He monitors protests across the world through millions of data points representing social media, TV and newspapers. He maps the heartbeat of Twitter. Kalev Leetaru, Georgetown’s Yahoo! Fellow, even shows through big data how the Arab Spring could have been predicted. His work is the future of how big data could reshape diplomacy by providing policymakers with tools to make more decisions using cold, hard facts.
Kalev Leetaru spends so much time working that he hasn’t taken a Christmas off in two decades. And he’s only 30 years old.
“No brothers or sisters, no siblings. I had two dogs – both golden retrievers. And of course they matched me perfectly in energy,” says Leetaru, who founded a web company in eighth grade and by high school had an internship at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
Leetaru’s a big man making a big name for himself in big data.
The 6’4” Yahoo! Fellow in Residence of International Values, Communications Technology and the Global Internet at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy is now one of the major players analyzing massive data – on everything from the 2012 presidential election to what’s happening right now in Ukraine.
“In the past people have talked about things in secrecy, such as two people whispering in an out-of-the-way café,” he says. “Today it’s much more likely they’re going to express themselves on social media. Someone might note that the markets have been empty of women and children in certain areas or that there are armed men in the town square. These are good indicators of what’s going on in a society and we can capture that in real-time with big data.”
He makes the word “overachiever” sound like “understatement.”
Before joining Georgetown, Leetaru held numerous fellowships at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
He holds three U.S. patents that have been cited by more than 40 other U.S. patents from companies such as Amazon, Google, IBM and Oracle.
Leetaru’s book – Data Mining Methods for the Content Analyst: An Introduction to the Computational Analysis of Informational Content was published in 2011 by Routledge and he has another in the works, A Practical Guide to Low-Cost Digitization, and a third under development on big data.
He recently successful defended his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois and has published 14 scholarly articles, three book chapters, four industry publications, three magazine articles and made more than 100 presentations around the world. And he was named a top 100 Global Thinker for 2013 by Foreign Policy magazine.
Despite everything he’s done in big ways with big data, Leetaru doesn’t seem to have a big ego.
“Kalev is often so busy helping anyone in need and starting and managing his million projects …,” says Brittney Campbell, a Texas Instruments account manager who is one of his best friends. “I think because of this most people miss what a genuine and caring person he is.”
And despite his size, he has the energy of an 8-year-old boy.
The man can pack more ideas into a few minutes than most of us can do in hours. He doesn’t even seem to need to breathe when he talks.
“You would think that I must have an IV feed of caffeine, but actually I just have very high natural energy,” he says, standing by his collection of DVDs, which include Laurel and Hardy, Star Trek and James Bond in his Arlington apartment. “I run on a lot of adrenaline, and I think that a lot of that’s because I find the stuff that I do very exciting, so that gives me kind of that natural drive, and that’s what curiosity is. There’s always something to be done, and even when I’m sleeping, I’m usually dreaming of work.”
He notes that a lot of big data analysis is funded with millions of dollars, but that his projects are mostly unfunded and done on his own.
“The projects that I do – almost exclusively it’s a one-person show,” he explains.
Leetaru adores his projects, but he also loves people and likes being the center of attention. He views his attire as a way of standing out in a crowd. He often wears a contrast color dress shirt (dark blue and dark purple are favorites) and what he calls “exotic ties.”
“I try to express myself through ties,” he says. “So I have very conservative ties and I have very loud ties. I try to stand out in a way that’s still professional but really stands out. I have this metallic tie that’s really wonderful because as I breathe it actually shimmers, the whole thing sparkles…”
Leetaru has won numerous awards for his work.
He describes his work as “the application of high-performance computing to grand challenge problems using news and open-source intelligence.”
In 2011, when most people hadn’t even heard the phrase “big data,” Leetaru began using an archive of 100 million global news articles spanning a quarter-century, and a 2.4 petabyte network of 10 billion people, places and things and 100 trillion relationships.
He was able, in hindsight, to forecast the Arab Spring, pinpoint Bin Laden’s location and visualize human society’s evolution.
“Kalev is going to change the world,” says Campbell, who first met the wunderkind at a Society of Women Engineers meeting he was helping with at the University of Illinois. “I can’t wait to see him do it.”
Called “Culturomics 2.0,” the study that forecast the Arab Spring was covered byThe Economist as one of just five science discoveries deemed the most significant developments of 2011. His work has also been featured in Nature magazine, Foreign Policy magazine and covered in media across the world, including BBC and The New York Times.
“Every person in Tahrir Square or Venezuela right now, each person has their own specific, unique reason for being there and protesting, but as a whole, society moves by somewhat regular patterns,” Leetaru notes. “The missing part has been the data allowing us to see those patterns.”
Culturomics 2.0 led Leetaru to a collaboration with SGI – Silicon Graphics International – in 2012 on two projects: The Wikipedia Project and the Global Twitter Heartbeat.
The Global Twitter Heartbeat used SGI’s UV2 supercomputer to create the first ever real-time combined population, tone and geographic analysis and heat map of the Twitter Decahose – 10 percent of all tweets globally.
And through the Twitter Heartbeat, Leetaru made movies showing Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 U. S. presidential election through the eyes of Twitter.
The Wikipedia Project study marked the first time a digital humanities effort showcased the launch of a new supercomputer, highlighting what he says is a necessity – big data in supercomputing.
“What’s different today is that all of a sudden we have computing power that’s capable of dealing with [processing big data],” explains Leetaru. “… With the explosive growth in data we can finally for the first time use computers to process this and help us peer into the heartbeat of global society.”
The University of Illinois graduate also created GDELT, which stands for the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone, to “monitor as closely as possible the entirety of the world’s news media each day.”
Leetaru says ultimately he wants to “create a social science observatory for human society.”
He created a new map for Foreign Policy magazine using GDELT to show what big data can explain about unrest in Ukraine through the eyes of the world’s news media.
“Contrary to the image that has emerged in Western media centering on a single square occupied in the capital city,” he explains, “We see instead a conflict that reaches to the farthest corners of a nation, not only between the police and protesters in Kiev, but in protests that have spread to other cities. In short, big data allows us for the first time to map quantitatively how large-scale societal unrest brings a nation together, even as it tears it apart.”
This year, he helped create the analysis technology and social media measurement system used in the SyFy channel’s reality series Opposite Worlds, where 14 people face off on opposing teams in two different worlds.
The show set records in social media engagement for a television series.
“The first episode was the No. 1 trending topic globally on Twitter and the series trended globally three times and nationally every night it was on the air,” Leetaru notes. “It peaked as the No. 1 TV series hashtag and consistently ranked among the top five series hashtags across broadcast and cable the entire season.”
Leetaru, now an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown, says his research at the university over the past year has centered on how the huge amount of data can be used to help solve policy issues.
He’s been teaching a graduate-level course at Georgetown called Big Data and Global Affairs, which introduces and surveys the use of “big data” approaches to understanding human society. The course applies a non-technical approach that emphasizes the methodologies, tools, thought processes and mindsets behind these approaches, as well as how they differ from a traditional, small-data, human-centered study of society and its application to global policymaking.
“You can tell right away that Kalev is incredibly passionate about what he does,” says Jenna Gibson, a Junior Yahoo! Fellow and a graduate student in the School of Foreign Service. “He speaks with such enthusiasm and knowledge. And as an adviser he has provided that enthusiasm along with great insight and resources to help me with my research.”
Leetaru really does want to change the world.
Leetaru thinks the analysis of big data could result in concrete social change.
“One thing that would definitely be interesting about changing the world would be something that I have found deeply saddening about the rise of the web – the rise of toxicity in society,” he says. “When you think about the earliest days of the web, it was about sharing research. It was about excitement. It was about sharing and supporting each other. When did it really become more about tearing people down?”
The ways in which the web is changing the world came into play in early April, when Leetaru was one of three featured speakers at the “From Big Data to Global Diplomacy Today and Tomorrow” 2014 Yahoo! Conference at Georgetown. The other speakers were Noel Dickover, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Will Mayo, managing director for the D.C. region of GNIP, a social media company.
Here Kalev worked with the Internet Archive to map all locations mentioned by news broadcasts in the archive. Move around the map and choose locations or click here to find out more.
Leetaru gave an overview of the current state of big data and also presented a series of examples of how big data can be used to explore global issues and chart domestic reaction to policy implementation and rapidly understand policy influencers.
When Leetaru wonders about something, he creates a new project to find the answer.
“Global news coverage has become more negative over the last quarter-century, but the rise of the web is when it starts skyrocketing,” he says. “To me, part of this is understanding how these societal trends come about and what they tell us about who we are as a global society.”
Each year’s recipient of the prestigious Yahoo! Fellowship in International Values, Communication Technology and the Global Internet at Georgetown– made possible by a gift from Yahoo! – is chosen through a highly competitive international application process.
“Kalev has proven to be a huge asset to Georgetown,” says James Seevers, director of studies and training at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. “He has shown a commitment to public service through his constant efforts to help students and faculty, Washington’s government and intelligence officials, and the broader global policy community understand how to use ‘big data’ to make sense of and improve the world.”
Leetaru wants to inspire others in any way he can.
“I was going through a rough spot in my career a few years ago and was debating if I should even stay in the electronics industry,” Campbell recalls. “I was burnt out and had lost my passion for the field. Kalev sent me the two most perfect gifts I think I’ve ever received – a solar-powered mechanical rotating crystal that threw rainbows all across my room and a muscle-wire-controlled automated butterfly.”
“I know these things sound silly,” she adds, “but to an electrical engineer that had lost my ‘spark,’ they helped me get up and be excited about work every day.”
When asked for five words that describe her ambitious friend, Campbell says “Brilliant. Unique. Unstoppable. Pioneer. Integrity.” He doesn’t have much spare time, but when he does he takes a walk, visits a museum, watches a DVD, reads his favorite comics (Sherman’s Lagoon is a favorite) … or impulsively refurbishes a discarded dining room table.
“I was taking a load of garbage down at my apartment building… and saw this [dining table] in the loading dock that was in really awful shape,” he said of what is now his dining room table.
“I said “I’ll take it,” says Leetaru, who brought wood refinishing equipment and paint with him on his journey to DC. “… It had literally been out on someone’s balcony for like an entire year [and] it was completely destroyed. So I sanded it down, stained it and refinished it.”
Another time he saw a light table in the movie Get Shorty and decided to recreate it. He also made a miniature replica of the color-changing Crown Fountain in Chicago for his garden in Illinois.
Leetaru’s creative talents and internal drive appear to come from both sides of his family.
His father, Hannes Leetaru, a petroleum geologist, works on the FutureGen zero emissions coal plant project for the Illinois State Geologic Survey.
“I sort of inherited it,” he says of his frenetic lifestyle. “My father, he pretty much works 24/7 and 365 days a year.”
His mother, Marilyn, was a schoolteacher before he was born and now works as a substitute teacher in Urbana, Illi, where the family moved when Kalev was 10. She traces her family back to the Mayflower. His father traces his family back to Estonia.
A paternal grandmother, Ilse Leetaru, was an artist fairly well known in Estonia who had exhibitions of her work in New York during a gala honoring the Baltic country’s membership into the European Union.
Her husband, Edmund Leetaru, was a physician in Estonia who escaped to New York when family members started disappearing after the Russians occupied the country. He had mastered five languages and worked until his late 80s.
“He grew up in absolute poverty and had to work for everything he had and in fact he worked almost until he died,” Leetaru says. “My father and I sort of inherited [his energy and drive].”
As a child, Leetaru was fascinated with taking things apart – telephones and old electronics – and putting them back together.
“When he was in elementary school he was reading Isaac Asimov’s I Robot series and he wanted to work with robots,” his father recalls. “His godfather gave Kalev a programmable robot and Kalev would program it to chase the dog. He then progressed to programming on the computer.”
His intelligence was evident early on.
“He started reading BusinessWeek magazine at age five,” Hannes Leetaru explains. “Admittedly he did not understand the concepts, but he was able to read the magazine to me when I got home from work.”
When the younger Leetaru was 7, his father had to leave Houston, Texas, where the family lived until Kalev was 10, to work on a temporary contract at the University of Illinois. Months went by without the father and son seeing each other until the position became permanent.
“He would build things [out of paper, cardboard, tape and other materials] during the periods I was away and save them to show me when I visited,” his father says. “He was always building something. He became very interested in electronics in middle school and early high school and started building things on circuit boards.”
During the time the family was apart, Leetaru’s father says they had very little money.
“The Christmas presents to him were McDonald’s Happy Meal toys because we did not have any money to buy anything else,” he says.
But he thinks this helped his son learn to “take nothing for granted.”
Another hardship for young Kalev was a shoulder injury that ended his high school varsity swimming career and involved months of physical therapy.
“Kalev really works hard and has faced numerous challenges to get where he is today,” Hannes Leetaru says. “Those challenges have taught him that your family, friends and professional collaborators are an important part of life. You cannot accomplish your life goals without the backing of all the others working with you for a common goal.”
The younger Leetaru’s future goals are as big as he is.
“My ultimate life goal is to build a dashboard of all human society that encodes every piece of knowledge that’s ever existed, extended through the entirety of history, build all of that into one single environment,” Leetaru says.
That might sound lofty, but this is the guy whose undergraduate senior thesis documented the physical history of the University of Illinois – 80,000 pages of digital material dating back to the institution’s founding and the photographing of nearly a quarter-million photographs of every square inch of the campus.
For now, he hopes to stay in Washington and continue working on projects that involve massive data, policy and diplomacy.
“The vast majority of government today sets data aside and is limited by gut feelings about situations,” Leetaru says. “What would happen if we could transform policy into a data-driven mentality? Just imagine a world where Washington and policymakers look at data to measure their constituencies’ opinion. I think we have the tools to do that and that would be very exciting. I’m just so excited to see where the big data world takes us over the coming years.”