Mining social media data for social good

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

For Erin Walk, who has loved school since she was a little girl, pursuing a graduate degree always seemed like a given. As a mechanical engineering major at Harvard University with a minor in government, she figured that going to graduate school in engineering would be the next logical step. However, during her senior year, a class on the “Technology of War” changed her trajectory, sparking her interest in technology and policy.

“[Warfare] seems like a very dark reason for this interest to blossom … but I was so interested in how these technological developments including cyberwar had such a large impact on the entire course of world history,” Walk says. The class took a starkly different perspective from her engineering classes, which often focused on how a revolutionary technology was built. Instead, Walk was challenged to think about “the implications of what this [technology] could do.”

Now, Walk is studying the intersection between data science, policy, and technology as a graduate student in the Social and Engineering Systems program (SES), part of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). Her research has demonstrated the value and bias inherent in social media data, with a focus on how to mine social media data to better understand the conflict in Syria.

Using data for social good

With a newfound interest in policy developing just as college was drawing to a close, Walk says, “I realized I did not know what I wanted to do research on for five whole years, and the idea of getting a PhD started to feel very daunting.” Instead, she decided to work for a web security company in Washington, as a member of the policy team. “Being in school can be this fast process where you feel like you are being pushed through a tube and all of a sudden you come out the other end. Work gave me a lot more mental time to think about what I enjoyed and what was important to me,” she says.

Walk served as a liaison between thinktanks and nonprofits in Washington that worked to provide services and encourage policies that enable equitable technology distribution. The role helped her identify what held her interest: corporate social responsibility projects that addressed access to technology, in this case, by donating free web security services to nonprofit organizations and to election websites. She became curious about how access to data and to the Internet can be beneficial for education, and how such access can be leveraged to establish connections to populations that are otherwise hard-to-reach, such as refugees, marginalized groups, or activist communities that rely on anonymity for safety.

Walk knew she wanted to pursue this kind of tech activism work, but she also recognized that staying with a company driven by profits would not be the best avenue to fulfill her personal career aspirations. Graduate school seemed like the best option to both learn the data science skills she needed, and pursue full-time research focusing on technology and policy.

Finding new ways to tap social media data

With these goals in mind, Walk joined the SES graduate program in IDSS. “This program for me had the most balance,” she says. “I have a lot of leeway to explore whatever kind of research I want, provided it has an impact component and a data component.”

During her first year, she intended to explore a variety of research advisors to find the right fit. Instead, during her first few months on MIT’s campus, she sat down for an introductory meeting with her now-research advisor, Fotini Christia, the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences, and walked out with a project. Her new task: analyzing “how different social media sources are used differently by groups within the conflict, and how those different narratives present themselves online. So much social science research tends to use just Twitter, or just Facebook, to draw conclusions. It is important to understand how your data set might be skewed,” she says.

Walk’s current research focuses on another novel way to tap social media. Scholars traditionally use geographic data to understand population movements, but her research has demonstrated that social media can also be a ripe data source. She is analyzing how social media discussions differ in places with and without refugees, with a particular focus on places where refugees have returned to their homelands, including Syria.

“Now that the [Syrian] civil war has been going on for so long, there is a lot of discussion on how to bring refugees back in [to their homelands],” Walk says. Her research adds to this discussion by using social media sources to understand and predict the factors that encourage refugees to return, such as economic opportunities and decreases in local violence. Her goal is to harness some of the social media data to provide policymakers and nonprofits with information on how to address repatriation and related issues.

Walk attributes much of her growth as a graduate student to the influence of collaborators, especially Professor Kiran Garimella at Rutgers’ Department of Library and Information Science. “So much of being a graduate student is feeling like you have a stupid question and figuring out who you can be vulnerable with in asking that stupid question,” she says. “I am very lucky to have a lot of those people in my life.”

Encouraging the next generation

Now, as a third-year student, Walk is the one whom others go to with their “stupid questions.” This desire to mentor and share her knowledge extends beyond the laboratory. “Something I discovered is that I really like talking to and advising people who are in a similar position to where I was. It is fulfilling to work with smart people close to my age who are just trying to figure out the answers to these meaty life issues that I have also struggled with,” she says.

This realization led Walk to a position as a resident advisor at Harvard University’s Mather House, an undergraduate dormitory and community center. Walk became a faculty dean aide during her first year at MIT, and since then has served as a full-time Mather House resident tutor. “Every year I advise a new class of students, and I just become invested in their process. I get to talk to people about their lives, about their classes, about what is making them excited and about what is making them sad,” she says.

After she graduates, Walk plans to explore issues that have a positive, tangible impact on policy outcomes and people, perhaps in an academic lab or in a nonprofit organization. Two such issues that particularly intrigue her are internet access and privacy for underserved populations. Regardless of the issues, she will continue to draw from both political science and data science. “One of my favorite things about being a part of interdisciplinary research is that [experts in] political science and computer science approach these issues so differently, and it is very grounding to have both of those perspectives. Political science thinks so carefully about measurement, population selection, and research design … [while] computer science has so many interesting methods that should be used in other disciplines,” she says.

No matter what the future holds, Walk already has a sense of contentment. She admits that “my path was much less linear than I expected. I don’t think I even realized that a field like this existed.” Nevertheless, she says with a laugh, “I think that little-girl me would be very proud of present-day me.”

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