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March 03 2011

Social data is an oracle waiting for a question

We're still in the stage where access to massive amounts of social data has novelty. That's why companies are pumping out APIs and services are popping up to capture and sort all that information. But over time, as the novelty fades and the toolsets improve, we'll move into a new phase that's defined by the application of social data. Access will be implied. It's what you do with the data that will matter.

Matthew Russell (@ptwobrussell), author of "Mining the Social Web" and a speaker at the upcoming Where 2.0 Conference, has already rounded that corner. In the following interview, Russell discusses the tools and the mindset that can unlock social data's real utility.

How do you define the "social web"?

Matthew RussellMatthew Russell: The "social web" is admittedly a notional entity with some blurry boundaries. There isn't a Venn diagram that carves the "social web" out of the overall web fabric. The web is inherently a social fabric, and it's getting more social all the time.

The distinction I make is that some parts of the fabric are much easier to access than others. Naturally, the platforms that expose their data with well-defined APIs will be the ones to receive the most attention and capture the mindshare when someone thinks of the "social web."

In that regard, the social web is more of a heatmap where the hot areas are popular social networking hubs like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Blogs, mailing lists, and even source code repositories such as Source Forge GitHub, however, are certainly part of the social web.

What sorts of questions can social data answer?

Matthew Russell: Here are some concrete examples of questions I asked — and answered — in "Mining the Social Web":

  • What's your potential influence when you tweet?
  • What does Justin Bieber have (or not have) in common with the Tea Party?
  • Where does most of your professional network geographically reside, and how might this impact career decisions?
  • How do you summarize the content of blog posts to quickly get the gist?
  • Which of your friends on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere know one another, and how well?

It's not hard at all to ask lots of valuable questions against social web data and answer them with high degrees of certainty. The most popular sources of social data are popular because they're generally platforms that expose the data through well-crafted APIs. The effect is that it's fairly easy to amass the data that you need to answer questions.

With the necessary data in hand to answer your questions, the selection of a programming language, toolkit, and/or framework that makes shaking out the answer is a critical step that shouldn't be taken lightly. The more efficient it is to test your hypotheses, the more time you can spend analyzing your data. Spending sufficient time in analysis engenders the kind of creative freedom needed to produce truly interesting results. This why organizations like Infochimps and GNIP are filling a critical void.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

Save 25% on registration with the code WHR11RAD

What programming skills or development background do you need to
effectively analyze social data?

Matthew Russell: A basic programming background definitely helps, because it allows you to automate so many of the mundane tasks that are involved in getting the data and munging it into a normalized form that's easy to work with. That said, the lack of a programming background should be among the last things that stops you from diving head first into social data analysis. If you're sufficiently motivated and analytical enough to ask interesting questions, there's a very good chance you can pick up an easy language, like Python or Ruby, and learn enough to be dangerous over a weekend. The rest will take care of itself.

Why did you opt to use GitHub to share the example code from the book?

Matthew Russell: GitHub is a fantastic source code management tool, but the most interesting thing about it is that it's a social coding repository. What GitHub allows you to do is share code in such a way that people can clone your code repository. They can make improvements or fork the examples into an entirely new form, and then share those changes with the rest of the world in a very transparent way.

If you look at the project I started on GitHub, you can see exactly who did what with the code, whether I incorporated their changes back into my own repository, whether someone else has done something novel by using an example listing as a template, etc. You end up with a community of people that emerge around common causes, and amazing things start to happen as these people share and communicate about important problems and ways to solve them.

While I of course want people buy the book, all of the source code is out there for the taking. I hope people put it to good use.


January 27 2011

Social data and geospatial mapping join the crises response toolset

A new online application from geospatial mapping giant ESRI applies trend analysis to help responders to Australia's recent floods create relevance and context from social media reporting. A screenshot of the Australian flood trends map is embedded below:

This web app shows how crowdsourced social intelligence provided by Ushahidi enables emergency social data to be integrated into crisis response in a meaningful way.

The combination of Ushahidi and ESRI in Australia shows that "formal and innovative approaches to information collection and analysis during disasters is possible," said Patrick Meier, "and that there is an interface that can be crafted between official and non-official responses." Meier is a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and was reached via email.

The Australian flooding web app includes the ability to toggle layers from OpenStreetMap, satellite imagery, topography, and filter by time or report type. By adding structured social data, the web app provides geospatial information system (GIS) operators with valuable situational awareness that goes beyond standard reporting, including the locations of property damage, roads affected, hazards, evacuations and power outages.

Russ Johnson, ESRI's global director for emergency response, recently spoke with me at the ESRI federal user conference in Washington, D.C. Johnson spent 32 years as a federal employee in southern California, predominantly working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the pioneers who built up the FEMA incident response system, and he commanded one of the 18 teams around the nation that deploy assets in the wake of floods, fires and other disasters. At ESRI, Johnson helps the company understand the workflow and relevance of GIS for first-response operations.

Our full interview is contained in the following video. Excerpts are noted below.

What happened in Australia with ESRI and Ushahidi?

"This was the first time that a major media group used Ushahidi and its media reach to crowdsource reports from the disaster affected population," said Meier. "The combination of crowdsourced reporting with official reporting is noteworthy. And the fact that all of Ushahidi's services were used simultaneously in Queensland is a first."

Johnson hailed Ushahidi for its value as a platform for creating more "boundaried data" from the crisis data circulated around a given event. When better filters have been applied to social data, tagging or filtering, there's an opportunity to add it to GIS. "The web app allows the user to start toggling on social media of a specific variety and then turn on GIS to add hotspotting information," said Johnson. "Based upon that filter, which can be added to the validity of certain information, you can start to see needed resources."

It's similar to leading edge experiments with putting loosely bounded social data into structured forms to make it more actionable, said Johnson. "It makes it all more trustworthy — or at least your confidence is higher. We're all trying to figure out how to take this gift and use it to become more effective and intelligent. The area I work in — mapping and geography — immediately provides context. If we can refine that context, it can lead us to other capabilities. If we know where other responders are located, can we direct closest available resource to the highest need problems."

January 07 2010

Understanding Social Business - Webcast

The term, "Social Business" has been gaining currency over the past year among influential thinkers such as Stowe Boyd, Jeff Dachis, Peter Kim, and Jeremiah Owyang. At its broadest definition Social Business describes the systemic challenges and new opportunities social technologies present to organizations.

I have been writing for some time that organizations needs to "get" social in ways that go well beyond marketing gimmicks or pushing press releases through Twitter. It is a different approach to doing business.

So I am excited to announce that I will be moderating an O'Reilly panel discussion with Boyd (Principal, The /Messengers), Kim (Managing Director at Dachis Group) and Owyang (Partner, Altimeter Group) on January 14 to discuss:

  • What is the definition of Social Business?

  • How can Social Business impact strategy, design, technology and customer experience?

  • Who are the leading exemplars?

The panel will leave plenty of time for audience Q+A.

From the Radar audience I would love to hear about any questions you would like to see addressed.

You can sign up for the webcast here.

November 07 2009

Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age - Part Three

The myth of personal empowerment takes root amidst a massive loss of personal control.

Social technologies are cloaked in a rhetoric of liberation (customers are in control, the internet fosters democracy, social technologies propagate truth etc.) that tend to obscure the fact that never before have we handed so much personal information over in exchange for so little in return.

As we move from the “web of information” to the “web of people” (aka the Social Web) the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.
This loss of control over personal information is on a collision course with the law of unintended consequences: MIT’s Project Gaydar can spot your sexual preference by your social ties, Facebook checks are occurring customs and every quiz you take on Facebook delivers a shocking amount of personally identifiable information to third parties.

Amidst this barrage of good news for how much power we wield in the transaction of commerce one has to wonder if we are giving away something quite precious in the bargain.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:
One: More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.
Two: Individual perception of increased choice can occur while the overall choice pool is getting smaller

What are other paradoxes of the Internet Age? What did I get wrong above?

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