A few months ago I started listening to Tomahawk, a band described on Wikipedia as “an experimental alternative metal/alternative rock supergroup.” Beyond the quality of their music, I found myself intrigued by the musical background of their members. In addition to Tomahawk, their other bands include acclaimed groups such as Faith No More, Helmet, the Melvins, Fantômas, and the Jesus Lizard. Mike Patton alone has been affiliated with at least fifteen bands. Continue reading

There have been repeated calls for “space” in many fields of social science (all links are behind paywalls, sorry):

  • Demography: (Voss 2007)
  • Sociology: (Gieryn 2000)
  • Epidemiology: for an early critical review (Jacquez 2000)
  • Geography: obviously geographers were into space before it was cool. A couple of pieces I like are Doreen Massey’s book, For Space and O’Sullivan (2006) for a review of GIS.
  • Anthropology: the proceedings of a conference including a piece by Clifford Geertz, Senses of Place (1996). Though what I’m writing here has less to do with the space/place debate.

These are nice papers about what the authors think should be new research agendas, bu I think social sciences need to stop calling for space and start “playing” with space. Let me explain…

This idea started when fellow Bad Hessian, Alex Hanna, suggested that I read a paper about spatio-temporal models of crime in Chicago. We are in the same writing group. Alex has suffered through many presentations of a paper I’m writing about crime in Chicago. Chicago? Crime? I mean these have to be related papers, right? So I gave it a quick read:

Seth R. Flaxman, Daniel B. Neill, Alex J. Smola. 2013. Correlates of homicide: New space/time interaction tests for spatiotemporal point processes. Heinz College working paper, available at: http://www.heinz.cmu.edu/faculty-and-research/research/research-details/index.aspx?rid=483

…and it’s a really great paper! Flaxman reviews three standard measures for spatial and temporal independence and then proposes a new measure that can simultaneously test for spatio-temporal dependence. The measures are validated against real crime data from Chicago. On the other hand, it’s also completely useless for my project. I mean, I stuck it in a footnote, but I can’t engage with it in a substantively meaningful way because my paper is about the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem and the good ol’ MAUP is fundamentally about polygons — not points. The MAUP occurs because a given set of points can be aggregated into any number of different polygon units, and the subsequent results of models, bivariate relationships, or even hot spot analysis might change based on the aggregation method.

This means that Flaxman’s approach and my approach are not comparable because they each rest on different assumptions about how to measure distance, social interaction, and spatial dependence. They’re based on different spatial ontologies, if you will. But back to the main argument of this post: could we play around with the models in Flaxman, the models I’m making, plus some other models in order to test some of the implications of our ideas of space? Here are some hypothetical hypotheses….

Isotropy. Isotropy means that effects are the same in every direction. For example, weather models often take into account anisotropy because of prevailing wind direction. As Flaxman mentions at the end of the paper, alternative distance measures like Manahatten distance could be used. I would take it a step further and suggest that distance could be measured across a trend surface which might control for higher crime rates on the south side of Chicago and in the near-west suburbs. Likewise, spatial regression models of polygon data can use polynomial terms to approximate trend surfaces. Do the additional controls for anisotropy improve model fit? Or change parameter estimates?

Spatial discontinuities. A neighborhood model posits — albeit implicitly and sort of wishy-washy — that there could be two locations that are very close as the crow flies, but are subject to dramatically different forces because they are in different polygons. These sharp breaks might really exist, e.g. “the bad side of the tracks”, red-lining, TIFF funding, empowerment zones, rivers, gated suburbs. Or they might not. Point process models usually assume that space is continuous, i.e. that there are no discontinuities. Playing around with alternative models might give us evidence one way or another.

Effect decay. In spatial regression models like I’m using, it’s pretty normal to operationalize spatial effects for contiguous polygons and then set the effect to zero for all higher order neighbors. As in the Flaxman paper, most point models use some sort of kernal function to create effect estimates between points within a given bandwidth. These are both pretty arbitrary choices that make spatial effects too “circular”. For exmple, think of the economic geographies of interstate exchanges in middle America. You’ll see fast food, big box retail, gas stations, car dealerships, hotesls, etc. at alomst every interchange. Certainly there is a spatial pattern here but it’s not circular and it’s not (exponentially, geometrically, or linearly) decaying across distance. Comparisons between our standard models — where decay is constrained to follow parametric forms — and semi-parametric “hot spot” analyses might tell us if our models of spatial effects are too far away from reality.

Ok. Those sound like valid research questions, so why not just do that research and publish some results? As I see it, spatial work in social sciences usually boils down to two main types of writing. First, there are the papers that aren’t terribly interested in the substantive research areas, and are more about developing statistical models or testing a bunch of different models with the same data. Here are some examples of that type:

  • (Dormann et al 2007) undertake a herculean task by explicating and producing R code for no less than 13 different spatial models.
  • (Hubbard et al 2010) compare GEE to mixed models of neighborhood health outcomes.
  • (Tita and Greenbaum 2009) compare a spatial versus a spatio-social network as weighting matrices in spatial regression.

The problem with this approach is that the data is often old, simplified data from well-known example datasets. Or worst yet, it is simulated data with none of the usual problems of missing data, measurement error, and outliers. At best, these papers use over simplified models. For example, there aren’t any control variables for crime even when there is a giant body of literature about the socio-cultural correlates of spatial crime patterns (Flaxman and I are both guilty of this).

The second type of research would be just the opposite: interested in the substantive conclusions and disinterested in the vagaries of spatial models. They might compare hierchical or logistic regressions to the spatial regressions, but very rarely go in depth about all the possible ways of operationalizing the spatial processes they’re studying. And when you think about it, you can’t blame them because journal editors like to see logical arguments for the model assumptions used in a paper – not an admission that we don’t know anything about the process under study and a bunch of different models all with slightly different operationalizations of the spatial process. But here’s the thing: we don’t actually know very much about the spatial processes at work! And we have absolutely no evidence that the spatial processes for, say, crime are also useful in other domains like educational outcomes, voting behavior, factory siting, human pathogens, or communication networks.

Thus, we don’t need more social science papers that do spatial models. We need (many) more social science papers that do multiple, incongruent spatial models on the same substantively rich datasets. I think it’s only by modeling, for example, crime as an isotropic point process, a social network with spatial distance between nodes, and a series of discrete neighborhood polygons can we start to grasp if one set of assumptions about space is more/less accurate and more/less useful. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m a big fan of George Box’s famous quote. This is the slightly longer version:

“Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” (Box & Draper 1987, 74)

Good luck, and go play!

[Update, 2013-07-22: I changed the citation to the Flaxman paper, as it is now a working paper in his department at Carneige Mellon University.]

This is a guest post by John Beieler, originally posted at http://johnbeieler.org/blog/2013/04/12/gdelt/

I made the remark on Twitter that it seemed like GDELT week due to a Foreign Policy piece about the dataset, Phil and Kalev’s paper for the ISA 2013 meeting, and a host of blog posts about the data. So, in the spirit of GDELT week, I thought I would throw my hat into the ring. But instead of taking the approach of lauding the new age that is approaching for political and social research due to the monstrous scale of the data now available, I thought I would write a little about the issues that come along with dealing with such massive data.

Dealing with GDELT

As someone who has spent the better part of the past 8 months dealing with the GDELT dataset, including writing a little about working with the data, I feel that I have a somewhat unique perspective. The long and the short of my experience is: working with data on this scale is hard. This may strike some as obvious, especially given the cottage industry that has sprung up around Hadoop and and other services for processing data. GDELT is 200+ million events spread across several years. Each year of the reduced data is in a separate file and contains information about many, many different actors. This is part of what makes the data so intriguing and useful, but the data is also unlike data such as the ever-popular MID data in political science that is easily managed in a program like Stata or R. The data requires subsetting, massaging, and aggregating; having so much data can, at some points, become overwhelming. What states do I want to look at? What type of actors? What type of actions? What about substate actors? Oh, what about the dyadic interactions? These questions and more quickly come to the fore when dealing with data on this scale. So while the GDELT data offers an avenue to answer some existing questions, it also brings with it many potential problems.

Careful Research

So, that all sounds kind of depressing. We have this new, cool dataset that could be tremendously useful, but it also presents many hurdles. What, then, should we as social science researchers do about it? My answer is careful theorizing and thinking about the processes under examination. This might be a “well, duh” moment to those in the social sciences, but I think it is worth saying when there are some heralding “The End of Theory”. This type of large-scale data does not reduce theory and the scientific method to irrelevance. Instead, theory is elevated to a position of higher importance. What states do I want to look at? What type of actions? Well, what does the theory say? As Hilary Mason noted in a tweet:

Data tells you whether to use A or B. Science tells you what A and B should be in the first place.

Put into more social-scientific language, data tells us the relationship between A and B, while science tells us what A and B should be and what type of observations should be used. The data under examination in a given study should be driven by careful consideration of the processes of interest. This idea should not, however, be construed as a rejection of “big data” in the social sciences. I personally believe the exact opposite; give me as many features, measures, and observations as possible and let algorithms sort out what is important. Instead, I think the social sciences, and science in general, is about asking interesting questions of the data that will often require more finesse than taking an “ANALYZE ALL THE DATA” approach. Thus, while datasets like GDELT provide new opportunities, they are not opportunities to relax and let the data do the talking. If anything, big data generating processes will require more work on the part of the researcher than previous data sources.

John Beieler is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University. Additionally, he is a trainee in the NSF Big Data Social Science IGERT program for 2013-2015. His substantive research focuses on international conflict and instances of political violence such as terrorism and substate violence. He also has interests in big data, machine learning, event forecasting, and social network analysis. He aims to bring these substantive and methodological interests together in order to further research in international relations and enable greater predictive accuracy for events of interest. 

This week, the Global Data on Events, Location, and Tone, or GDELT dataset went public. The architect of this project is Kalev Leetaru, a researcher in library and information sciences, and owes much to the work of Phil Schrodt.

The scale of this project is nothing short of groundbreaking. It includes 200 million dyadic events from 1979-2012. Each event profiles target and source actors, including not only states, but also substate actors, the type of event drawn from the Schrodt-specified CAMEO project, and even longitude and latitude of the event for many of the events. The events are drawn from several different news sources, including the AP, AFP, Reuters, and Xinhua and are computer-coded with Schrodt’s TABARI system.

To give you a sense how much more this has improved upon the granularity of what we once had, the last large project of this sort that hadn’t been in the domain of a national security organization is King and Lowe’s 10 million dyadic events dataset. Furthermore, the dataset will be updated daily. And to put a cherry on the top, as Jay Ulfelder pointed out, it was funded by the National Science Foundation.

For my own purposes, I’m planning on using these data to extract protest event counts. Social movement scholars have typically relied on handcoding newspaper archives to count for particular protest events, which is typically time-consuming and also susceptible to selection and description bias (Earl et al. 2004 have a good review of this). This dataset has the potential to take some of the time out of this; the jury is still out on how well it accounts for the biases, though.

For what it’s worth, though, it looks like it does a pretty bang-up job with some of the Egypt data. Here’s a simple plot I did across time for CAMEO codes related to protest with some Egyptian entity as the source actor. Rather low until January 2011, and then staying more steady through out the year, peaking again in November 2011, during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.


These data have a lot of potential for political sociology, where computer-coded event data haven’t really made much of an appearance. Considering the granularity of the data, that it accounts for many substate actors, social movement scholars would be remiss not to start digging in.

A few other resources on GDELT:
Leetaru and Schrodt’s 2013 ISA paper
Jay Yonamine‘s (one of Schrodt’s students) paper on predicting levels of violence in Afghanistan