Tweeting Minarets: A personal perspective of joining methodologies

David Ayman Shamma

Editor’s note: In the last post of the Ethnomining‘ edition, David Ayman Shamma @ayman gives a personal perspective on mixed methods. Based on the example of data produced by people of Egypt who stood up against then Egyptian president and his party in 2011, he advocates for a comprehensive approach for data analysis beyond the “Big Data vs the World” situation we seem to have reached. In doing so, his perspective complements the previous posts by showing the richness of ethnographic data in order to deepen quantitative findings.
David Ayman Shamma is a research scientist in the Internet Experiences group at Yahoo! Research for which he designs and evaluate systems for multimedia-mediated communication.


There’s a problem we face now; the so called Big Data world created an overshadowing world of numerical data analysis leaving everyone else to try to find a coined niche like “small data” or “long data” or “sideways data” or the like. The silos and fragmentation is overwhelming. But really, it’s just all data. Regardless of the its form or flavor, there are people who are experts at number crunching data and people who are experts at field work data. Unfortunately, the speed at which data science moves is attractive and that’s part of the problem; we don’t get the full picture at speed and everyone is racing to produce answers first.

A few months ago, in a conversation with a colleague, he told me “you don’t know what you don’t know, especially when it’s not there.” We were looking for a way to automatically surface a community of photographers on Flickr who didn’t annotate their photos. They didn’t use any titles or tags or any annotations what so ever. But they were clearly a strong and prolific community. If there was some way to automatically identify them, then we could help connect them.

Now, finding metrics for social engagement in unannotated data is not an impossible task when provided with some signal in the data that has some correlation, statistical or otherwise, to the effect you’re trying to surface. But in some cases, it’s just not possible. What you need is just not there; therein is a problem. In other cases, it’s much harder to surface features when you don’t know what they look like.

When you have a lot of data, finding that unexplainable prediction through algorithmic statistics becomes easier. It doesn’t explain why and it doesn’t always work.

Enter Ethnography to answer the why and find out what things might look like—surfacing findings in the age of big data. When I was invited to write a post on Ethnography Matters, I decided to illustrate this through a personally motivated example.

In the late January of 2011, the people of Egypt stood up against then President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. They wanted employment, a fair government, and an end to the 30 year long emergency law which had removed most of their civilian rights. Undoubtedly, you read about it somewhere. At the time, my mother was in Cairo visiting her 100+ year old mother. So this left me glued to the only source of news I could find—a rather buggy Al Jazeera video stream. U.S. news agencies were slow to start some sparse coverage. Somewhere in-between, it was burning up on Twitter.

Tharir tweets

A visualization of Twitter activity directed towards Tahrir by aymanshamma

Immediately, there was a problem: The #jan25 hashtag created a maelstrom on Twitter, all the while, in an act that was as simple as powering off a server closet, the Internet had been cut from the majority of Egypt. Twice a day, I’d call to the landline in my grandmother’s chateau and read the current news to my mother. All they had was the state run TV which was running B-roll from the 90s of Tahrir and reporting everything was fine. After I told her what was happening in the news, she’d fill me in to what was going on in-situ.

Now, at the time, my day job had me researching the shape of live events and TV shows on Twitter; I switched my corpus to the revolution. There was a lot of data. Tweets, retweets, hashtags, URLs, news stories and photos (both authentics and fakes), and people communicating at mass. The news agencies went a fuss with a revolution facilitated by social media. News reports varied from the west, claiming social media created the revolution, to the east, citing several social & economic factors which predicted the eruption.Two dynamics were at play. First, to be clear, the online community curation described by Wael Ghomin and the extension of the April 6th movement was surely a force factor. However, on the ground, I was hearing another story. The accounts on how people communicated and acted without SMS, cell phones, or the Internet.

What is it that we don’t know? I’ll start with two questions.

  • First, how do people congregate in growing numbers without technological infrastructure.
  • Second, how do people communicate without technology.

Over the next year I spoke with many people from relatives to friends from random Egyptians to a documentary filmmaker who had captured hours of footage and interviews during the uprising. All to see how people organize and communicate under distress when technology is cut and hence what we can’t measure from looking at the data itself. Both these questions were answered rather uniformly amongst everyone.

And so I asked people, how did you wind up in Tahrir Square? It became apparent that congregation is rather obvious. People were heading downtown on foot. It’s winter, so its not hot out. At some minimal mass, one will start to notice a lot of people moving or migrating in a direction if you’re looking out your window to check on what’s that sound. Social media, cell phones, word of mouth all contributed here.

Defending the Revolution متاريس لحماية اعتصام التحرير

LEAVE إرحل
Tahrir Under Revolution photos by حسام الحملاوي CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

That first day was impressive as the square overfilled in a police state where congregation is illegal. Unable to comprehend what was happening, the government shut off the Internet and cellular service and took over Egyptian run satellite TV. There was no cell, no SMS, no Internet, no email, no social media with some minor exceptions. A few savvy people pointed their dishes to pick up other TV providers or had cell coverage through some lesser 3rd party networks.

The next day the crowd grew in numbers. Where are these people coming from? Obviously, if you turn off the Internet and take over the TV, you’ll spend more time looking out the window. You’ll see protesters marching to the square. Curious, many people left their homes to follow them. Not to protest but just to see what’s going on. To spectate.

I found that the transformation from spectator to protester is critically dependent on one thing: a police force that does not differentiate between the two. Spectators watch as police as they took action against the protesters. And then the police turned action to bystanders. People spoke about no longer being spectators. They were participants in a protest by virtue of ocular proximity. The next day, they return to scene as part of the cause. More people in migration, more new spectators follow. And so the revolution grows in number.

Of course this isn’t the only factor. I spoke with one person who went to the square after Mubarak gave a speech days into the protest where he claimed to Egypt ‘you are all my children.’ This drove him to the protest which was peaceful and quiet until a mass of weaponized men on horse and camelback swarmed into the crowd. This person told me it was the moment he felt most betrayed by the government. He too said this made him realize he was now part of the revolution.

Curfews and access military checkpoints appeared over this time frame. A game started amongst the people: get past the checkpoints to fetch a photo with a tank in Tahrir. At this time, gang riots broke out (though most everyone felt they were staged by the government). The first night, one person told me, the whole street was looted by motorcycle gangs. Every shop. Every place. ATM machines broken open. Big burly guys on motorcycles speeding off with new ladies handbags by the dozen. His neighbor upstairs was yelling from the window “thieves thieves.” And he was speaking back to her from the neighboring balcony back “Shhh! Don’t or they will break in here.”

The next morning in Mohandessin, an area of Giza, they stepped outside and quite walked around to find people who looked like neighbors—simply put, people that looked familiar. They met and grouped up on the street. One person asked if everyone was armed. He said “I don’t have any weapons.” The neighbor goes into his garage, comes back and hands them metal plumbing pipes. They barricaded the street and used a local passwords to let people in and out. The first night was rough but they secured the street.

By the end of the week, the whole neighborhood of Mohandessin was locked down by the community with barricades and passwords and safepoints. This was happening all over Cairo and in other cities. One longtime resident of Alexandria told me he had passwords for pretty much the whole city. Though oddly never bothered to get the password for his own neighborhood which caused him to get stopped; he figured he’d know the person on guard.

Almost everyone said local TV started the endeavor with a call on the now more independent state run news for local watch groups. The reporters were suggesting people band together to save the city from the criminals. Information disseminated from building to building through communication organization. A local shopkeeper or a neighbor who would make connections and then build the information network thusly. By the end of the first day, blocks would be civilian protected and by day two the city was self policed.


Tahrir Post Revolution by aymanshamma

Cairo rapidly became a mesh network of community safe houses, checkpoints, and passwords. People organized night patrols to ensure safety, but they were faced the problem of with communication and coordination in a dense city with no cell phones or SMS or even CBs. Instead, people around the city turned to using the city itself for communication. They’d organize a few groups to patrol. Each group would have a different sort of “weapon”: pans, pipes, sticks, and the like. A few groups would be “at large.” So a patrol on a beat might need help or see a disturbance. They would sound a percussive alert by banging whatever particular device they were carrying.

Sound doesn’t travel well in a dense urban city, unless you have a good vantage point to hear. Cairo is a city of minarets, and that was the solution. The towers where muathen once stood to call people to prayer have all been modified with amplified loudspeakers. In a city where you’re never too far from a mosque, minarets provided ample coverage to relay information. The people walking beats used noisemakers signal local disturbances; each noise was a signature for a neighborhood. In the air, people were coordinated by the amplified verbal signals moving from minaret loudspeaker to minaret loudspeaker.

Discovering how communities organize, grow, and communicate under times of distress is difficult even when technology hasn’t been cut. While many things surfaced on Twitter during the revolution, like the Hardees in Tahrir being used as a safe house, many questions were left unexplained or assumed to be the work of online social networking.

This is where ethnography matters–by surfacing what to look for in the big data and highlighting what might be salient trends and features despite not being dominant. And mostly, by identifying people’s motivations and giving a deeper understanding of why things happen. From there we can start to unravel the complex communication structures at play and define new metrics informed by human action. The effort is ongoing, as we surface what has been done and what we now know through, it still says we don’t know.

It’s not a race, it’s a partnership, a marriage. The goal isn’t to get to the end as quickly as possible but rather to work together over time and build a richer world. We should strive to find these links between the quantitative and qualitative, and leave the silos which have us fragmented as a research community.

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