What you’re looking at is a visualization of what protests were happening in January 1979.

The date marks the initiation of the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), began tracking protests activity worldwide.

The maps were put together by Penn State doctoral candidate John Beieler using data lifted from GDELT, which filters media reports for information.

Though GDELT monitors all kinds of subversive events, Beieler focused on protests, which he holds to a broad definition.

For Beiler, these events can be full-fledged movements, like the Anti-War Movement and Occupy...

...but they could also mean periodical labor strikes and even just pamphleteering.

Beieler admits that the approach isn't as nuanced as it could be. Geolocation, for one thing, is a tough nut to crack. If, say, a report from the 1970-80s makes mention of "demonstrations in California," the map generalizes the location, placing it in the geographic center of the country of origin. (In the U.S., that's someplace in Kansas.)

He also notes how protest activity is fundamentally dependent on media reporting and the bias that comes with that. There's also the fact that since 1979, the media's borders have exponentially broadened, with coverage into areas--today's Russia versus pre-89 USSR, for example--with hitherto closed or suppressed activities.

So if the world looks like it's increasingly become more hostile or reactionary, that's not entirely the case.

Co.Design

A Biased Map Of Every Global Protest In The Last 40+ Years

The Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, Occupy Wall Street. All these and more figured into this stunning timeline that charts the contemporary history of protests.

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."

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Greg Gibbs

    I would say if you 'weighted' these protests by their level of importance - IE.  a picket line at 1, a march at 2, a demonstration at 3, a strike at 4, a confrontation at 5, an occupation at 6, a violent clash at 7, a partial political revolution at 8, a full political revolution at 9, duel power arising at 10, civil war at 11, social revolution at 12, etc.  then you could see if there is a mathematical probably of a certain event happening, if it conforms to the power law of criticality theory.  I think it would
    Greg Gibbs