Innovate Mississippi

Point Innovation Magazine Winter 2013

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RESEARCH SPOTLIGHT Going Beyond the Trend on Social Media Sharon G. Morris I In the case of disaster recovery, when phones may be out of service, social media allows for the sharing of information, including where to locate recovery assistance and how to volunteer. f your topic is trending on social media, you're a hit. But in the eyes of social scientists, there is much to be learned about human behavior from the information that is exchanged via posts, tweets, shares and likes. A team of scientists, research associates and graduate students at the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center (SSRC) are developing and fine-tuning a suite of software applications that makes it possible to track and analyze a wide array of social media as scientific data for exploration and investigation. The Social Media Tracing and Analysis System (SMTAS) was first tested in the fall of 2012, when it was used to collect more than 4.5 million tweets and 400,000 images of Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath. While researchers know how social media was used as a communications system in the recovery effort, the software allowed them to look deeper into the public sentiment about major relief agencies and political leaders in the affected areas. "While social media is not quite representative of the population, the idea is to use humans as sensors providing information," said Somya Mohanty, Ph.D., SSRC systems architect and lead developer. "This presents a unique opportunity to passively survey human behavior, as opposed to the invasive mode of the traditional telephone survey." 30 Pointe Innovation In the case of disaster recovery, when phones may be out of service, social media allows for the sharing of information, including where to locate recovery assistance and how to volunteer. It might also alert emergency responders to the most critical areas of need. "During and following [Superstorm] Sandy, we used the SMTAS to study Twitter traffic from the affected areas," explained Mohanty. "The analysis helped us gain valuable information about human behavior in the case of a natural disaster. For instance, people were using Twitter to ask for help from friends and family. Similarly, networks were developed to share information about where to find help. There were also instances of people tweeting pictures of flooding, which SMTAS acquired in real-time. Such crowd-sourced information can prove to be extremely important for emergency responders." Credited as one of the visionaries behind the development of the SMTAS, Arthur Cosby, Ph.D, SSRC director, collaborated with colleague John Edwards, Ph.D., director of survey research labs, to begin the initial development of the system in 2011. "I saw an opportunity to tap into the large amount of information that exists in social media," said Cosby. "After all, where else can a researcher access 500 million bits of human behavior every day?"

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