’Cane Talk Reveals Links between Big Data and Terrorism

By Jennifer Palma

’Cane Talk Reveals Links between Big Data and Terrorism

By Jennifer Palma
Fifteen years after the twin towers fell, Physics Professor Neil Johnson is changing the way the world looks at how future attacks could be prevented.

Not one seat remained open during Neil Johnson’s ’Cane Talk last week, as the University of Miami physics professor shared how he and his research team are harnessing big data to uncover, monitor, and perhaps stop future terrorist attacks.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Johnson said during his presentation, referring to the large amount of terrorist activity that occurs online and in social media groups.

For a study published in the journal Science in June, Johnson and his research team monitored pro-ISIS groups on VKontakte, the largest online social networking service in Europe, which, based in Russia, has more than 350 million users from multiple cultures who speak multiple languages.

Applying a mathematical formula to measure social media activity, the research revealed complexities and patterns within the formation of terrorist groups that could be used to predict real-world attacks—findings that have captivated audiences around the world. Johnson’s research has been recognized by defense and securities agencies worldwide.

Before welcoming Johnson to the ’Cane Talks stage at the Shalala Student Center, UM President Julio Frenk invited the audience to continue transcending boundaries and taking an interdisciplinary approach to research.

“The University of Miami is truly a magnet for talent,” Frenk said. “We are home to scholars who are world-class—and whose research is crucial to understand and transform our world.”

Following Johnson’s presentation, Gregory J. Shepherd, dean of the School of Communication, fielded questions from engaged audience members who echoed the need to continue such impactful research.  

Johnson’s ’Cane Talk is the first of the 2016-2017 academic year. The  inaugural 10 ’Cane Talks are available for viewing at canetalks.miami.edu.