Spies turn to Twitomancy

That’s the use of Twitter for divination purposes. And, Nature says, is now an official field of government intelligence research:

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a research arm of the US intelligence community, is sponsoring the work under the Open Source Indicators (OSI) programme. The three-year project, with an unspecified budget, is designed to gather digital data from a range of sources, from traffic webcams to television to Twitter. The goal, according to IARPA, is to provide the intelligence community with predictions of social and political events that can “beat the news”.

At the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, computer scientist Peter Gloor has been working with colleagues to build models that can predict consumer behaviour, such as ticket sales for Hollywood films, using a range of online sources including social media. “We’re up to 90% accuracy” for predicting box-office returns, says Gloor, who is part of a team applying for OSI funding.

John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, is working with a group that analyses international news sources, government data and social media to provide an early warning of disease outbreaks. He is also applying to work on the IARPA project. “In many cases, what we are searching for are patterns of activity that would not only apply to disease events but to conflicts, environmental disasters and other forms of social disruption,” he says.