What a ‘Moneyball’ style analysis tells us about the Arab Spring

– Caitlin Moniz

There's much to learn from a new online database of more than 2.4 million protests since January 1979.

In an era when everything can be measured, everything eventually is. Social sciences are being turned into hard sciences, and the Moneyball approach has spread from baseball and the financial sector to all manner of fields (one need only look at the brood of “data-journalism” startups to see further evidence of the ‘everything is measurable’ approach). Why hasn’t such a data-driven strategy been implemented into foreign policy — both its formation and its analysis?

That's exactly the approach Foreign Policy contributor Kalev Leetaru takes in analyzing the Arab Spring. Armed with raw data, he seeks to answer why it is that within the big picture of 20th century history, the Arab Spring uprisings sparked global protests so different in magnitude than comparable events in recent memory.

Leetaru's analysis is shaped by his use of the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), an online library of more than 2.4 million protests that occurred between January 1979 and April 2014. With GDELT information, he creates a timeline of protests and calculates their intensity compared to recent history's baseline for that county or region.

Leetaru writes that “while political pundits and subject matter experts have responded with a myriad of thought pieces, there has been a lack of quantitative data placing the recent protests into historical context." Immediately apparent on Leetaru’s timeline are some key moments in modern world history: the 1980s Olympic boycotts, 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, and 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Intensity on GDELT does not necessarily correlate to a longterm impact on global politics; the Danish cartoon controversy was the most intensely recorded series of protests in the last 30 years — widespread protests left more than 250 people dead — but the demonstrations had little enduring impact. Similarly, there is a spike after the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, but the average intensity of protests remains lower than the protests of the early 1980s.

Why then, did so many people latch on to the idea of a generation-defining "Arab Spring?" Leetaru believes the 2011 surge is “only noticeable because it comes on the heels of two decades of relatively reduced protest action" — a hint of heat after a prolonged global winter.

Numbers can convey a clearer story than history itself, and can help policy makers to contextualize current conditions. In a world so connected and well-documented, Leetaru provides the reader with “the first glimpse of what the future of data-driven diplomacy may look like, moving from anecdote to actuality.”

The Source: “Did the Arab Spring Really Spark a Wave of Global Protests?” by Kalev Leetaru. Foreign Policy, May 29, 2014.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons