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What We Can Learn About Drone Strikes From 10 Million Yemeni Cell Phones

“There’s a lot to be said about collective action and political activity that can be captured in these data sets.”


When we read coverage of Yemen in this country, it tends to paint in broad strokes — it’s seen as a hot spot for Islamic extremism, an al-Qaida training ground, a country that had a brief uprising during the Arab Spring. Part of the reason for that kind of coverage is because it’s so hard to report from the country, but there’s also a data divide in Yemen and similar parts of the world. Without government and nonprofit resources in place, it’s hard to do the social science that can paint a more nuanced picture of Yemeni life and culture. But there are clever end-arounds.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, MIT political scientist Fotini Christia discusses how she and her colleagues used cell phone metadata to gather information about the rhythm of daily Yemeni life — from prayer to the afternoon khat session — as well as the effect of drone strikes, protests and more.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Overcoming a data challenge

Jody Avirgan: I wonder if you can start by describing the challenge that you were trying to solve by using this data?

Fotini Christia: Yemen is a fascinating place because it is a hotspot and a place of trouble. It has been an issue for the U.S. in terms of terrorism, instability, continued conflict. And though we do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence [about the country], it tends to be very selective. It’s usually from journalists that can be on the ground in very particular places. So there’s a lot we don’t get to hear about Yemen because it’s so hard to do social scientific or analytic work on the ground. It’s not a place that has rich census data. It’s not a place that has rich household-level data, recent survey or polling data. So people tried to be creative about where else you can get information.

Tracking the Arab Spring through cell records

Avirgan: So, in this time period, 2010-2013, you mentioned, along with all the other things we’ve discussed, the Arab Spring was in your data set. How was that reflected?

Christia: That was very interesting. Indeed, we do see a lot of cell-phone activity, we see a lot of SMS. What was interesting about Yemen, which was not the case in other parts of the Arab world that experienced the Arab Spring, like Egypt for example, is that there’s no 3G network in Yemen. So there was no use of social media and the Internet. That makes our data particularly interesting in the Yemeni context because there’s so much that could be captured in the actual call-data records. We have information, not just who calls whom and from where to where, but also the location, the kind of antennas, [these] were critical in that regard. So, we geolocated and coded all the Arab Spring events — protests, bombing, attacks — from the side of the government and the police. And we tried to see an increased surge in activity — trying to understand the collective action around protests.

A glimpse into daily life

Avirgan: What do you, as researcher and as a person, like more? Do you like the little glimpses into daily life and the daily routine [of Yemenis] or do you like the more policy-orientated data?

Christia: The fascinating thing about this data is that you can see both, and you can see kind of the confluences and synergies between these two. So for instance, if you are interested in larger political patterns, such as who shows at a demonstration, or who takes a leadership role in a demonstration … by having this data, you know what he’s like. You know where he lives. You know who he calls and who his friends are. You know if he’s Shia or Sunni, depending on what holidays he makes calls. You know if he’s rich or poor depending on how much phone credit he uses. There’s just so many different things one can get out of this data that will offer a lot more granularity and information in the bigger policy picture that one tries to draw.

And I think what’s interesting is that people have been using such data very actively for epidemiology, for health, for development more broadly in these parts of the world that are data scarce and difficult to access. And I think a place like Yemen is particularly interesting in that regard.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.