Academic Researchers on Social Data’s Critical Frontiers

Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Jim Thatcher, and Shawn Walker Discuss the Challenges of Creating New Frontiers in Academic Research Using Social Data

@annaeveryday @alogicalfallacy and @walkeroh discuss Social Data's Critical Frontiers

Academics and Social

The partnership between marketers and technologies has always been evident, but the impact of academics on the industry ecosystem is harder to grasp. Anna Lauren Hoffman, Jim Thatcher and Shawn Walker have gathered to discuss their work with social data, their thoughts on the social industry and the impacts across technology and advertising.

Hoffman focuses her work on the ethics and cultural studies of data including social data. Walker focuses on social and political participation, data archiving and the ethics of using social data. Finally Thatcher focuses on the spatial aspects of social data, examining the geo aspects of social data in the larger concepts of political and economic trends amongst other areas. While the academics focus on different applications of social data, they have overlapping focuses crossing ethics and challenges faced in data analysis. The academic perspective highlights the assumptions industry experts make and understand the impact on the entire ecosystem.

Blending of Old and New

Unlike the industry experts, academics focus on longer-term projects, stepping away from the cutting edge and utilizing their deeper knowledge set on research models and traditional knowledge to better understand social data according to Thatcher. Discussing the value of academic research for tech, the key theme Hoffman, Walker and Thatcher hit on was the value of understanding the larger social theories when approaching and constructing analysis of social data. The number of assumptions created in social data is not always inherent to industry insiders but can greatly impact the outcome of the data we receive and analyze. Academics and the students they train who will be entering the workforce, work to better understand these skews constructed into the design and output of social.

One area in particular that the academic work is seeking to answer is the accurate capture and storage of social data. Simply capturing the text won’t supply a full picture; the accompanying metadata is equally as important and far more difficult to capture. Walker is focused on utilizing library archival techniques to understand how to “freeze” data for future analysis without loosing the integrity. However, his work impacts across academic and industry focuses, helping to push forward our ability to understand how data decays and work to resolve. As the industry grows, it’s ability to analyze data must take into consideration the liquidity of social data and the challenges faced in gathering accurate snapshots.

Ethics and Privacy

A shared area of concern for academics is the area of ethics. Across the industry, growing concerns over privacy invasions of analyzing social data have been at the forefront of discussions and it is no different within the academic world. However, within academics the discussion looks beyond open and closed data to understanding how traditional research consent agreements can translate to online and the challenges being faced. As Walker points out the data received within social straddles human and technology data and disrupts current models. Primarily, the mass analysis of data provides far more powerful insights with potential harmful implications that transcend data anonymity. Our current thinking is if it’s being publicly shared there shouldn’t be any issues, but given the massive scale we work with the logic begins to fall apart. Citing anonymization of data as a safeguard against privacy invasion doesn’t work according to Walker. The anonymization falls apart as soon as you start studying the structure of the network or combining the data with other sources, which is primarily where focuses of studies are. Hoffman points out the importance of context when examining online privacy. We tend to think of privacy concerns from one example and fail to expand our considerations to various situations that each pose unique challenges that must be addressed.

Another challenge faced within online privacy and consent is explaining the data users are agreeing to share. Often there is a technology knowledge barrier in fully explaining what users are sharing when they agree to provide social data for analysis. That challenge falls upon the industry to properly convey and help users understand what data is collected about them from social and how that can be used for analysis.

Looking to the Future

The challenges academics face in accessing data and recourses are numerous. Funds, technology to host data and skills to analyze are all limited and put constraint on the projects academics can undertake. All three panelists highlight the need for academics, both on an individual and institutional level, to work with the social industry to democratize data and create forums where collaboration can occur. There are many academics with impactful ideas who do not have the capabilities to properly access and manage social data on their own and it is a loss for the entire industry when those ideas go unanswered. If the industry can work with academics to increase data access, a partnership can exist where the industry can supplement it’s knowledge with the academics deep expertise, and help train the future workforce learning from academics on how to work with this data before graduation.

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