Pursuing Meaningful Questions

Recently I read the description for the upcoming modeling challenge associated with the International Conference on Social Computing, Behavioral-Cultural Modeling, and Prediction (SBP 2012). Here’s an excerpt from the announcement:

Social media has inarguably played a key role in facilitating information dissemination in numerous real-world events including citizen protests driven by economic (e.g., the Occupy Wall Street, Greek’s the Indignant Citizens Movement) or socio-political crisis (e.g., Egyptian revolution, the Arab Spring), disaster recovery and response (Haiti earthquake), political campaigns, and many others. Prior to such events, the social network is virtually non-existent and emerges dynamically at an overwhelming pace afterwards. A similar phenomenon could be observed during the outbreak of an epidemic. Identifying the nodes that spread the information (epidemic) fastest, early on before the network stabilizes, could have a significant impact in decision making. Companies could also find this problem significant during early product promotions.

Considering the significance of the above-mentioned problem, the theme of the SBP 2012 challenge is to model diffusion in rapidly evolving networks. Submissions will be evaluated based on theoretical grounding as well as experimental evidence.

My initial reaction to the challenge can be summarized with one word: disappointment. I find this challenge emblematic of a significant body of research on social media that continues to pursue answers to questions that are misguided or poorly defined, leading to little practical benefit. Without the context of broader challenges, social media research will likely continue to generate results that fail to advance our understanding and deliver actionable insights.

How can we move from the current pattern of research to more impactful results? Within government circles, a shift in mindset is needed. Far too many program managers believe prediction is possible with enough data and computation for a range of network analytic challenges. They need to shift focus from predicting the future to understanding the now. Deriving timely situational awareness from large volumes of data remains a daunting challenge. The arrival of the real-time social web has made the problem no easier.

Once the requisite shift in priority from prediction to awareness is made, a host of additional questions need to be addressed. Consider the assertion made in the announcement:

A similar phenomenon could be observed during the outbreak of an epidemic. Identifying the nodes that spread the information (epidemic) fastest, early on before the network stabilizes, could have a significant impact in decision making.

What decision making process are we talking about here? This announcement is similar to many other statements about expected utility. Vague claims are made with limited context. No vision is advanced that clarifies the larger problem being addressed and how derived results help us move toward a solution.

In fairness to academic researchers, they don’t usually have the context to assemble a rich narrative about the larger problems. Constructing a vision of transformational impact takes time as it requires significant discussion between domain experts who understand the problems and methodological experts who understand the approaches that might support novel, impactful solutions. Communication and coordination among these disparate groups remains a costly endeavor even in the era of social media. Incentives are such that reaching across the divide is not the norm. New approaches are needed to shift that balance.

Government program managers need to lead with appropriate vision and incentives to assemble the multi-disciplinary teams that are absolutely required. Experimentation is needed to find paradigms that encourage the development and sustainment of productive partnerships. Partnerships that can move from transformational vision to prototypes and back as ideas are refined.

In the absence of leadership from the government sector, those motivated to make an impact need to begin assembling the larger picture and framing the core challenges. If we focus on the examples given in the announcement that involve the use of social media in struggles between a populace and government, a larger set of questions can be defined using insights from news reports.

At the moment, governments here in the US and abroad clearly are disadvantaged in this new information space. In struggles abroad, that asymetric advantage was celebrated by the US as protestors across the Arab world rose up against oppressive regimes with astounding results. Now city governments in the US wrestle with the challenges of responding to dynamic, seemingly leaderless crowds associated with the Occupy movement. Feeling the pressure, we are seeing government responses increasingly turn violent when options appear limited and frustrations run high.

Within this context, how can social media analysis potentially generate options for governments other than violence? When violence erupts, communication has clearly broken down. From the government perspective, in some cases, they have little idea of who to negotiate with to shape conditions on the ground. Can analysis of social media flows give them perspective on who they should be communicating with? Are their sources of information that are clearly influencing conditions on the ground? How does one uncover such influence?

Giving governments this type of insight is clearly a double-edged sword. With a government actively trying to avoid clashes in the streets, communication options may be embraced and leveraged for the common good. This insight might also be used to degrade the network by attacking the key sources of information influencing the behavior of the crowd. This raises further questions about how to create options for dialog without indirectly incentivizing undesirable outcomes. Are there novel ways to protect freedom of speech and assembly while minimizing impacts on public safety and security?

Framing analytic challenges in the broader context of the societal challenges we face today will challenge us to think differently and reach for new perspective. Network insights only create meaningful opportunities if those insights aid us in making better decisions. Let’s reach farther to create and ultimately capitalize on opportunities for greater societal impact.