Pitfalls of online big data for researching social movements

A great post by Jen Schradie on pitfalls of using big data from online sources for social movements research.  She lists five limitations of making inferences from this kind of data, and these serve as rather important points of caution when consuming this kind of work as well.

5 reasons why online Big Data is Bad Data for researching social movements | Mobilizing Ideas.

To sum up, the five:

  • Hashtag data are often cherrypicked (case selection biased towards high levels of social media use)
  • Big Data is too small  (underrepresentation of poorer, less educated people and marginal groups online creates important bias)
  • Privileging the online often ignores the offline (“we should not be fetishizing online spaces as where everything happens”)
  • So much data, too little qualitative methods (the ease of obtaining quantitative data from online sources makes contextual understanding form qualitative methods even more necessary)
  • Online data can ignore societal structures (technology needs to be better understood not only as a factor producing outcomes, but as  a medium whose use is subject to social structures)

Talking Jordan at FPRI on Geopolitics with Granieri

I spent Tuesday in Philadelphia with the good people at the Foreign Policy Research Institute discussing many-things Jordan. As the September guest on the monthly Geopolitics with Granieri, we chatted for a fast-passing hour about Jordanian domestic politics, regional politics, and security issues.

Here’s the event page that also links directly to the audio of the event. Only those in live attendance were privy to the lunchtime conversation, but that too was an intriguing exchange covering Jordan’s role on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ISIS.

My FPRI article on ISIL threat to Jordan

Over at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), I write about Jordan’s concerns about the Islamic State. Here’s the article in full.

And the intro:

The swiftness with which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now the Islamic State) assaulted and overran northern Iraq brings a new level of concern to policymakers. The offensive blew a hole in Washington’s desire to maintain “a ring of Syrian containment” that favored a political solution with limited measures to support rebels against the Assad regime. As the organization expands in number and territory, and ambitiously declaring the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, anxiety is growing among leaders and citizens in the neighborhood. Jordan, the key U.S. ally bordering territories held by the Islamic State and comprising a central part of its desired Sunni empire, is precariously situated on the frontline of the ISIL’s violent campaign.

Jordan is regularly perceived in strategic terms as a “buffer state” between Israel and its regional adversaries, between the Sunni Gulf States and the “Shi’a Crescent,” and as a receptive host to waves of refugees amid regional turmoil. But while the small kingdom is practiced in its role as regional shock absorber, the civil wars and associated state weakness in two of its immediate neighbors long dominated by strongmen (Syria and Iraq) presents a new challenge. Moreover, turmoil and tenuous status quo conditions in other proximate areas (Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine) present a geographic “ring of fire,” unsettling citizens and officials alike.

President Obama warned last month that the security vacuum from ISIL’s expansion raises the prospect that destabilization will “spill over into some of our allies like Jordan.” How vulnerable is Jordan to conflict diffusion from neighboring violence? What factors create immediate security risks for the country? What options are available to mitigate the risks facing this crucial U.S. ally?

Fulbright Program facing major cut

Again with the cuts to worthwhile educational and research programs…

Taken from the write-up at The Monkey Cage by Jarrod Hayes:

The Obama administration’s FY15 budget request to Congress includes a 13.5 percent cut to the Fulbright Program totaling $30.5 million. As in the case of congressional attempts to cut funding for political science research via the National Science Foundation, these cuts could soon mean that many fewer scholars of international relations and comparative politics will be able to undertake research abroad, thus contributing to a decline in the quality and quantity of scholarship decision makers and the administration depend on to develop United States foreign policy. 

Thirty million dollars.  Less than 10 cents for every person in America.  That is how much President Obama’s new budget cuts from the Fulbright Scholars Program, the globally recognized international education program launched by Senator J. William Fulbright and President Harry Truman nearly 70 years ago in 1946.  In all that time, the program has never faced a cut in funding like it confronts today… 

Why should we care?  For academics, I hardly need to make the case.  The Fulbright program is the largest and most prestigious program of its kind in the world.  It provides a priceless opportunity for academics and scholars from the United States to teach and do research in other countries.  It also brings foreign scholars and academics here to the United States, enriching the teaching and research of the institutions they visit.  The benefits for social and political scientists are crystal clear.  For IR and Comparative Politics scholars, direct observation of how other polities and societies operate is often critical to theoretical breakthroughs and empirical research.  Even for political theorists and scholars of American politics, the opportunity to interact directly with scholars from other countries holds the promise of richer ideas about political processes both generally and specific to the United States.

While the proposal is to reduce the program budget, not to ax it completely, a 13% cut in the “flagship international academic exchange program” is severely damaging. This is a well-run program with lasting benefits. There’s a petition calling for Congress to restore the $30 million dollars in the federal budget here that contains more information about the wide-ranging benefits of the program.

Caerus Associates Mapping Syria Conflict in Aleppo

The strategic consulting firm Caerus Associates recently produced an expansive analysis of the Syrian conflict specific to conflict dynamics in Aleppo. The research team used monthly monthly surveys and other on-the-ground data collection strategies that enhance our understanding of the spatial, humanitarian, and security aspects of the conflict, as well as the perceptions and attitudes of current Aleppo residents. This “hyper-local” research in Aleppo yields numerous insights into the conflict dynamics in an incredibly timely way that avoids the typically long delays in data gathering, analysis, and dissemination in such complex conflict environments. Below is the report which includes a summary of ten key findings on pages 3 and 4.

[gview file=”http://caerusassociates.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Caerus_AleppoMappingProject_FinalReport_02-18-14.pdf”]

US DoS releases Jordan Human Rights Report for 2013

The U.S. Department of State recently released the 2013 Human Rights Reports, including the Jordan report. I originally became aware of this through the news story on Ammannet titled “الخارجية الأميركية تنتقد اوضاع حقوق الإنسان بالأردن‎” or “US State Department criticizes the human rights situation in Jordan.” The story highlights some of the troubling findings in the report specific to Jordan including, among others, torture and abuse in prisons, politically motivated arrests, and restrictions on freedom of expression and the press.

The site cataloging all of the HR reports and other related information is here

The Jordan report is below.

[gview file=”http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/220572.pdf”]

A novel teaching idea — WWI in real time (a hundred years later)

I’m teaching a course for the CIEE study abroad program on Jordanian politics, and I was talking with a couple of colleagues about how nice it is to be back “in the classroom” and working with intelligent students. I’ve always been inclined to incorporate games or simulations or other ways of making course material and concepts “stick.” So a colleague and I were talking about running a simulation on a contemporary issue relevant to Jordan — perhaps a parliamentary debate over the “mubadara” initiative (since that’s gone so well in the real Jordanian Lower House), or of a crisis simulation dealing with spillover from the war in Syria, or perhaps a set of Palestinian/Israeli/Jordanian/US negotiations to construct our own ‘Kerry Plan’.

I’ve done quite a bit of this sort of thing previously, teaching Model United Nations, creating a simulation of the Iraq parliament, and doing a month-long simulation of government-opposition interaction in a fictional country called Authoritania in my class on authoritarianism.

Then I came across this excellent idea — teaching WWI in real time (a hundred years later). Very cool. Very inventive. There are so many possibilities from this one novel idea of making the past the present in the same chronological increments. I’m interested to see how Scott Wolford, the prof teaching the course, designs it. I assume it will be heavy on primary source materials. He’ll be blogging the process, so more inspiration to come, I’m sure.

Democracy Man | Foreign Affairs

There’s a nice and concise tribute to Robert Dahl in Foreign Affairs (Democracy Man). Particularly in light of Nick Kristof’s piece about the relevance of academics, this brief look back at Dahl’s life and accomplishments shows the importance of such figures (and much lesser-accomplished ones) for shaping our understanding of politics. From the article:

Dahl is often considered the founder of the behavioral school of political science. That is because he emphasized observable conduct in his early theoretical work on power and the behavior of urban elites in Who Governs, his study of decision-making in New Haven. But it misconstrues Dahl to identify him with that or any methodological school.  Some of his work was conceptual, aimed at understanding such things as the nature of power and democracy. Some of it was institutional; he studied the feasibility and effectiveness of the separation of powers, whether democracy could survive without a market economy, and whether democratic firms could be efficient. Still other questions were normative, geared to determining which system of political representation is best, whether delegating political power to experts is a good idea, and how much inequality is desirable. He was a problem-driven scholar who addressed the major questions of his time and selected the methods appropriate to the task.

GDELT suspended, then not…

Update (2/24/2014): It appears that the historical backfiles are once again available at the new gdelt project site. I haven’t had a chance to compare the files to the old ones to see if they are identical. Unfortunately, Mr. Leetaru is not very good at providing helpful details and documentation about these new files. Did he re-run the TABARI parsing program on the news stories for these newly-posted backfiles, or are the ones posted on the site the exact same as the previous files? Are all news sources the same as before? Which news sources are used for which date-ranges (and when are new sources added)?

Well, this is unfortunate. I’ve been working with GDELT for a little while now, using it for an article manuscript and a part of my dissertation. But as of 10 days ago, GDELT is suspended. See here: GDELT Suspension.

Kalev Leetaru quickly set up a new site at HERE, but I’m not yet convinced that all is well with using the data for publication or the dissertation. The data is no longer available prior to Jan. 1, 2014 (so pretty much all of it), raising questions about the legal issues discussed elsewhere (like here). From what I gather, the data itself is legitimately coded, but there is question over how the underlying sources were obtained. I have the entirety of the dataset saved, but at this point I’m weary of putting time into any analysis based on GDELT.

There are critical and cautionary comments about using data whose underlying sources are generally unknown. That’s an important lesson here about knowing and considering “the processes through which the data were created.” The primary reason I justified not having this information (the news stories and sources themselves) when taking on a GDELT-based project was that these source citations are supposed to be provided in the next version of GDELT in summer 2014, and there’s a variable in the data for “SOURCE URL” for events from April 2013. Per the FAQ:

“Due to copyright restrictions and publisher agreements we cannot redistribute any of the news content that was used in the creation of GDELT, only the codified numeric event records extracted from that content. However, for web-based content after April 1, 2013 we do include the URL or citation to the source article for each event so that you can locate the material on your own to read more about the event and its surrounding context. In the next release of GDELT, tentatively slated for late Summer 2014, we will be including source citations for all events back to 1979.

I’ve previously done some work with TABARI, the machine coding program that parses the news stories underlying GDELT, and that remains a valid means to obtain events data (limited to Reuters and AFP stories). The parser has been shown in various places, including HERE, to perform comparatively well next to human coded news stories. Time to go that direction for the projects at hand until things get sorted out with GDELT.