Twitter invests in MIT lab focused on online social movements

Twitter is investing US$10 million in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build platforms for online collaboration by people on civic and political issues.

The Laboratory for Social Machines (LSM) set up by MIT Media Lab will have access to Twitter’s real-time, public stream of tweets as well as archives, dating back to the first tweet on the social network, MIT said.

Decentralized digital networks have been more suited to disrupting old social and political hierarchies than building the systems to replace them, according to MIT Media Lab. The lab will be exploring the potential of social networks “to remake the public sphere” by providing tools for institutions and individuals to collaborate on social problems, it added.

The data from Twitter will be provided by data analysis provider Gnip, which was acquired in April by Twitter. The firm has been analyzing and selling to clients the so-called “firehose” of Twitter data. MIT will be sifting through the tweets for patterns and connections, using techniques like large-scale analysis of content in real-world contexts and investigating interaction patterns in relevant social systems.

The social networking company introduced in February a pilot project called Twitter Data Grants through which it would give its data to select research institutions. Under the program, it has backed a variety of projects such as the surveillance of food-borne gastrointestinal illness using Twitter data and the study of the effectiveness of campaigns on the social network for the early detection of cancer.

In April, Twitter said it was providing its data to six institutions across four continents, including the University of Twente in the Netherlands, the University of East London in the U.K., and National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Japan

Twitter said it hoped that the MIT research team will be able to understand how movements are started by better understanding how information spreads on Twitter. The $10 million commitment by Twitter is over a five-year period. LSM will have operational and academic independence in its research.

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