Road-Testing GDELT as a Resource for Monitoring Atrocities

As I said here a few weeks ago, I think the Global Dataset on Events, Location, and Tone (GDELT) is a fantastic new resource that really embodies some of the ways in which technological changes are coming together to open lots of new doors for social-scientific research. GDELT’s promise is obvious: more than 200 million political events from around the world over the past 30 years, all spotted and coded by well-trained software instead of the traditional armies of undergrad RAs, and with daily updates coming online soon. Or, as Adam Elkus’ t-shirt would have it, “200 million observations. Only one boss.”

BUT! Caveat emptor! Like every other data-collection effort ever, GDELT is not alchemy, and it’s important that people planning to use the data, or even just to consume analysis based on it, understand what its limitations are.

I’m starting to get a better feel for those limitations from my own efforts to use GDELT to help observe atrocities around the world, as part of a consulting project I’m doing for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The core task of that project is to develop plans for a public early-warning system that would allow us to assess the risk of onsets of atrocities in countries worldwide more accurately and earlier than current practice.

When I heard about GDELT last fall, though, it occurred to me that we could use it (and similar data sets in the pipeline) to support efforts to monitor atrocities as well. The CAMEO coding scheme on which GDELT is based includes a number of event types that correspond to various forms of violent attack and other variables indicating who was doing attacking whom. If we could develop a filter that reliably pulled events of interest to us from the larger stream of records, we could produce something like a near-real time bulletin on recent violence against civilians around the world. Our record would surely have some blind spots—GDELT only tracks a limited number of news sources, and some atrocities just don’t get reported, period—but I thought it would reliably and efficiently alert us to new episodes of violence against civilians and help us identify trends in ongoing ones.

Well, you know what they say about plans and enemies and first contact. After digging into GDELT, I still think we can accomplish those goals, but it’s going to take more human effort than I originally expected. Put bluntly, GDELT is noisier than I had anticipated, and for the time being the only way I can see to sharpen that signal is to keep a human in the loop.

Imagine (fantasize?) for a moment that there’s a perfect record somewhere of all the political interactions GDELT is trying to identify. For kicks, let’s call it the Encyclopedia Eventum (EE). Like any detection system, GDELT can mess up in two basic ways: 1) errors of omission, in which GDELT fails to spot something that’s in the EE; and 2) errors of commission, in which it mistakenly records an event that isn’t in the EE (or, relatedly, is in the EE but in a different place). We might also call these false negatives and false positives, respectively.

At this point, I can’t say anything about how often GDELT is making errors of omission, because I don’t have that Encyclopedia Eventum handy. A more realistic strategy for assessing the rate of errors of omission would involve comparing a subset of GDELT to another event data set that’s known to be a fairly reliable measure for some time and place of something GDELT is meant to track—say, protest and coercion in Europe—and see how well they match up, but that’s not a trivial task, and I haven’t tried it yet.

Instead, the noise I’m seeing is on the other side of that coin: the errors of commission, or false positives. Here’s what I mean:

To start developing my atrocities-monitoring filter, I downloaded the reduced and compressed version of GDELT recently posted on the Penn State Event Data Project page and pulled the tab-delimited text files for a couple of recent years. I’ve worked with event data before, so I’m familiar with basic issues in their analysis, but every data set has its own idiosyncrasies. After trading emails with a few CAMEO pros and reading Jay Yonamine’s excellent primer on event aggregation strategies, I started tinkering with a function in R that would extract the subset of events that appeared to involve lethal force against civilians. That function would involve rules to select on three features: event type, source (the doer), and target.

  • Event Type. For observing atrocities, type 20 (“Engage in Unconventional Mass Violence”) was an obvious choice. Based on advice from those CAMEO pros, I also focused on 18 (“Assault”) and 19 (“Fight”) but was expecting that I would need to be more restrictive about the subtypes, sources, and targets in those categories to avoid errors of commission.
  • Source. I’m trying to track violence by state and non-state agents, so I focused on GOV (government), MIL (Military), COP (police), and intelligence agencies (SPY) for the former and REB (militarized opposition groups) and SEP (separatist groups) for the latter. The big question mark was how to handle records with just a country code (e.g., “SYR” for Syria) and no indication of the source’s type. My CAMEO consultants told me these would usually refer in some way to the state, so I should at least consider including them.
  • Target. To identify violence against civilians, I figured I would get the most mileage out of the OPP (non-violent political opposition), CVL (“civilians,” people in general), and REF (refugees) codes, but I wanted to see if the codes for more specific non-state actors (e.g., LAB for labor, EDU for schools or students, HLH for health care) would also help flag some events of interest.

After tinkering with the data a bit, I decided to write to separate functions, one for events with state perpetrators and another for events with non-state perpetrators. If you’re into that sort of thing, you can see the state-perpetrator version of that filtering function on Github, here.

When I ran the more than 9 million records in the “2011.reduced.txt” file through that function, I got back 2,958 events. So far, so good. As soon as I started poking around in the results, though, I saw a lot of records that looked . The current release of GDELT doesn’t include text from or links to the source material, so it’s hard to say for sure what real-world event any one record describes. Still, some of the perpetrator-and-target combos looked odd to me, and web searches for relevant stories either came up empty or reinforced my suspicions that the records were probably errors of commission. Here are a few examples, showing the date, event type, source, and target:

  • 1/8/2011 193 USAGOV USAMED. Type 193 is “Fight with small arms and light weapons,” but I don’t think anyone from the U.S. government actually got in a shootout or knife fight with American journalists that day. In fact, that event-source-target combination popped up a lot in my subset.
  • 1/9/2011 202 USAMIL VNMCVL. Taken on its face, this record says that U.S. military forces killed Vietnamese civilians on January 9, 2011. My hunch is that the story on which this record is based was actually talking about something from the Vietnam War.
  • 4/11/2011 202 RUSSPY POLCVL. This record seems to suggest that Russian intelligence agents “engaged in mass killings” of Polish civilians in central Siberia two years ago. I suspect the story behind this record was actually talking about the Kaytn Massacre and associated mass deportations that occurred in April 1940.

That’s not to say that all the records looked wacky. Interleaved with these suspicious cases were records representing exactly the kinds of events I was trying to find. For example, my filter also turned up a 202 GOV SYRCVL for June 10, 2011, a day on which one headline blared “Dozens Killed During Syrian Protests.”

Still, it’s immediately clear to me that GDELT’s parsing process is not quite at the stage where we can peruse the codebook like a menu, identify the morsels we’d like to consume, phone our order in, and expect to have exactly the meal we imagined waiting for us when we go to pick it up. There’s lots of valuable information in there, but there’s plenty of chaff, too, and for the time being it’s on us as researchers to take time to try to sort the two out. This sorting will get easier to do if and when the posted version adds information about the source article and relevant text, but “easier” in this case will still require human beings to review the results and do the cross-referencing.

Over time, researchers who work on specific topics—like atrocities, or interstate war, or protest activity in specific countries—will probably be able to develop supplemental coding rules and tweak their filters to automate some of what they learn. I’m also optimistic that the public release of GDELT will accelerate improvements the software and dictionaries it uses, expanding its reach while shrinking the error rates. In the meantime, researchers are advised to stick to the same practices they’ve always used (or should have, anyway): take time to get to know your data; parse it carefully; and, when there’s no single parsing that’s obviously superior, check the sensitivity of your results to different permutations.

PS. If you have any suggestions on how to improve the code I’m using to spot potential atrocities or otherwise improve the monitoring process I’ve described, please let me know. That’s an ongoing project, and even marginal improvements in the fidelity of the filter would be a big help.

PPS. For more on these issues and the wider future of automated event coding, see this ensuing post from Phil Schrodt on his blog.

Leave a comment


  1. Tim Phan

     /  May 3, 2013

    “Our record would surely have some blind spots—GDELT only tracks a limited number of news sources, and some atrocities just don’t get reported, period—but I thought it would reliably and efficiently alert us to new episodes of violence against civilians and help us identify trends in ongoing ones.”

    Would the next step for GDELT (and other similar datasets) for the purpose of forecasting political violence be to include news sources from local/alternative media where Western media may not be tracking?

    • Absolutely, or at least one of them. That’s not always as simple as just scraping more articles, though. Differences in language—not which, but how—across sources can confound the parsing process. So this is a hard problem, but making gains on it should help make the resulting data more complete.

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