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