This is a guest post by Neal Caren. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He studies social movements and the media.

Folks like Jay Ulfelder and Erin Simpson have already pointed out the flaws in Mona Chalabi’s recent stories that used GDELT to count and map the number of kidnappings in Nigeria. I don’t have much to add, except to point out that hints to some of the problems with using the data to count events were in the dataset all along.

In the first story, “Kidnapping of Girls in Nigeria Is Part of a Worsening Problem,” Chalabi writes:

The recent mass abduction of schoolgirls took place April 15; the database records 151 kidnappings on that day and 215 the next.

To investigate the source of this claim, I downloaded the daily GDELT files for those days and pulled all the kidnappings (CAMEO Code 181) that mentioned Nigeria. GDELT provides the story URLs. Each different GDELT event is assocaited with a URL, although one article can produce more than one GDELT event.

I’ve listed the URLs below. Some of the links are dead, and I haven’t looked at all of the stories yet, but, as far as I can tell, every single story that is about a specific kidnapping is about the same event. You can get a sense of this by just look at the words in the URLS for just those two days. For example, 89 of the URLs contain the word “schoolgirl” and 32 contain Boko Haram. It looks like instead of 366 different kidnappings, there were many, many stories about one kidnapping.

Something very strange is happening with the way the stories are parsed and then aggregated. I suspect that this is because when reports differ on any detail, each report is counted as a different event. Events are coded on 57 attributes each of which has multiple possible values and it appears that events are only considered duplicates when they match all on attributes. Given the vagueness of events and variation in reporting style, a well-covered, evolving event like the Boko Haram kidnapping is likely to covered in multiple ways with varying degrees of specificity, leading to hundreds of “events” from a single incident.

Plotting these “events” on a map only magnifies the errors–there are 41 different unique latitudes/longitudes pairs listed to described the same abduction.

At a minimum, GDELT should stop calling itself an “event” database and call itself a “report” database. People still need to be very careful about using the data, but defaulting to writing that there were 366 reports about kidnapping in Nigeria over these two days is much more accurate than saying there were 366 kidnappings.

In case you were wondering, GDELT lists 296 abductions associated with Nigeria that happened yesterday (May 14th, 2014) in 42 different locations. Almost all of the articles are about the Boko Haram school girl kidnappings, and the rest are entirely miscoded, like the Heritage blog post about how the IRS is targeting the Tea Party.

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Sadly, we haven’t posted in a while. My own excuse is that I’ve been working a lot on a dissertation chapter. I’m presenting this work at the Young Scholars in Social Movements conference at Notre Dame at the beginning of May and have just finished a rather rough draft of that chapter. The abstract:

Scholars and policy makers recognize the need for better and timelier data about contentious collective action, both the peaceful protests that are understood as part of democracy and the violent events that are threats to it. News media provide the only consistent source of information available outside government intelligence agencies and are thus the focus of all scholarly efforts to improve collective action data. Human coding of news sources is time-consuming and thus can never be timely and is necessarily limited to a small number of sources, a small time interval, or a limited set of protest “issues” as captured by particular keywords. There have been a number of attempts to address this need through machine coding of electronic versions of news media, but approaches so far remain less than optimal. The goal of this paper is to outline the steps needed build, test and validate an open-source system for coding protest events from any electronically available news source using advances from natural language processing and machine learning. Such a system should have the effect of increasing the speed and reducing the labor costs associated with identifying and coding collective actions in news sources, thus increasing the timeliness of protest data and reducing biases due to excessive reliance on too few news sources. The system will also be open, available for replication, and extendable by future social movement researchers, and social and computational scientists.

You can find the chapter at SSRN.

This is very much a work still in progress. There are some tasks which I know immediately need to be done — improving evaluation for the closed-ended coding task, incorporating the open-ended coding, and clarifying the methods. From those of you that do event data work, I would love your feedback. Also if you can think of a witty, Googleable name for the system, I’d love to hear that too.

For my dissertation, I’ve been working on a way to generate new protest event data using principles from natural language processing and machine learning. In the process, I’ve been assessing other datasets to see how well they have captured protest events.

I’ve mused on before on assessing GDELT (currently under reorganized management) for protest events. One of the steps of doing this has been to compare it to the Dynamics of Collective Action dataset. The Dynamics of Collective Action dataset (here thereafter DoCA) is a remarkable undertaking, supervised by some leading names in social movements (Soule, McCarthy, Olzak, and McAdam), wherein their team handcoded 35 years of the New York Times for protest events. Each event record includes not only when and where the event took place (what GDELT includes), but over 90 other variables, including a qualitative description of the event, claims of the protesters, their target, the form of protest, and the groups initiating it.

Pam Oliver, Chaeyoon Lim, and I compared the two datasets by looking at a simple monthly time series of event counts and also did a qualitative comparison of a specific month.

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The Databasement

This weekend, I made it out to Penn State to participate in the GDELT hackathon, sponsored by the Big Data Social Science IGERT and held in the punnily-named Databasement. The hackathon brought together a lot of different groups – political scientists, industry contractors, computer and information scientists, geographers, and — of course — sociologists (I was one of two).

GDELT, as you may remember, a political events database with nearly  225 million events from 1979 to the present. Hackathon attendees had interests ranging from optimizing and normalizing the database, predicting violent conflict, and improving event data in general.

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I’ve jumped in on the development of the rewrite of TABARI, the automated coding system used to generate GDELT, and the Levant and KEDS projects before it. The new project, PETRARCH, is being spearheaded by the project leader Phil Schrodt and the development led by Friend of Bad Hessian John Beieler. PETRARCH is, hopefully, going to be more modular, written in Python, and have the ability to work in parallel. Oh, and it’s open-source.

One thing that I’ve been working on is the ability to extract features from newswire text that is not related to coding for event type. Right now, I’m working on numerical detection — extracting relevant numbers from the text and, hopefully, tagging it with the type of number that it is. For instance:

One Palestinian was killed on Sunday in the latest Israeli military operation in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, medics said.

or, more relevant to my research and the current question at hand:

Hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip protested the upcoming visit of US President George W. Bush on Tuesday while demanding international pressure on Israel to end a months-old siege.

The question is, do any guidelines exist for converting words like “hundreds” (or “dozens”, “scores”, “several”) into numerical values? I’m not sure how similar coding projects in social movements have handled this. John has suggested the ranges used in the Atrocities Event Data (e.g. “several” = 5-24, “tens” = 50-99). What other strategies are there?

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.

egypt-gdelt

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