SSRC launches Social Data Initiative & Facebook provides academics with access to data

Last week marked a milestone for social science and industry partnerships, with Facebook announcing an initiative to give scholars access to its data in order to help them assess social media’s impact on elections.

The move, which sees the tech giant partnering with the Social Science Research Council and seven major nonprofit foundations, has been largely welcomed by the research community as a positive step towards enabling academic research and establishing regulation. However, some ethicists have, understandably, expressed concern around privacy and consent issues.

Simultaneous to the Facebook announcement, the SSRC announced the formation of a new Social Data Initiative to “examine the problems, explore questions about the responsible use of social network data, and generate insights to inform solutions”. A welcome and much-needed response to the revelations around the misuse of Facebook data.

Facebook account

The Facebook initiative is the first to utilise A New Model for Industry-Academic Partnerships, devised by Gary King and Nate Persily as a way to make industry data available to social science researchers via an independent, transparent peer-review process.

Through this model, Facebook and the initiative’s funders will select an independent commission of trusted academics, which will be overseen by the SSRC. This commission will then receive access to Facebook data and use this to identify appropriate research questions within a general topic area (in this case the impact of social media on democracy). Once the questions have been agreed, the commission will announce an open grant competition, inviting independent academics to apply for funding and (privacy-preserving) data access. Proposals will go through a peer review process, conducted by a subcommittee of the commission. Researchers who are awarded funding and data access will then be free to publish their findings as they see fit, without Facebook’s pre-approval.

Funding will be provided by a range of politically diverse US-based foundations: the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Beyond social media

King & Persily’s model offers an innovative approach to a major problem, for industry and academia alike. For technology companies, it provides an opportunity to engage with social scientists and embed informed social objectives within business decisions, ultimately improving governance and social outcomes.

For social scientists, it could be the catalyst for a new era of social research. Whilst there has been significant appetite within the social science community to engage with big data research for sometime, gaining access to the right kind of data has proven a consistent barrier.

And it’s not just social media and technology companies that hold vast quantities of human data. Organisations of all kinds have been collecting and storing information about groups and individuals for years. From CCTV footage to credit card records, this data holds great potential to advance scientific discovery and improve our understanding of society. Of course, making this kind of data available has significant risks and challenges - from the protection of individual privacy and proprietary company information to ensuring the independence of the scientific process. King and Persily’s proposal might not be a perfect solution, but it’s certainly a welcomed step in the right direction.

Next steps

Beyond the Facebook partnership, the formation of the Social Data Initiative should be seen as an important milestone for social science research and industry-academic partnerships in general. But there are many more opportunities to improve support for social scientists working with big data.

In addition to programs like this, we believe that collaborations between social scientists and technologists on an individual level can also provide substantial opportunities for furthering social research. To this end, we are planning a number of events in 2018/19 to bring together people from academia, tech and policy to help form new collaborations and ensure a continued conversation around the future of social science. This includes working with Facebook and O’Reilly to run the second Social Science Foo Camp in 2019.

We also believe it is vital that social scientists are equipped with the necessary skills and tools to answer these new types of research questions. SAGE Ocean is developing a range of resources to support researchers and help the social science community make the most out of the opportunities big data holds.

Timing is everything

To quote Gary King: 

"One might reasonably wonder whether now is, in fact, the time to discuss a data sharing program between internet companies and academics... [but] now is precisely the time to have this conversation and to set up structures that protect users’ privacy while allowing independent academic analysis of social media data."

We couldn't agree more.

Have an opinion? Let us know your thoughts. We’re launching a new “Ask the experts” blog series to showcase your viewpoints on the latest news in social science and big data research.

Our first question is: “What impact do you think Facebook’s “data breach” will have on academic research and academic researchers?”

Send your one to two paragraph response to by the 23rd April for the opportunity to be featured.