Twitter opens its doors to researchers

by | Feb 6, 2014 | Biz/Tech

Photo courtesy of Andreas Eldh, flickr

Photo courtesy of Andreas Eldh, flickr

By Glyn Bowerman

With users generating 500 million tweets a day, social media site Twitter is a potential treasure trove for data craving researchers.

Now, Twitter has announced it will be providing free data grants to select, non-commercial research institutions, which will provide access to the wealth of public and historical information contained in twitter feeds all over the world. Eager researchers have until Mar. 15 to apply.

“We wanted to see Twitter data in the hands of more researchers,” Elaine Ellis, marketing manager at Gnip, said Thursday. “We think there’s a lot of cool use cases.”

Colorado-based Gnip is the world’s largest social data provider, said Ellis. Working with companies like Twitter, Tumblr and WordPress, Gnip makes these companies’ constant outpouring of data available – usually to social media analytics companies and companies looking to use social media as part of their business.

Gnip will be partnering with Twitter to provide needed data to successful grant applicants, and Twitter’s own engineers will collaborate with researchers to provide the specific information the need.

“People use it to understand politics, people use it in public health, people use it to see how flu will travel, where cholera will head, which restaurants are most likely to have food poisoning,” said Ellis.

“We really see this as the largest public archive of human thought to ever exist.”

Ellis said researchers will set the parameters, and Twitter will deliver.

“For us,” said Ellis, “we’re really excited to see what we can continue to learn about Twitter data.”

While all this worldwide data would certainly be a benefit to researchers, Robert Plant, professor at the Miami School of Business Administration, said Twitter’s goal may not be wholly egalitarian.

“It depends on how you look at it,” Plant told Humber News.

“Looking at it here, most of the press release is that ‘it’s Twitter helping the world.’ I guess the cynic in me would twist it around.”

“My quick view on this is really probably that they’re getting people to work for them for free.”

Plant said companies have offered-up their data before, and watched very closely what researchers were able to do with it. This tells the company how to better monetize in the future.

Bernie Monette, a media studies program coordinator at Humber College in Toronto agreed.

“It’s sort of a clever thing to do when you think about it,” Monette said. “The interesting thing about Facebook and Google and Twitter is that they collect an awful lot of information. And once you have a data set, then you can start asking interesting questions, and start getting interesting results.”

Monette said people share information over social media that they shouldn’t.

“It’s important to watch.”

That said, Monette sees real potential value in the findings gleaned from such a mass of information.

“What do we know about our collective understanding,” said Monette. “That’s sort of what you would hope to get out of this research.”

“It would be interesting to see: can we ask intelligent questions of the data?”