From Cairo to Wall Street to the West Bank, plotting a world of upheaval.
- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
This is what data from a world in turmoil looks like. The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) tracks news reports and codes them for 58 fields, from where an incident took place to what sort of event it was (these maps look at protests, violence, and changes in military and police posture) to ethnic and religious affiliations, among other categories. The dataset has recorded nearly 250 million events since 1979, according to its website, and is updated daily.
John Beieler, a doctoral candidate at Penn State, has adapted these data into striking maps, like the one above of every protest recorded in GDELT — a breathtaking visual history lesson. Some events to watch for as you scroll through the timeline:
- Strikes and protests in response to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms.
- Poland lighting up through the 1980s while Cold War-era Eastern Europe stays dark.
- The escalation of apartheid protests in South Africa in the late 1980s.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of protests in Eastern Europe preceding the end of the Soviet Union.
- Protests in Iraq coinciding with Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.
- The explosion of protests in the United States since 2008 — think Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements.
- Iran’s Green Movement protests after the presidential election in 2009.
- The Arab Spring, with protests stretching across North Africa and the Middle East starting in 2011.
- The persistence of protests in perennial hotspots like Kashmir, Tibet, and Israel and the West Bank.
The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data — and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables. Take, for example, the protests across the United States in late 2011: Some are Occupy protests, others are Tea Party protests, but the difference in the political identity of those demonstrations isn’t reflected in the map. There are some strange things that happen when the data are mapped, as well. A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn’t specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).
Another issue is that the results are only as good as the data. While the scale of GDELT’s database is impressive, it’s influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. "In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall," he explained. "So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media," especially news.
Look again at that dark splotch in Eastern Europe through the 1980s — is that the absence of protest, or the presence of strong state-run media? The data simply show that protests were not reported by the press. That doesn’t necessarily lessen the significance of the data presented in the map, he notes: "Where this is so important is that news media is really our only cross-national comparative dataset capturing human society at this scale, so what this map reflects is the view of global protests conveyed by the news media over time…. [It] shows how media coverage of protests has increased so massively over the past decade…"
Beieler’s global protest map takes a wide-angle approach to geography and time, but he’s also interested in how mapping GDELT data can help analyze specific crises. And in the past several weeks, he’s had a case study with the pro-Morsy protests and military crackdown in Egypt.
Look at these two maps, made using data from Egypt from Aug. 9 to Aug. 17. This first map, at the top of the page, tracks the location and intensity of protests (the purple and yellow dots) and events involving violence directed at civilians (the red circles). Like the previous map, making sense of the visual has its limitations: Some of those purple and yellow dots represent supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, while others represent counterprotesters. What the map does illustrate, though, is the diffusion of protests across the country even as violence has been concentrated in major metropolitan areas, especially Cairo and Alexandria. The map "is enormously powerful in its ability to convey how unrest has spilled beyond Cairo," Leetaru told FP.
In this second map of Egypt, Beieler tracked protests (again as the purple and yellow dots) and changes in military or police posture (the red circles), which "can include things such as an increase in police alert status, a mobilization of police power, or some other exhibition of police power," Beieler explained to FP. The map shows where the military and police did and did not respond to protests. But it’s not all about protests: Look at the Sinai, where military actions responding to extremist groups are recorded in the absence of protests.
The maps of Egypt’s protests and violence are "enormously powerful in [their] ability to convey how unrest has spilled beyond Cairo," Leetaru writes. "To me, the most powerful part of these visualizations is being able to see the spatial patterns in unrest."