The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) has been gathering and databasing all the news events related to conflict and political protest dating back to 1979. GDELT continues to be fed new data through the various global news services, automatically updating every day. At the end of July GDELT released their Global Dashboard which visualizes all of their data collected from February 2014 to present on a map of the world. It’s a fantastic tool for conflict management and resolution professionals who are interested in big data, since it takes their information and puts it in a visually attractive, easily navigable format. This is an exciting development, so how does it work and what can peacebuilding practitioners get out of using GDELT’s event data?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the Dashboard is new. As it stands there are only two filters for event data (‘conflict’ or ‘protest’), but there are plans to expand these filters so that users can easily focus on the events that are of most interest. For now they’ve done a pretty good job of helping filter out conflict events, which are basically events involving kinetic violence, from protest events, which could end up being violent but are generally more along the lines of protests and social action. While basic, these are good starting points for an initial filter. The nice thing about the dashboard though is that if I have some expertise about the region or event I’m interested in gathering data on, I don’t need the filters because I can use geography and date to narrow my search. The Dashboard allows the user to take advantage of their contextual knowledge to filter the data, so while the built-in filters that come later will be helpful researchers can still use the database efficiently now.

Let’s say we’re interested in recent protest events in South Africa, but we want to know if there have been any in smaller cities, since we know that there’s likely to be a lot of political action in places like Cape Town and Johannesburg. I started with the Dashboard zoomed out to the maximum, so I could see the whole world, then went to the bottom left and set the date that I was interested in seeing news from. For this test I picked August 3, 2014. Below is what the screen looked like at this point:

GDELT Global Dashboard

We can see the whole world, and in South Africa there are big dots indicating aggregated data. Since I want to see what’s happened outside the main cities, I zoomed in until the dots started to disaggregate, then I selected the ‘protest’ filter to remove the ‘conflict’ events. Once I was zoomed in the filter was set, I found that there was a protest event in Port Elizabeth so I clicked on the dot and a box with the web addresses for news articles about a protest against money being spent on a museum appeared: GDELT Global Dashboard: South Africa

I clicked on the Google News link, which took me to the related articles that Google had collected about that protest and read one that had been reposted by a local news service from the Agence France-Presse:

"South African shantytowns residents force anti-apartheid museum to close," Agence France-Presse

I managed to do this in a few minutes using the Dashboard, work that would have taken longer if I was just doing searches for protest news out of South Africa. What makes the tool really useful is that I can search in a few different dimensions. If want to know if this is the first time there has been social action around the museum in Port Elizabeth, I can leave the map zoomed in to that location and scan through the dates going back to February. What we can do, relatively easily, is see events and narratives spatially and analyze how they change over time.

This is a big dataset, so I thought hard about what its value added is from a methodology perspective. As I dug through the data, I realized something important. I’m not sure this is a database that will be particularly useful for forecasting or predictive analysis. You might be able to identify some trends (and that’s certainly a valid task!), but since the data itself is news reports there’s going to be a lot of variation across tone and word choice, lag between event and publication, and a whole host of other things that will make predictive analysis difficult.

As a qualitative dataset though, the GDELT data has incredible value. A colleague of mine pointed out that the Dashboard can help us understand how the media conceptualizes and broadcasts violence at the local level. Understanding how news media, especially local media, report things like risk or political issues is valuable for conflict analysts and peacebuilding professionals. I would argue that this is actually more valuable than forecasting or predictive modeling; if we understand at a deeper level why people would turn to violence, and how the local media narrative distills or diffuses their perception of risk or grievance, then interventions such as negotiation, mediation and political settlements can be better tailored to the local context.

Big Data is a space that is both alluring and enigmatic for conflict resolution professionals. One of the key challenges has always been making the data available in a way that is intuitive for non-technical experts to use. GDELT’s Dashboard is a great start to this, and the possibilities for improving our understanding of conflict through the narratives we can observe in the media are going to grow rapidly in the next few years.

This post originally appeared in Insight for Conflict on September 19, 2014. 


TechChange COO Chris Neu is fond of pointing out that in social change, technology is only 10% of the equation while the rest is about the humans using that technology. That 10% is a pretty powerful percentage though, and when technology is used effectively, it can amplify voices of peace and empower local communities that want to find alternatives to violence. It’s easy to forget though that technology isn’t the most important part of any information and communication technology (ICT) for peacebuilding enterprise; it’s the people, both the beneficiaries and the peacebuilders (who can be one and the same!). Because what we’re doing with ICTs in any peacebuilding context involves asking people to share data and participate in interventions, we must be aware of the risks participants face and how to manage those risks. The problem is that we face a variety of risks at multiple different levels when using ICTs in any political environment, so what are a few things we can focus on while planning a project?

An Institutional Review Process as a Starting Point
There are a variety of simple starting points. For example, if you are an academic or affiliated with an academic institution, they require you to go through an institutional review process before you can do any research involving human subjects. This would include doing a crowdsourcing project using SMS text messaging or social media. Many institutions have some kind of process like this, so check before you deploy your project. While tedious, the process of defending your risk management procedures can help you identify a lot of problems before you even start. If you don’t have an internal review board, grab a copy of the ICRC’s “Professional Standards for Protection Work” and check your project design and risk management against the recommendations in Chapter 6.

Along with doing this kind of standard review, what are some other factors that are unique to ICTs that you should be aware of?

1) National Infrastructure and Regulatory Policy
The first is that ICTs are part of national infrastructure, and are regulated at the national level. When you use any kind of transmission technology in a country, the rules for how that data is transmitted, stored and shared are set at the national level as part of regulatory policy. If the government in the country you’re working in is repressive, chances are they have very broad powers to access electronic information since they wrote the regulations stipulating data privacy. In general locals will be aware of the level of surveillance in their lives, so do your legal homework about the regulations that people have actively or passively adapted to. These are usually titled something like “Telecommunications Act” or “Electronic Transmission Act”, and are often available for public viewing via the web.

2) Legal Compliance
If you’re going to go forward with an ICT-supported peacebuilding program after doing your legal homework, ethical practice starts at home. Unless you are reasonably adept at reading and interpreting legislation, did you have someone with a legislative or legal background interpret the privacy laws in the country you’re about to work in? Does your team have someone with expertise on the technical and policy aspects of using ICTs in a conflict-affected or high risk environment? Has the entire project team had some basic training in how ICTs work? For example, does everyone understand the basics of how a mobile phone works, how to protect sensitive data, and the implications of having people share data on electronic platforms? Before showing up in a conflict-zone and asking people to participate in your project, you should make sure your team understands the risks they are asking people to take.

3) Informed consent
What do the local project participants know about ICTs? In terms of safety, people are generally aware of what will get them in trouble. Always assume that your perception of risk in a country is under-informed, even if you’ve read the laws and done some regulatory analysis. With this in mind, if you’re going to ask people to take risks sharing electronic information (always assume that sharing electronic information is risky), do you have a process for assessing your participants’ knowledge of ICTs and then addressing any gaps through training? Do you and your team understand the technology and regulations well enough to make the risks to partners clear, and if they still choose to participate provide risk management training? Informed consent means making sure you and your partners are both equally clear on the risks involved in what ever project you’re doing.

Peacebuilding carries some level of inherent risk – after all, we’re dealing with conflict and violence. ICTs carry a unique set of risks, compounded by both the nature of digital information and the capacity for governments and conflict entrepreneurs to exploit this information. An effective ICT for peacebuilding program addresses these risks from both the legal and technical sides, so that implementers and local partners are equally informed and able to use the tools in the safest, most effective way.

Want to learn more about the ethical issues facing peacebuilders using technology? Enroll now in our Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding online course which runs October 6 – 31, 2014


Image source: Tech Republic

The release of the South Sudan Ushahidi map has spurred an online dialogue on the possibilities and challenges of how we understand crowdsourcing, big data, and technology for conflict management and peacebuilding. A series of blog posts from Chris Neu of TechChange, Daniel Solomon, and myself highlighted these issues, which I wanted to combine with brief descriptions because I think they’re an interesting series for those grappling with how we make use of emerging data and technology tools in pursuit of peace and stability. It’s worth giving all four a read, since they represent a nice arc of thinking about big data for conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

  1. Can a Crisis Map End the Crisis in South Sudan? by Chris Neu. This was the first post about the South Sudan Ushahidi map that got the chain of posts started. Greg Maly had advocated getting a map up as the situation in South Sudan began deteriorating, so with the help of Rob Baker, a deployment was launched. After the map was live, comments came back in – a number were constructively critical and thought provoking. The key points were focused on the utility of the data that could realistically be provided.
  2. Two Tweets Reveal Central Problem for South Sudan Crisis Map by Chris Neu. Chris’ following post brought up the important issue of ethics when using data submitted by individuals in such a chaotic environment. “Is it ethical to restrict information to the public? Is it ethical to reveal information about the vulnerable?” Both questions are valid, but the one that gained some traction focused on the data we expect to get from conflict zones.
  3. The Murky Swamp of Mass Atrocity Data by Daniel Solomon. Up to this point this online discussion had focused on the map and software, so Daniel Solomon took the conversation and framed it in the context of conflict itself. He outlined a set of important issues about how conflict affects data, and thus how our efforts to crowdsource and use big data could actually lead to greater confusion instead of clarity.
  4. Finding Big Data’s Place in Conflict Analysis by Charles Martin-Shields. Daniel Solomon’s post inspired me to think through the methodological challenges of using Big Data for conflict analysis. The two posts got some good traction and discussion going, which is always exciting.

I wanted to pull all four posts together in one place since I found them to be useful individually, and interesting as a whole. They also provide an arc of event, critique, and potential solutions that are useful when practitioners are trying to decide how and when to use crowdsourcing or Big Data in their conflict analysis and resolution work.

Interested in this topic? Want to join the conversation and learn more? Enroll today in our Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding online course to learn more about digital mapping, social media, mobile platforms, and other technologies for promoting peace.

This past weekend Dr. Michael Gibbons and I taught a 20-hour graduate skills institute at American University’s School of International Service entitled Applications of Technology for Peacebuilding. Students came from a variety of AU programs, including the International Peace and Conflict Program (IPCR) in the School of International Service, the AU Business School, and the AU Law School.

We at TechChange were especially excited about this course, as it allowed us an opportunity to incorporate a variety of new tech-based tools in the curriculum, both those created by TechChange and others. The inclusion of these tools was designed to foster collaboration, allow for course materials to be accessed in innovative, non-linear ways, and to give students an opportunity to participate in hands-on simulations using some of the same tools (e.g. Ushahidi) currently being used by practitioners in the field.