War on Terrorism-Data: A Research Note

Olof Sundin, Lund University, Sweden

Ted Nelson Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974, by Amber Case is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“The GTD data cannot be trusted.”

In this short research note I engage with the complex and distinct materiality of open data and facts. I do this by discussing the example of open data on global terrorism. This way I hope to visualize data as a manufactured cultural artefact, at the same time as the link between what are called neutral data and objective facts is challenged.

Open data travel from production, to mediation and further to a number of applications. Sometimes data sources are aggregated into broader data services, such as Gapminder or Knoema. On Knoema’s “About” page we can read: “the disparate and incomplete nature of data coupled with its erratic delivery renders it somewhere between unusable and practically non-existent. Because of this, we have made access to normalized data from worldwide sources our priority so that the data can work for you.” The service claims to provide access to over 1000 data sources.

Open data have been called the new oil in society and the data are attributed a lot of trust for solving societal problems. At the same time, the further data have travelled since their production, the more the data tend to loose their cultural context. Yet, it is through this process that data often are compiled into facts. I attempt to make visible the configuration of facts by following a specific set of data from its appearance in the public discourse back to its origin. I draw on a public debate in The Washington Post that concerned the question which terrorism-data is the most trustworthy. The quote above is taken from this debate.

Open data are produced by authorities, news media, universities, international organizations and other similar organisations and institutions. Open data are freely accessible - sometimes by means of a user-friendly interface, at other times only as an excel-file - and can also be merged and re-used together with other sources into aggregated data services. Open data are real in the sense that numerous institutions produce data that others can then access, use and re-use. At the same time, open data are also culturally constructed. dana boyd and Kate Crawford describe how big data are “a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon” (2012, p. 662). Open data can be understood in the same way. The challenge for humanistic perspectives and specifically for information studies, is then to provide a culturally situated understanding of the phenomena without question its significance and impact on society.

Global Terrorism-Data

In an article the 11th of January 2016 in one of the leading Swedish morning papers, Svenska Dagbladet, the journalist claims: “The sharpest increase of deadly terrorism in recent years took place during the 2010s, particularly since 2012. This is why the terrorist curve of 2000’s resembles a lying hockey stick” (Höijer, 2016. Translated from Swedish). The author refers to the data as “a compilation of basic facts” (Translated from Swedish). This type of references to data treated as facts appears regularly in the media and in the public discourse. The article refers to the report Global Terrorism Index 2015, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace . The data come from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), collected by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. The GTD is funded partly by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which was established in direct reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

According to Wikipedia, “The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) is an attempt to systematically rank the nations of the world according to terrorist activity” (Wikipedia, 2016–10–06). The index is based on an algorithm that considers four different factors that together provide a yearly score: number of incidents, number of fatalities, number of injuries and property damage. The factors have different weights. Fatalities weight highest and injuries lowest. However, there exists yet another provider of terrorism-data, The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) and their Suicide Attack Database . The CPOST was founded in 2004, just a few years after 2001. In difference to the GTD, CPOST only includes suicide attacks. The data collected and provided by GTD and CPOST appear in news media, in Wikipedia, in Tweets and (only GTD) in the aggregated data service Knoema (and in all likelihood in a lot of other places and services, unknown to me).

The Terror Data Debate

The GTD claims to cover terrorist incidents from 1970 onwards. The figures in the GTD are often presented as facts, or as “basic facts” as in the article from Svenska Dagbladet referred to above. But how are the data produced?

In two Op-Ed articles in The Washington Post, scholars from the university of Chicago criticise the GTD (Pape, Ruby & Bauer, 2016–07–21; see also Pape, Ruby, Bauder & Jenkins, 2014–08–11). They write quite plainly: “There’s only one problem: The GTD data cannot be trusted” (Pape, Ruby & Bauer, 2016–07–21). The authors describe the problem with the GTD as “its inconsistent collection of data, which severely undercounted the violence during the Iraq war. As a result, the recent increase in violence seems more extreme than it really is.” They recommend instead use of their own data service, The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST).

In their response, published a day later (Global Terrorism Database Staff, 2014–08–06; see also Jensen, LaFree & Miller, 2014–08–15), the GTD question that collecting data solely on suicide attacks, which is what the CPOST does, could function as a proper measurement for global terrorism:

“Surely an analytical strategy that only considers a type of terrorism widely practiced in the Middle East and South Asia but rarely observed in other parts of the world is fundamentally misleading as a general measure of terrorism”.

According to GTDs website , the history of the database has been bumpy. One year of data has been lost (1993), the methods used to collect the data have changed over the years and the criteria for what counts as terrorism have been altered. (GTD, without year). In other words, they argue that they have already made visible the problems with the data, and they provide a link to a description of their methodology as well as a link to the GTD codebook. They particularly stress how new technology has affected terrorism reporting. At the same time, once the data have travelled to service such as Knoema, all the disclaimers are lost, and when the data then appear in news media, the data are referred to as facts.

CPOST emphasises that GTD is funded directly from the government and position themselves as an alternative. In their first article CPOST concludes that “news media of keeping a critical eye on these authorities [governmentally funded data providers]” (Pape, Ruby & Bauer, 2014–07–21). The GTD team replied “Thoughtful use of data is hardly as simple as ‘the news media keeping a critical eye on authorities’ but instead is everyone’s responsibility” (Global Terrorism Database Staff, 2014–08–06).


In contemporary discourse data are often expected to be the building blocks of facts, beyond theory and interpretation (Boyd & Crawford, 2012). The interest in open data as source for learning and decision-making could be seen as an example of this. There is — in parts of society — “an increasing fetishisation of statistical measurement” (Shore & Wright, 2015, p. 22).

When expertise and traditional authorities are challenged as the establishers of facts, open data and big data can be seen as a sort of replacement. By going to the aggregated data services, it is possible skip traditional methods to determine and establish facts of society. Is there really a need for an encyclopaedia when you have access to a user-friendly database of, well, the data? Why read an analysis of the global spread of terrorism when there is an access to the “raw” data itself? When open data travels around the web, data risks losing contact with the conditions of its production. Data runs the risk of becoming not just representations of facts, but facts in itself, regardless of which disclaimer the original data producer puts on their website. But data is human-made, no matter how trustworthy it looks when communicated in nice graphs, built on exact numbers up to the first decimal. The methods of data collection, how to describe events — even the definition of terrorism — and what to include, change over time.

These are fascinating issues to study, but more importantly they relate to one of the most urgent questions of our time, how can we trust data at the same time as we are critically — but constructively — aware of the various preconceptions that are inscribed in them? In a current project, Jutta Haider and I will continue to investigate the cultural and humanistic dimension of how open data are translated to facts.

About the author:
Olof Sundin is professor in Information Studies at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden. His research interests lies in the intersection of information practices, information literacies and digital culture. He has a particular interest in how established knowledge actors - such as schools, libraries, and encyclopaedias - take on the challenges of search engines and digital media and people’s changing practices and expectations that come with the new order of knowledge that is currently developing. He is currently working with the project “Open Data: The Materiality and Fragmentization of Facts” funded by The Erik Philip-Sörensen Foundation.

boyd, d. & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679.

GTD (without year). History of the GTD. https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/about/History.aspx [2016–10–19]

Global Terrorism Database Senior Staff (2014–08–06). The challenges of collecting terrorism data. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/06/the-challenges-of-collecting-terrorism-data/ [2017–02–15]

Höjer, H. (2016–01–11). Terrorn slår alltmer blint och våldsamt. Svenska Dagbladet, http://www.svd.se/terrorn-slar-alltmer-blint-och-valdsamt [2016–10–18]

Jensen, M., LaFree, G. & Miller, E. (2014–08–15). Global terrorism data show that the reach of terrorism is expanding. The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/15/global-terrorism-data-show-that-the-reach-of-terrorism-is-expanding/ [2017–02–15]

Pape, R., Ruby, K., Bauer, V. & Jenkins, G. (2014–08–11). How to fix the flaws in the Global Terrorism Database and why it matters. The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/11/how-to-fix-the-flaws-in-the-global-terrorism-database-and-why-it-matters/ [2017–02–15]

Pape, R., Ruby, K. & Bauer, V. (2014–07–21). Government data exaggerate the increase in terrorist attacks. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/07/21/government-data-exaggerate-the-increase-in-terrorist-attacks/ [2017–02–15]

Shore, C. & Wright, S. (2015). Governing by numbers: Audit culture, rankings and the new world order. Social Antropology, 23(1), 22–28.

Wikipedia (2016–10–06). Global Terrorism Index. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Terrorism_Index [2016–10–18]