Campus researchers launch initiative to measure users’ social networking influence

Facebook is generally viewed as a tool to connect us with our friends and loved ones. But amidst the photo uploads, location check-ins and status updates, what information really registers with our friends?

UC Berkeley researchers want to better understand users’ online influence by tracking how information is spread on social media sites as part of the nonpartisan Proposition 30 Awareness Project.

Computer science researchers from the campus’s AMPLab launched a new collaboration with the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative Tuesday to both spread awareness about the proposition — Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative, which could save the university from a $250 million cut this year if it passes at the polls — as well as measure how information is dispersed among friends on a social network.

“(We want to know) how knowledge and information is spread through a social network,” said Sanjay Krishnan, a computer science graduate student working on the project. “We want to understand if we have a social interest problem — if there’s not enough awareness (about an issue) — can we create a system that takes advantage of the social network to spread information?”

CITRIS, which stands for Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society, is a consortium of four UC campuses headquartered at UC Berkeley that aims to explore innovative new technologies for the benefit of society. It got involved because of what center leaders saw as an alarming lack of awareness about Proposition 30 among the undergraduate student body, according to Camille Crittenden, executive director of the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative.

AMPLab has partnered with the center in an attempt to understand how technologists can utilize Big Data — large collections of data sets that are too large to contain in conventional database systems — to address broader social problems, like a lack of awareness about an important policy initiative.

“This project is about how best to mobilize people’s social networks to do something like vote,” said Ken Goldberg, a campus professor of EECS and industrial engineering and operations research who is leading the project. “In this case we just wanted people to be aware of Prop. 30. How do you get people to spread the word?”

Goldberg added that the group ultimately hopes to create a publicly accessible tool by organizations and individuals to spread awareness about any issue using social networks.

The researchers are using proposed state ballot measure Proposition 30 as a case study for their investigation. Users are directed to a website where they can submit their email addresses and receive a customized link to be posted on Facebook or Twitter.

Researchers can then track how awareness about the proposition is spreading from person to person.

Most notably, users can measure their online clout by checking a user influence score and visualize their influence graphically. A list of the “50 most influential people” will be released on the website when the election is over.

“People feel good when they see their score grow relative to all other users,” Krishnan said. “It’s kind of like high school — finding out how popular they are is something a lot of people want to know.”

Sara Grossman is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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