Award-Winning Research: Tweeting the Riots in England

Sometimes you come across an excellent piece of new, innovating research. One such example is the research project Analysing Social Media Collaboration of Professor Procter and his team of the University of Manchester Dr Alex Voss from St Andrews University. Together with Dr Alex Voss from St Andrews UniversityDr Farida Vis from The University of Leicester and others they did research on twitter and the riots in England last year Reading the Riots:

Twitter and the riots: how the news spread | UK news | The Guardian

An in-depth analysis of a database of more than 2.6m riot-related tweets has revealed the ways in which the network was used during the disturbances. “Politicians and commentators were quick to claim that social media played an important role in inciting and organising riots, calling for sites such as Twitter to be closed should events of this nature happen again. But our study has found no evidence of significance in the available data that would justify such a course of action in respect to Twitter,” said Prof Rob Procter of the University of Manchester, who led a team of academics conducting the analysis. “In contrast, we do find strong evidence that Twitter was a valuable tool for mobilising support for the post-riot clean-up and for organising specific clean-up activities.” The study, conducted as part of Reading the Riots, the Guardian and London School of Economics investigation into the riots, was based on a database provided by Twitter.

Using Twitter data on a large scale is not done that often I think. At Researching Social Media Farida Vis explains some things with regard to methodology:

Reading the Riots on Twitter: who tweeted the riots? « researching social media

The full set of tweets came from around 700,000 individual users, producing an expected very long tail. In discussion with The Guardian we looked at those accounts that received the most mentions, initially focusing on the top accounts (more than 500 mentions initially, as well as the top 200 and top 1000 most mentioned accounts). I feel that we should also try to look at a range of other samples, to see what is going on in that very long tail or even with those accounts that are frequently mentioned, but do not make the top 1000 accounts (which have at least 182 mentions each). It would be good to be able to compare the top of the tail to the middle and the end as well, with a two more (stratified) randomly selected samples for 500 accounts each for example. My feeling is that doing this will reveal a number of things. As the top accounts mainly contain elite UK users (for obvious reasons), these other samples will add a potentially stronger international dimension (media outlets, journalists, bloggers and so on) as well as more non elite UK based users and offer a more complex picture of how the riots were tweeted.

At Lift12 Farida Vis gave a detailed and fascinating account of what happened:

The full visualization (yes my dear colleagues, with a note to myself, this is how visualization should be done) can be found on the site of the Guardian. It should not come as a suprise that these researchers won an award for this research:

Winners of the inaugural Data Journalism Awards announced | News |

Jury comments:

This jumps out as the most original and compelling piece of data journalism and visualisation.

Peter Barron, Google

Visually compelling and intuitive but, more importantly, the visualisation helps to reveal trends and meaning that would not have been possible using traditional narrative techniques. The use of bubble graphics and organic growth also elegantly reinforce the message that rumours can mimic organisms.

Justin Arenstein, African News Innovation Challenge

Congratulations to a job well done. I hope we will see more of this research and that it will inspire other colleagues to explore new avenues of research as well.

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