Jul 03 2013

Peace, Conflict, and Data

A talk I gave at the IPSI Bologna Symposium on conflict resolution. Slides here.

We might be able to do better at conflict resolution — making peace in violent conflicts — with the help of good data analysis. There have long been data sets about war and violent conflict at the state level, but we now have much more.

There are now extraordinarily detailed, open-source event data streams that can be used for violence prediction. Conflict “microdata” from social media and communications records can be used to visualize the divisions in society. I also suggest a long term program of conflict data collection to learn, over many cases, what works in conflict resolution and what doesn’t.

We’re really just at the beginning of all of this. There are huge issues around data collection, interpretation, privacy, security, and politics. But the potential is too great to ignore.

Update: two excellent resources have come to my attention in the days since I gave this talk (which is, of course, part of why I give talks.)

First, see the International Peace Institute’s paper on Big Data for Conflict Prevention. This paper was co-authored by Patrick Meier, who has been deeply involved in the crisis mapping work I mentioned in my talk.

But even more awesome, Erica Chenoweth has done exactly the sort of data-driven case-control study I was contemplating in my talk, and shown that non-violent political resistance succeeds twice as often as armed resistance. Her data set, the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) Data Project, also shows that non-violence is much more likely to lead to good democracies five years later, and that a movement that can recruit 10% of the population is almost guaranteed to succeed.

I highly recommend her talk.

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Jan 28 2011

The state of The State of the Union coverage, online

The state of the union is a big pre-planned event, so it’s a great place to showcase new approaches and techniques. What do news digital news organizations do when they go all out? Here’s my roundup of online coverage Tuesday night.

Live coverage

The Huffington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalABCCNNMashable, and many others, including even Mother Jones had live web video. But you can get live video on television, so perhaps the digitally native form of the live blog is more interesting. This can include commentary from multiple reporters, reactions from social media, link round-ups, etc. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, The Wall Street JournalCNNMSNBC, and many others had a live blog. The Huffington Post’s effort was particularly comprehensive, continuing well into Wednesday afternoon.

Multi-format, socially-aware live coverage is now standard, and by my reckoning makes television look meagre. But the experience is not really available on tablet and mobile yet. For example, almost all of the live video feeds were in Flash and therefore unavailable on Apple devices, as CNET reports.

As far as tools, there was some use of Coveritlive, but most live blogs seemed to be using nondescript custom software.


Lots of visualization love this year. But visualizations take time to create, so most of them were rooted in previously available SOTU information. The Wall Street Journal did an interactive topic and keyword breakdown of Obama’s addresses to congress since 2009, which moved about an hour after Tuesday’s speech concluded.

The New York Times had a snazzy graphic comparing the topics of 75 years of SOTU addresses,  by looking at the rates of certain carefully chosen words. Rollovers for individual counts, but mostly a flat thing.

The Guardian Data Blog took a similar historical approach, with Wordles for SOTU speeches from Obama and seven other presidents back to Washington. Being the Data Blog, they also put the word frequencies for these speeches into a downloadable spreadsheet. It’s a huge image, definitely intended for big print pages.

A shout-out to my AP colleagues for all their hard work on our SOTU interactive, which included the video, a fact-checked transcript, and an animated visualization of Twitter responses before, during, and after the State of the Union.

But it’s not clear what, if anything, we can actually learn from such visualizations. In terms of solid journalism content, possibly the best visualization came not from a news organization but from Nick Diakopoulos and co. at Rutgers University. Their Vox Civitas tool does filtering, search, and visualization of over  100,000 tweets captured during the address.

I find this interface a little too complex for general audience consumption — definitely a power user’s tool. But the algorithms are second to none. For example, Vox Civitas compares tweets to the text of the speech within the previous two minutes to detect “relevance,” and the automated keyword extraction — you can see the keywords at the bottom of the interface above — is based on tf-idf and seems to choose really interesting and relevant words. The interactive graph of keyword frequency over time clearly shows the sort of information that I had hoped to reveal with the AP’s visualization.

Fact Checking

A number of organizations did real-time or near real-time fact checking, as Yahoo reports. The Sunlight Foundation used itsSunlight Live system fo real-time fact checks and commentary. This platform, incorporating live video, social media monitoring, and other components is expected to be available as an open-source web app, for the use of other news organizations, by mid-2011.

The Associated Press published a long fact check piece (also integrated into the AP interactive), ABC had their own story, and CNN took a stab at it.

But the heaviest hitter was Politifact, who had a number of fact check rulings within hours and several more by Wednesday evening. These are together in a nice summary article, but as is their custom the individual fact checks are extensively documented and linked to primary sources.

Audience engagement

Pretty much every news organization had some SUTO action on social media, though with varying degrees of aggressiveness and creativity. Some of the more interesting efforts involved solicitation of audience responses of a specific kind. NPR asked people to describe their reaction to the state of the union in three words. This was promoted aggressively on Twitter and Facebook. They also asked for political affiliation, and split out the 4000 responses into Democratic and Republican word clouds:

Apparently, Obama’s salmon joke went down well. The Wall Street Journal went live Tuesday morning with “The State of the Union is…” asking viewers to leave a one word answer. This was also promoted on Twitter. Their results were presented in the same interactive, as a popularity-sorted list.

Aside from this type of interactive, we saw lots of agressive social media engagement in general. The more social-media savvy organizations were all over this, promoting their upcoming coverage and responding to their audiences. As usual, the Huffington Post was pretty seriously tweeting the event, posting about updates to their live blog, etc. and going well into Wednesday morning. Perhaps inspired by NPR, they encouraged people to tweet their #3wordreaction to the speech. They also collected and highlighted reaction from teachers, Sarah Palin, etc.

But as an AP colleague of mine asked, engagement to what end? Getting people’s attention is great, but then how do we, as journalists, focus that attention in a way that makes people think or act?

The White House

No online media roundup of the SOTU would be complete without a discussion of the White House’s own efforts, including web and mobile app presences. Fortunately, Nieman Journalism Lab has done this for us. Here I’ll just add that the White House livestreamed a Q&A session in front of  an audience immediately after the speech, in which White House Office of Public Engagement’s Kal Penn (aka Kumar) read questions from social media. Then Obama himself did an intervew Thursday afternoon in which he answered questions submitted as videos on YouTube.

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Feb 01 2010

Jürgen Habermas says he’s not on Twitter


Over the last several days there has been considerable hubbub around the notion that pioneering media theorist Jürgen Habermas might have signed up for Twitter as @JHabermas. This would be “important if true”, as Jay Rosen put it. Intrigued, I tracked him down through the University of Frankfurt. I succeeded in getting him on the phone at his home in Sternburg, and asked him if he was on Twitter. He said,

No, no, no. This is somebody else. This is a mis-use of my name.

He added that “my email address is not publicly available,” which suggests that perhaps he didn’t quite understand what I was getting at. In fact, the father of the public sphere doesn’t seem to understand the internet very well at all, judging by his few previous references to the topic.

I know many people will be disappointed, especially @bitchphd who tweeted “JURGEN HABERMAS is on twitter. definitive response to all future articles about how stupid twitter is.” Personally I believe that Twitter is significant even without Habermas, but it’s clear that this is an issue for the next generation of theorists to decide.

UPDATE: here is an audio recording of my question and his answer.

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Jan 01 2010

Not Quite Global New Year

Today I have been keeping Twitter window open, watching messages tagged #10yearsago scroll by. It’s striking. This is the sort of grass-roots expression of hopes and dreams that adventurous journalists used to travel the world for, and compile into coffee table books. Now we can all see it live for free.

aricaaa #10yearsago boys still had cooties. ah i miss those days!

davidwees Happy New Year! #10yearsago today I was in a dead-end job working in a warehouse. Now I love what I do and have a great family.

scottharrison: #10yearsago I was a sycophant and a drunk selling vodka to bankers in clubs. Grateful for God’s grace and sense of humor.

Sirenism #10yearsago I was eleven and one of my brothers friends tried to kiss me at midnight. I punched him in the nuts.

cosmicjester Holy Shit #10yearsago I met a girl at a friends birthday party, we both liked Red Dwarf and the Beatles. Then she became the girl.

shaunraney #10yearsago was the the saddest day of my life.

As striking as this is, I notice that almost all of the traffic is in English. The only other language reasonably well represented is Indonesian. Curious, though it is the 4th largest country by population, and social media are hugely popular here.

I’ve also really enjoyed watching the clock strike midnight in different time zones. Here in Jakarta, the NYE conversations of my friends in California — 13 hours behind — seem so last night. I’m nursing a hangover, they’re working on one.

It’s so easy to forget the world outside what you know. I hope that global media like Twitter will help us to remember everyone else. The technological means have arrived with a roar, but we’re still not really talking to one another. What is the next step?

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Oct 21 2009

Who Wants to Hack Twitter With Me?

I want to modify the open source, multiplatform, iPhone capable Spaz client so that it has a mode to automatically translate all tweets into the user’s chosen language.


I had intended to do this myself. But I’ve discovered that I’m back in graduate school full time, so I’m looking for a collaborating programmer who wants to do the majority of the coding. If you have some programming skill and you want to get into web apps, drop me a line!

But mostly, you’ll do this because you think that the world needs better multi-lingual communication. In particular, you want people to be able to keep track of news from places with oppressive internet censorship regimes (Iran, China, some Middle East), and you want the people who live there to be able to have public, real-time conversations with the rest of the world.

(Getting an uncensored internet connection in these places, one that can actually reach Twitter, is a different problem. But believe me, that problem has an active community around it.)

Spaz is written in Adobe Air and will need to call the Google Translate APIs.

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Oct 04 2009

Advertisers Smoking Crack, and the Future of Journalism According to Leo Laporte

Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech gave a truly marvelous talk on Friday about how his online journalism model works. The first half of the talk is all about how TWIT moved from TV to podcasting and became profitable, and includes such gems as

Advertisers have been smoking the Google and Facebook crack. And they no longer want that shakeweed that the [TV] networks are offering.

The second half is in many ways even better, when Leo takes questions from the audience and discusses topics such as the future of printing news on dead trees

Maybe there will always be [paper] news, but it will be brought to you by your butler who has ironed it out carefully for you. It will be the realm of the rich person.

and the “holy calling” of being a journalist:

You reporters are really the monks of the information world. You labour in obscurity. You have to be driven by passion because  you’re paid nothing. And you sleep on rocks.

He goes on to discuss the necessity of bidirectional communication, Twitter as the “emerging nervous system” of the net, etc. — all the standard new media stuff, but put very succinctly by someone who has deep experience in both old and new media. Very information-dense and enlightening!

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Sep 19 2009

The New York Times Doesn’t Understand Twitter and Iran

In the editorial “New Tweets, Old Needs” experienced journalist Roger Cohen says that Twitter isn’t journalism, and that Iran “has gone opaque” without its mainstream media correspondents. He may be right about the recent paucity of good journalism out of Iran, but he misses some really crucial points about how information flows in the absence of a distribution monopoly (like a printing press.) In particular, he seems to assume that only professional journalists can be capable of producing professional journalism.

It is absolutely true that journalism is much more than random tweeting or blogging. I have been particularly inspired by the notion that “journalism is a discipline of verification,” and a tweet or a blog post neither requires nor endures the fact-checking and truthfulness standards that we expect of our more traditional news media. I also agree that search engines are simply not a substitute for being there. Someone must be a witness. Someone has to feed their experience into the maw of the internet at some point.

However, when Cohen says “the mainstream media — expelled, imprisoned, vilified — is missed” he is implicitly arguing that only the mainstream media can produce good journalism.  Traditionally, “journalist” was  a distinct, easily defined class: a journalist was someone who worked for a news organization. There weren’t many such organizations, because a distribution monopoly is an expensive thing. All this has changed with the advent of nearly free and truly democratic information distribution, and we are seeing a rapid erosion of the the distinction between professional and amateur or “citizen” journalists. The result is confusion, uncertainty and fear — especially on the part of those who have staked their careers or their fortunes on the clarity of this distinction.

But I see a big difference between journalists and journalism, and this is where Cohen and I part ways.

In my view the failure of journalism in Iran was not the failure of the mainstream media to hold their ground (or their funding, or their audiences) but rather the failure of the journalism profession to educate the public about what exactly it does, and how to do it. When Cohen asks questions such as

But who is there to investigate these deaths — or allegations of wholesale rape of hundreds of arrested men and women — and so shed light?

my answer is, the Iranians, of course!

Naturally, a young activist-turned-reporter does not have the experience or connections of an old-school foreign correspondent. But such a person is there, and they care enormously. What they lack is guidance. What is and is not journalism, exactly? What are the expected standards and daily, on-the-ground procedures of verification? Where can someone turn to for advice on covering the struggles they are immersed in? And what, actually, differentiates the New York Times from a blogger? We need clear answers, because the newspapers are no longer the only ones declaiming the news.

Perhaps the mainstream media couldn’t be in Iran, but they could have been mentoring and collaborating from afar, and yes, publishing the journalism of non-career journalists. And such a project needs to begin long before times of crisis, in every region, so that those who are there are ready.

If “citizen journalism” has so far been somewhat underwhelming, it is because we have not taught our citizens to be journalists.

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Jun 02 2009

Twitter is Not Reality, Even in Guatemala

Guatemalans took to the streets in protest over the alleged murder of a prominent attorney by the country’s president, and an unrelated man was arrested for tweeting about it. The protests were reportedly organized on Facebook and other social networking sites, and streamed live to the world by laptop. Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing has been reporting from Guatemala directly for the past two weeks, and in an essay two days ago she calls this the “Twitter Revolution“. I love the story of new technology enabling mass social dissent and change, but I’m not at all sure it’s true. Sorely missing from Xeni’s narrative is the role of other communication networks — like good old fashioned word-of-mouth — and the demographics of internet access in a poor country.

The background: Attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg was shot while riding his bicycle on May 10th, just a few days after recording a video message which begins,

If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom.

The video implicates not only the president but the major state-owned bank, and indeed much of the current government, and there were mass protests in the capital city. Xeni has been covering the story from Guatemala since the 20th, and I can only commend her for actually being there. However, her coverage has focussed on the role of the internet in these protests.

Google is not reality and Twitter is not reality in exactly the same way that television is not reality. Part of the reason that Middle-Eastern peasants have such a warped view of America is that they too watch Desperate Housewives (via satellite or bootleg VCD), but never get the chance to actually meet some Americans. To them, all American women are blonde and slutty. There’s no reason to believe that we’re not getting a similarly warped view of other cultures when we watch their internet.

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