Look at the world today, and you’ll find it studded with protests movements, large and small. If you’ve glimpsed the images in the slideshow up top, you’ll know that the phrase is meant literally. The stills have been taken from PhD student John Beieler’s global protest map, which tracks instances of protest around the world since 1979.
Beieler, who studies political science at Penn State, developed the visualization using data pulled from the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT). The dataset tracks and collates regional, national, and international news reports, filtering them for protests, as well as for outbursts of violence, political upheaval, and military mobilizations. Beieler’s map (found here) hone in on protest activity, which GDELT takes broadly to mean any subversive social action or behavior ranging from civil war to general strikes to even petitioning.
His sweeping timelines spans worldwide protests from January 1979—when GDELT began operations—up through June of this year. They are depicted as blinking yellow dots sprinkled throughout continents and usually, especially in most recent years, clustered together. The method is visually stunning, especially as one progresses through the timeline, seeing the events unfold before their eyes. Still, the visualization doesn’t qualify the data it portrays, meaning that there aren’t any distinctions as to what kinds of protests are lighting up your screen.
The shortcomings of the maps correspond to those of the data itself. As Beieler explains in a blog post that addresses these same issues, the approach is limited by media bias, which, for instance, can privilege one occurrence over another, if they bother to cover either at all. "For better or for worse, journalistic accounts of events are about the best we can do for large-scale, global projects such as this."
He also writes about the inherent inaccuracies of geo-tagging, and more technically, describes how the dots work when no specific location is given for a related event. "If an event occurs but does not have a specific location within a country, e.g., 'Protestors in Syria,' the event is geolocated to the centroid of the country." So the plains of central America is not the hotbed of revolutionary activity that you may mistake it for when initially cycling through the maps.
2013 has seen an intense outpouring of international protest movements, one seemingly following the other, giving Beieler a chance to test out his system in real-time and in greater depth. He recently focused his energies on documenting the increasingly volatile situation in Egypt. Using GDELT data, he’s plotted how pro-Morsi protests have spread within the country from Cairo and Alexandria outward. At the same time, he’s been able to similarly track government reactions to these protests. His conclusion? "Egypt is burning."