Mapping Violence and Protests in Nigeria

How Big Data can find the big story.

The escalating tension between Ukraine and Russia in Crimea has captivated the world's headlines the past few weeks, invoking imagery of Russian occupation not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. As the world's media outlets run round-the-clock coverage of masked soldiers facing off against besieged Ukrainian military outposts, the rest of the world has largely been drowned out. Few, for example, have likely followed the events in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has executed 59 children in an attack on a boarding school and killed more than 150 over the past two weeks.

While both Nigerian attacks were reported by international outlets like the BBC and The Guardian, the token attention they received was almost immediately lost in the enormity of articles, blog posts, and social media updates that the unraveling situation in Ukraine has generated. Can the promise of "big data" be leveraged to sift through the world's news coverage over the past year and create a map of the evolving unrest in Nigeria?

Using the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) Project, which monitors global media each day, and Google's BigQuery system, one can identify the location and intensity (as proxied by media volume) of protests (indicated by the pink dots) and violence against civilians (red circles) in Nigeria from April 1, 2013, to the present. In all, international media outlets produced nearly 3.5 million news stories on events in Nigeria during this period that were monitored by the database, providing a rich portrait of a nation in turmoil.

In general, Africa tends to be underrepresented in mainstream U.S. media compared with coverage of European nations or American hotspots like the Middle East, skewing the American public's understanding of world events.

Nigeria presents a particularly interesting case study as a geographically-divided country in that the nation's stability is being increasingly challenged through the rise of Boko Haram in the country's northeast, domestic unrest in the southwest, intensifying ethnic strife in the center, and the growing influence of radical groups on the continent at large.

Most striking is that protest activity is largely centralized in the country's south, while violence far outpaces peaceful protests in its north. President Goodluck Jonathan's concerns in January 2012 that the Boko Harem violence in northeast Nigeria had become "even worse than the [1967-1970] civil war" are seen in stark relief today with the visible violence there. These range from an attack that killed 10 in a remote village in Adamawa last April to the more than 150 killed in Borno State in clashes between Boko Haram and government soldiers. Kano saw gunmen open fire on a primary school and a raid on a major Boko Haram bomb-making factory. In Zamfara State a five-hour attack killed 48 people and included hilltop snipers.

In Nigeria's "Middle Belt," 30 people were killed in Plateau State in January 2014 and over 100 houses were burned to the ground two months later, in early March. In May of last year, nearly 70 people were killed or injured in Taraba State in a clash between the Jukun and the Hausa and Fulani members. In Benue State, 205 Christians were killed in the last half of 2013.

Violence in the southern half of the country is more interspersed with protests. In September 2013 in Abuja in central Nigeria, thousands of electrical workers threatened to disrupt national power supplies in protest over privatization plans of the nation's major power company. In the southwest, 200 Christian students -- protesting the wearing of hijab by their Muslim peers in the classroom -- blocked major roads in Osogbo. Ogun State, in particular, has been a flashpoint for protests since university instructors staged a walkout in July 2013 over salary disputes with the government.

Big data now gives us the ability to collect the vast number of micro-level stories from the ground and aggregate them together to give a satellite-like view of a country, letting us peer down onto earth through the collective voices of the world's news media. Placing the shared chronology of millions of news articles into a single map makes it possible to see how strongly Nigeria's unrest is clustered into specific geographic regions with unique profiles and creates a tool that can be used to communicate these trends more concretely with policymakers.

For Nigeria, big data paints a portrait of a strongly divided nation in sharp relief. Yet, what new insight can be gained by transforming millions of news articles into a single visual map? Perhaps most critically is a cohesive view of Nigeria's conflict, turning casual anecdote into a geographic atlas. This atlas clarifies how deeply entrenched Boko Haram has become and its rapid spread through the northern half of the country. It also illustrates how protest activity is far more common in the south, while the cultural divisions that gave the Middle Belt its name are indeed a center point of ethnic conflict.

However, perhaps most critically, big data is a powerful tool to rise above the deluge of information available today, to watch emerging trends of conflict from the most remote regions of the world -- even when a breaking story in Eastern Europe seems to wash all else from view. Perhaps this is big data's greatest potential at the moment: not as a crystal ball seeing into the future, but as a mapmaker that transforms chaos into cartography.

-/AFP/Getty Images


The White House Needs to Shut Up

Every time the administration opens its mouth, it's only making things worse in Ukraine.    

The Obama White House cannot resist the temptation to parade its every move in the Ukraine crisis -- much to the detriment of its policy succeeding. This is an indiscipline born of self-regard: The White House thinks the president is so compelling and so central to the narrative that his every utterance is advantageous. And, of course, this is an administration in which no national security issue is assessed innocent of domestic political impact. They are failing to understand that by making the crisis so personal, the United States is doing a disservice to the people of Ukraine and making it much more difficult for the Russians to walk back their reckless grab for Crimea.

The White House not only tells reporters when the president talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but then spills the contents of the phone calls. So we know they talked for 90 minutes on Saturday, March 1, and again five days later when President Barack Obama told Putin, according to a White House readout, that "Russia's actions are in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners." The president himself stepped up to the mic that same day to say, "We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

But it is a mystery why this White House thinks any of this will soften Putin's resolve to see this gambit through. Maybe Obama thinks pious reassertion of Western values will cement European support for economic sanctions on Moscow (that will hit their economies, but not America's). In any event, the White House seems not to appreciate that the president's statement is factually untrue, as Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 actually did redraw borders over the head of a democratic leader, and this very administration did precious little to penalize a Russia with which it wanted to "reset" relations on more positive footing.

Moreover, let's recall just how much moral, if not legal, ambiguity we face in this crisis. The United States has sided with people who just overthrew a democratically elected government -- the protests in Kiev overturned a democratic process, just as the protests in Cairo ousted President Mohamed Morsi. So the administration looks to be on pretty thin ice when it touts the unassailability of democratic processes. It not only makes the United States look hypocritical -- the country only respects the rules when they produce outcomes it likes -- but it also gives credence to the upcoming plebiscite in Crimea. All the White House grandstanding has painted its policy into a corner: The United States is now in the position of arguing against the will of the majority in Crimea to protect the will of the majority in Kiev.

The more the administration makes the crisis in Ukraine about a conflict between the West and Russia, the less likely Moscow is to accede to Washington's preferred outcome. Secretary of State John Kerry understands this, but the White House keeps interjecting the "President vs. Putin" story line, which only tempts journalists with "can he deliver the West?" articles. What Obama should be doing instead is putting the challenges of Ukraine in the center of the picture. This is a state that struggles to be a nation, with a deeply corrupt leadership that has bankrupted a wealthy country and with low levels of social trust between its eastern and western populations. Moreover, it's clear the new legislature in Kiev did set off alarms in Crimea that its opening effort to outlaw the speaking of Russian; that doesn't justify the Kremlin's aggression, but it does give some context for fears of Ukrainians in the east of the country.

The best way forward in this crisis is to focus our immediate attention on putting Ukraine in a position to elect a legislature broadly representative of the country. That goes both at the national level, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 25, and regionally in Crimea, where a snap vote on separation from Ukraine will be held on March 16. In that narrow window of time we should be racing to address legitimate Crimean concerns, flood the zone with international observers of every stripe to provide information and bear witness to events, deeply engage with leaders on all sides to condition their behavior by making clear our responses to a variety of outcomes, and publicly support principled policies that reassure the losers of elections that their rights will still be respected. Rather than declaring, as Obama did, the Crimean plebiscite illegal, we should do what democracies do: win the argument.

Now is the time to unleash Jimmy Carter on Crimea! And not in terms of Obama's policy, but in a legion of international observers who will inform the world and scold the parties to the conflict to behave consistent with international norms. Where is Code Pink putting daisies in the rifles of Russian soldiers? Where are business reports that Gazprom being an arm of the Russian state should attract more regulatory attention and less investment? We so seldom actually use these tools of free societies to our advantage. Let's see how the Russians manage when faced with the real power of the West: not governments, but civil society.

Once Ukraine is on more stable footing we can turn our attention to the dish best served cold: retaliation against Putin and his cronies for their bare-knuckled attempt to establish "protection of Russians" as the basis for intimidating neighbors. Putin has already achieved a valuable aim: showing the region what Russia is capable of. As authoritarians understand much better than do those of us who live in secure freedom, once you instill fear in people, it actually doesn't take much repression to sustain it. By asserting the primacy of Russians' rights wherever they reside, he has cast a self-censoring shadow into the politics of the Baltic states. The Obama administration is to be commended for moving swiftly to reassure America's NATO allies that the United States will defend their territorial integrity; more needs to be done to show the country will also protect their domestic politics from Russian interference.

Instead, however, the White House is madly backgrounding reporters about what the United States is privately demanding of the Russians: The White House said Obama told Putin there still was a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which would include Kiev and Moscow holding direct talks, international monitors, and Russian forces returning to their bases. There was no indication of Putin's response.

Putin agreeing to those things -- all of which are good policy objectives -- will seem a climb down and are, frankly, unlikely. Washington's smarter move would be to allow the Russians to claim credit for things it wants to have happen. But this is a White House that can't even give credit to allies for their work in Libya and Mali; there's no chance this White House is able to get past the effrontery of Russian snubs to achieve bigger objectives.

The White House is still trying to outrun its self-characterization of "leading from behind" by showing the president to be an active, forceful presence in the Ukraine crisis. It's still trying to dig him out of the embarrassment of his unwillingness to enforce his red line on Syria. In other words, the White House is fighting the last war. This political solipsism is actually making this potential war more likely and making less likely an outcome consistent with U.S. interests and those of the people of Ukraine. The president needs to discipline himself to stop talking and start doing the small things that can be done.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images