Using a wealth of data amassed by The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) and tools made available through CartoDB, political scientist John Beieler has created a captivating animated map of global protest since 1973.
The number of events recorded in GDELT grows exponentially over time, as noted in the paper introducing the dataset. This means that over time there appears to be a steady increase in events, but this should not be mistaken as a rise in the actual amount of behavior X (protest behavior in this case). Instead, due to changes in reporting and the digital recording of news stories, it is simply the case that there are more events of every type over time. In some preliminary work that is not yet publicly released, protest behavior seems to remain relatively constant over time as a percentage of the total number of events. This means that while there was an explosion of protest activity in the Middle East, and elsewhere, during the past few years, identifying visible patterns is a tricky endeavor due to the nature of the underlying data.
- Strikes and protests in response to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms.
- Poland lighting up through the 1980s while Cold War-era Eastern Europe stays dark.
- The escalation of apartheid protests in South Africa in the late 1980s.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of protests in Eastern Europe preceding the end of the Soviet Union.
- Protests in Iraq coinciding with Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.
- The explosion of protests in the United States since 2008 — think Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements.
- Iran's Green Movement protests after the presidential election in 2009.
- The Arab Spring, with protests stretching across North Africa and the Middle East starting in 2011.
- The persistence of protests in perennial hotspots like Kashmir, Tibet, and Israel and the West Bank.
Collectively, Beieler's interactive animation offers historians and social scientists a new (if, at times, limited) way of understanding how protest behavior and civic unrest changes over time. More on the shortcomings of Big-Data visualization at Foreign Policy. Check out more analysis – including a detailed breakdown of a week of the recent protests in Egypt – at Beieler's blog.