Microsoft has partnered to develop software which may be able to predict outbreaks of disease, riots and other forms of civil strife using old newspaper headlines.

The BBC reports the prototype software uses a combination of archive material from the New York Times and data from other websites, including Wikipedia.

The experts behind the software focused on predicting riots, deaths and disease outbreaks, and say it has accuracy of between 70 and 90 percent.

The project is a collaboration between Microsoft Research and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The scientists involved are using a mixture of archived news reports and real-time data, and say they are able to see links between past and future events.

For example, say the scientists, in 1973 the New York Times published news of a drought in Bangladesh, and in 1974 it reported a cholera epidemic. Following reports of another drought in the same country in 1983, the newspaper again reported cholera deaths in 1984.

"Alerts about a downstream risk of cholera could have been issued nearly a year in advance," said Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research, and Kira Radinsky, a PhD student at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.