Eye Candy for Social Scientists

A few great data visualizations have come across my virtual desk in the past 48 hours. I’ve already shared a couple of them on my Tumblr feed, but since no one actually looks at that, I thought I would post them here, too.

The first comes from Penn State Ph.D. student Josh Stevens, who has created a stunning set of maps and charts showing past and predicted conflict events in Afghanistan. This thing is great on a few levels. First, Josh has taken a massive data set—GDELT—and carefully parsed it to tell a number of interesting stories about where and when conflict has occurred and how those patterns have shifted over time. Second, he’s sticking his neck out and forecasting. That alone separates this visualization from almost every other one I’ve ever seen about political violence. Third, he’s done all this in a visual format that accounts for red/green color blindness. That condition is apparently pretty rare, but Josh’s attention to it is a nice reminder of the value of making your visualization broadly accessible.

Josh Steven's Visualization of Material Conflict Events in Afghanistan

Josh Steven’s Visualization of Material Conflict Events in Afghanistan

The next comes from software engineer Aengus Walton, who has built a web page that graphs hourly reports of air quality in several of China’s largest cities, a problem that I expect to play a role in future social unrest there. The graph is simple, pretty, and interactive. Users can toggle cities on and off and change the time period displayed from a single day to more than a year. What’s really cool about this graph, though, is what you don’t see. These data are reported by U.S. embassies, which tweet them every hour but don’t bother to chart them. Walton has written code that automatically pulls those tweets from the Twitter stream, scrapes them for the relevant data, and updates the graph in sync with the data bursts. I’d like to be able to do that when I grow up.

Aengus Walton's Graph of Air Pollution in China

Aengus Walton’s Graph of Air Pollution in China

The third comes from political science Ph.D. student Felix Haass, who gives us this animated GIF of African countries’ contributions to uniformed U.N. peacekeeping missions since 1991. (See here for the full post in which this was embedded.) I’m a sucker for animated maps, which suggest stories for further investigation that are harder to uncover from big lattices of static small multiples. This one, for example, nicely illustrates how the scale of UNPKO contributions has grown over time, and how a few countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa) have emerged as major contributors to these missions in the past decade or so.

Felix Haass' Maps of U.N. PKO Contributions by African States

Felix Haass’ Maps of U.N. PKO Contributions by African States

The last visualization isn’t social science, but I include it as a placeholder for a kind of page I could imagine creating some day. This is a screenshot from Forecast Lines, a weather site that aggregates data from several sources in an elegant way (h/t Trey Causey). The light grey lines show the component forecasts, and the black line shows the single-best forecast produced by an algorithm that combines them. You can toggle between temperature, precipitation, and other measures; you can see the component forecasts as you scroll over the lines; and each page includes forecasts on three time scales (hour, day, week).

forecast lines screenshot

Now: imagine a version of this showing daily forecasts of political conflict at the local level using batch-processed data from sources like GDELT and Bloomberg and Twitter, with the option of toggling over to a mapped version… I find that idea technically and theoretically thrilling and ethically ambiguous, depending, in part, on who is using it to what ends. Whatever you think of it, though, expect to see something like it on your mobile device in the next several years.

Leave a comment


  1. Reblogged this on Brittius.com.

  2. HarryF

     /  October 23, 2013

    I can see it on my 3 year Samsung Galaxy SII already. Mobile visualization is already here.

    • Right, I was referring specifically to a site or app that would display the kind of dynamic, local forecasts of political conflict I described. If you’re already seeing that, do tell.

  1. Eye Candy for Social Scientists | IB Online: Ei...
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