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VMASC’s Sokolowski and Banks Developing M&S Model for Predictions of Population Displacement

In a report at a NATO conference in late 2011, John Sokolowski, executive director of Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), used modeling and simulation to accurately predict the number of refugees that would ultimately be displaced by the ongoing insurrection in Syria.

Calibrating the model and verifying its findings with United Nations reports of displaced Syrians validates the design and capability of the model.

Sokolowski served on expert M&S panels at the NATO CAX Multiconference and I3M Multiconference in Rome, Italy, from Sept. 12-14, 2011.

As events involving displaced populations from the Syrian civil war have unfolded as the model predicted, Sokolowski and colleague Catherine Banks, research associate professor at VMASC, are now developing an expanded model to represent all categories of displaced populations - from refuges, to asylum seekers, to stateless people. Their goal is to create a Population Displacement Model that can be used to assess the movement of individuals triggered by any event, based on numerous factors.

The researchers contend that modeling and simulation, with its ability to anticipate needs and proffer strategy, is the most purposeful way to analyze and respond to the complex phenomenon of population displacement.

Their first objective is to create a Population Displacement Index, which could be used by governments, relief agencies and other affected groups to mitigate, anticipate and/or aid any type of population migration. "From a logistics and care standpoint, it's important to understand the magnitude of people likely to be displaced by a particular event," Sokolowski said.

Although M&S has been used in the analysis of population movement by a few researchers, those studies are not engaging it the same way and not to the extent VMASC researchers will be developing their model. For the most part, the problem of population displacement has been analyzed from a statistical standpoint, but that is a static look at the problem rather than the approach Sokolowski and Banks are developing, which includes dynamic inputs.

Sokolowski was invited to the 2011 NATO conference and asked to present his research in agent-based human behavior modeling as a predictive tool, with a specific application of the Syrian conflict. The model was able to accurately represent Syria's population displacement of 200,000, showing the continuum of actual numbers over the course of two years.

"There is clearly an interest by many entities: NATO, the United States, the EU and the U.N., to understand what magnitude of people can potentially move and where they might go," Sokolowski said.

The initial findings of the Syrian case study serve as a prototype model for Sokolowski and Banks. By expanding, defining and enhancing the model to represent individual populations and the environment, the researchers will craft a holistic methodology for modeling factors of population displacement.

"The research takes an all-encompassing approach to population displacement. The central question we will be looking at is what motivates (causes) people to dislocate from their native environment," Banks said. There has been considerable debate inside the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations about how to assess different displaced populations. M&S offers a unique approach.

"Data, factors and other information can be added to the model's present representation of circumstances surrounding an event as a means to anticipating population displacement - be it famine or the overthrow of a government," Sokolowski said, in explaining the usefulness of M&S to investigate phenomena like population displacement.

"The goal is to help determine the magnitude of movement of a population in a given situation, and what their needs are going to be."

Banks added that the model "facilitates revising or appending data for different populations, environments and circumstances for the affected service providers," such as governments and relief agencies in the region.

Based in Suffolk, ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center is one of the world's leading research centers for computer modeling, simulation and visualization. The mission of the center is to conduct collaborative M&S research and development, provide expertise to government agencies and industry, and promote the university, Hampton Roads and Virginia as a center of modeling and simulation activities.