Accessibility links

Breaking News

Allnutt Looks At What Data Visualization Can Say About Social Unrest

On the “Democracy Lab” blog of “Foreign Policy” magazine, RFE/RL “Tangled Web” blogger Luke Allnutt asks what new techniques for mapping social media interactions can tell us about how revolutions happen in the street.

Read excerpts from the article below; the original appeared on the website of “Foreign Policy” magazine and was reposted to


Pictures at a Revolution

Data visualization can offer some unique insights into social upheaval. But the data artists are just getting started.

By Luke Allnutt | April 11, 2012

At first glance you don't quite know what you're looking at. It could be strands of mitochondrial DNA, or sperm fertilizing an egg, or perhaps the product of an incongruous union between a sea creature and a hairball. As the thing grows, it passes through a series of increasingly complex mutations -- ending up as a kind of Death Star under construction.

You're looking at data -- or, to be more precise, a visual rendering of tweets and retweets from a several-hour period on February 11, 2011, starting shortly before the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

More than ever before, we inhabit a cosmos of data. With smart phones and the ability to share reams of information publicly on social media, our digital footprints are everywhere -- from what we “like” on Facebook to our store loyalty cards to banking transactions on our smart phones.

With that explosion of data have come new ways to visualize it. From Sumerian cuneiform to the humble pie chart, visual symbols transform the abstract into the concrete, helping us to see patterns and relationships we might have otherwise missed. The bigger the data sets, the more useful pictures of them become -- and at no time in human history have we ever had to deal with floods of data greater than the ones that wash over us now.


No one should expect social media analysis to replace surveys, existing early-warning networks, or traditional ethnographic research any time soon. Yet if these data visualization tools can make good on their promise, we'll soon have some powerful new ways of telling stories about our social universe with a speed and clarity that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. If we want to take a meaningful snapshot of the next iteration of Tahrir Square, reaching for a camera will no longer be our only option.

Read the full article here.