microsoft. And yet from Silicon Valley to Iraq we see it happening time and again.

It’s something that can be used for good and for bad. In the innovation space, it’s really quite a positive thing. With political change, it can also be really positive. Potentially with insurgent groups and terrorism, it can be a very bad thing.

What is the connection between this mathematical model and your work at Quid?

The basic goal of Quid is to collect information about global systems in the world: everything from technology to conflict, to political unrest … and to structure this information in such a way that it can be stored and used to feed into different mathematical models. We can then put those models up into advanced visualizations to allow decision makers in governments, corporations, finance and the non-profit space to make their decisions about the global systems that are changing rapidly.

Cluster Map of Technology Companies across Sectors, 2010. (© 2011 Quid, Inc.)

Quid allows us to ask the deep questions about global systems: What is it that drives technology forward? What is it that is going on in Northern Africa at the moment that allows the political movements to happen there? How do we get real time information out of those places? How do we process that? And how do we package that up in such a way that allows people to make better decisions around it?

Geographic Heat Map of Financial Investment in Technology Companies in India and China. (© 2011 Quid, Inc.)

So Quid for me is an extension of the work in realizing that the mathematics of war was one part of the broader global system that includes political, technological and social movements.

We’ve launched our first product to a limited group of customers. It’s in the technology vertical, and it’s being really well received. In the coming months, we’ll release the next vertical. There are some questions about what that’s going to be. We’re looking at the space around conflict for the next product that we put out.

Cluster Map of Technology Companies in Sustainability Sub-Sectors, 2011. (© 2011 Quid, Inc.)

What caused your shift from the world of academia to entrepreneurship?

After I gave my TED talk and published the results of the study in Nature, I had a time of reflection. When I looked at the scope of the work I was doing, I realized it was probably a hundred million dollar problem. In order to get our heads around understanding war and understanding epidemics and political movements and innovation and technology — the big global systems that govern the world we’re in — it was going to take a lot more money and a lot more people.

And for me, the idea of chasing tenure within the formal structure of a University department wasn’t quite right.

Quid for me is the extension of my research, but using a set of different resources to do it. With enough money from venture capital, I can bring together many very, very smart people. We have some of the top string theorists, engineers, neuroscientists and mathematicians. It’s a really interdisciplinary group of people coming together to help me solve these problems.

Sean presenting at Quid’s weekly all-hands meeting.

That’s kind of the point of Quid: to get the resources to build a team that will take my research to the next level. It is quite a nice model, and I wonder as we go forward in the next decade, if more and more scientists will take on the venture capital model to push their research forward. We’ll see.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

What’s worked for me is having a sense of, and belief in, who I am and what I’m doing. That’s a foundation I always go back to. My naïve impression starting out was that the world will immediately get it and understand it. The reality is, if you’re really trying to do something new, most of the world won’t even care about it. Or, if they do care about it, they won’t really understand it. But over time and with persistence, it comes together.

The other bit of advice is just that if you are putting together a social entrepreneurship team, make sure you have the ability to tell your story and your vision, and the ability to get good people to come work with you on it. It’s so, so much about the team. As you get big enough, you can’t do it by yourself. Getting the right people together and getting them working together on the right problems is going to dictate how successful you are. That is the main learning for me.

Sean (far right) with Quid team at Quid’s 2011 Hack-a-thon.

Do you have any words of wisdom for kids in math and physics class who don’t think their classwork is relevant to the real world?

Whenever I go back to New Zealand I teach a few classes in physics or math. I teach about the role that mathematics has in the world that we live in today. I think it’s something that in high school you don’t really get exposed to.

In high school you go and learn 17th and 18th century mathematics. That’s the mathematics of understanding heavenly bodies: calculus, differentiation, integration. It’s not specifically the math of the world we live in today. The math of the world we live in today is much more like statistics.

People say the math of today is too complex for the kids to get their heads around. But I think that’s a fallacy. I think a lot of the math that is important today is just as easy or perhaps easier to understand than the 400 year old math that is currently taught, and what’s more — it is also incredibly relevant.

When I can sit down and spend a couple of hours with these kids, I think they come away with a sense that, “If I know math, I can understand the world and can do some powerful things within it. I never knew math was so important.” I think that’s the connection that’s missing.

You can look at things like, “How does Google return a search result to you?” That’s a set of mathematical equations based on network theory and an understanding of human behavior. “How does the stock market crash?” or “How do you do algorithmic trading on Wall Street?” “How does the Facebook news feed optimize which friend it shows you every day?” “How do viruses spread around the world?” Or, indeed, “How do wars start and what do they look like once they’re going?”

There are many different predictions about the future of warfare. What changes would have to occur to make your model obsolete?

That’s a really good question. I think if we saw a retrenchment back to state versus state warfare … if the US and China, God forbid, were to go to war, it’s not obvious that these mathematical models from Iraq would apply, because you’ve got two equally sized forces fighting. But as long as we’ve got the insurgent model, and the asymmetric dynamics, then I think we’re going to keep seeing these patterns.

What would be interesting would be to research, “To what extent can our understanding of insurgency transform regular warfare?” And, “If the US and China were to go to war, would there be an adoption of insurgent tactics? If so, what would that look like?”

The question about what we’ve uncovered is not so much, “Will it keep predicting the future of war?” But more so, now that we know this, “How will it change the future of war?”

Can the information you are producing be dangerous in the wrong hands?


Understanding how to mount a successful insurgency is very powerful. And understanding how to defeat an insurgency is also very powerful. It walks into the Mary Shelley Frankenstein kind of argument: what is the moral role of the scientist? You create a monster; you create a panacea. Is it up to you, as the scientist, to control where it goes?

I think the idea is that it’s almost inevitable that someone’s going to figure this stuff out. Whether it was going to be my group and me, or maybe someone five years later, it’s going to exist. And it’s not really a question of “Should you try and keep it undercover?” Because you can’t hide it. It’s more a question of, “What do you do with it now that you know it?” That’s the important thing.

My belief is that there are people who will use it for bad, and there are people that will use it for good. But hopefully, there are more people that will use it for good in the world, so that on balance, it’s a good thing.

But that said, you do have to be very careful with who you work with and collaborate with.

What’s the connection between your work and your TED Fellowship?

It is understanding the power of stories. That was a big takeaway from the TED Fellows program. It is ultimately about telling stories — stories around ideas. At the TED Conference, you get exposed to that, and you see many, many different stories being told — and told by some of the best people, in some of the most creative ways.

I think as the complexity of the world that we live in increases, and it moves faster, two things become really apparent. One is: you need mathematics to understand it. And the second is, you need the power of stories to explain it. I always kind of had the mathematics. Getting the stories has allowed that loop to be completed. And at that point, you can actually start to make a difference.

How do stories enrich the work you do?

When I was going through Iraq, I was confronted by the people that were behind the data points. It’s one thing to have people as numbers on the spreadsheet, so to speak. It’s another thing to see them and hear their personal stories.

War is both of those things. It’s coldly mathematical, and it’s intensely emotional. I think you need to see both to really understand it.