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October 3, 2014

Twitter Funds MIT ‘Social Machines’ Effort

Machines could become more social thanks to a new Twitter-funded initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s vaunted Media Lab that will seek to develop new technologies to make sense of social chatter ranging from tweets to data streams to digital content.

MIT Media Lab announced Oct. 1 the creation of a Laboratory for Social Machines using $10 million in funding from Twitter over the next five years. Twitter said it also would provide the new MIT lab with full access to its real-time, public stream of tweets as well as its archive of every message ever sent via the social media site as a way to jumpstart the social machine initiative.

MIT researchers hope to use all those 140-character snippets to discern patterns and to visualize data that might reveal “interaction patterns and shared interests in relevant social systems.” Presumably that translates into something beyond what’s “trending?”

The partners also said the social machine project would seek to “create new platforms for both individuals and institutions to identify, discuss and act on pressing societal problems.”

Rudimentary versions of such a platform already exist. For example, the web-based utility and algorithm called Healthmap uses open sources tools to scan social media, news feeds and health alerts from agencies like the Centers for Disease Control. The result is machine-readable public health information along with the visualization of public health threats.

Described as a “small-scale implementation of the long-awaited semantic web,” Healthmap is said to have reported in March an outbreak of “mystery hemorrhagic fever” that had already claimed eight victims in Guinea. The site also spotted one of the first local news reports on March 19. It was the beginning of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The MIT project will use much larger datasets to extend the concept of a social machine. The new MIT lab “will experiment in areas of public communication and social organization where humans and machines collaborate on problems that can’t be solved manually or through automation alone,” Deb Roy, an associate professor at the Media Lab who will lead project, said in a statement announcing the Twitter funding. Roy also serves as Twitter’s chief media scientist.

“Social feedback loops based on analysis of public media and data can be an effective catalyst for increasing accountability and transparency—creating mutual visibility among institutions and individuals,” Roy added.

Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director, added that the new lab would seek to “create analytical tools to help turn the vision of a new public sphere into reality.”

The MIT investment also underscores Twitter’s strategy of leveraging its huge datasets for academic research. MIT will reportedly access the social media company’s tweet archives via Gnip, the social data website acquired by Twitter in April.

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