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As more and more people become connected using social media, researchers, media and public health officials naturally are increasingly interested in what their updates can tell us about the world. According to the Pew Internet and Life Project, 18% of American adults online are on Twitter with some 200 million active users globally sending out 400 million tweets every day. That amount of data is catnip for researchers interested in everything from sentiment analysis, food security or embryonic pandemics.

sentiment-analysis

When people are sharing what they’re seeing using social media, city managers and public health agencies have increasingly learned to listen to what’s happening in the hopes of responding to fires, floods, odd smells, tornados, crimes or other public emergencies more effectively.

Some of the reported results are genuinely exciting, too: according to David Kirkpatrick, the director of UN Global Pulse, Twitter data accurately predicted the cholera outbreak in Haiti two weeks earlier than official records. Kirkpatrick’s team is now examining the predictive value of millions of tweets sent in Jakarta, Indonesia for assessing food security.

There are caveats to crunching Twitter data as a proxy for what’s happening in a given region or industry. As Pew Research showed in March 2013, what’s happening on Twitter is not necessarily representative of public opinion or a representative sample of a given population.

The perils of polling Twitter are particularly worth noting for media, as New York Times interactive developer Jacob Harris demonstrated this July.

That said, there are an increasing number of projects that are exploring the potential of Twitter for socially networked transparency. In Chicago, health authorities are seeking out Chicagoans who tweet about feeling poorly and ask them to share the restaurants they ate in most recently. Chicago’s health department told the Chicago Tribune that 150 Chicagoans have been contacted since the “Foodborne Chicago” initiative began, triggering 33 restaurant inspections in the first month, some of which found health code violations.

This kind of “high touch, high engagement” human approach requires a lot of humans, however, whose time is hard to scale over an entire city.

Further to the east, a research group at the University of Rochester analyzed millions of tweets in New York City to develop a system to monitor food-poisoning outbreaks at restaurants. The research crunched 3.8 million tweets, traced 23,000 restaurant visitors and found 480 reports of likely food poisoning.

As Henry Kautz highlighted in his column on public health and social data in the New York Times, there’s considerable interest in what can be gleaned from what people are sharing online:

“Groups at Brigham Young University and the University of Iowa have done extensive work on influenza monitoring via Twitter posts. Researchers at Microsoft are helping to identify women who are at risk of severe postpartum depression by analyzing changes in their online behavior. And researchers at Cornell are mining the social media stream to gather data for urban planning and environmental conservation.”

As always, anyone making public policy decisions based upon such data will have to take into account who is represented in the data or who is not.

That’s also true in efforts like Lungisa in South Africa, too, where a project is encouraging residents to hold government accountable using Twitter and Facebook. The issues raised on social media reflect the needs of the connected, not necessarily those of the poor, or of the powerful, who have their own channels to influence policy.


We’re looking for more examples of socially networked transparency, so please keep them coming. There’s already some rich veins for inquiry that some digging is turning up. For instance, in the most recent installment of his “week in civic innovation,” David Sasaki shared two helpful resources, which in turn have many more links to various projects and initiatives:

1) The Crowdsourced International Civic, Democratic and Transparency Website List, maintained by mySociety, has a long list of global efforts.

2) This list of Transparency and Accountability Resources & Initiatives, from the Engine Room, has a more US-centric collection.

If there’s something important happening in your town, state or industry, please let us know.

Cries for increased “transparency” has become a rallying cry across industries and governments, as consumers and citizens look for more information about what they’re eating, buying, breathing, drinking or how they are being governed. What “does transparency” means, and for whom?

Targeting transparency can have unexpected outcomes, particularly as humans and societies adopt and adapt novel technologies to suit their needs or goals. For instance, research at Northwestern found hospital report cards could actually decrease patient welfare. The dynamics of transparency are complex, given that systems for reporting may reveal corruption, fraud or abuse by powerful interests but can also expose people to retribution or discrimination.

[Radiation plumes in Japan]
[Radiation plumes in Japan]

“The challenge is to create and design transparency policies that actually work for people and don’t just waste time or create a bunch of information that’s difficult to understand or make organizations go through the fairly expensive processes of collecting information that nobody then goes on to use,” said professor Archon Fung, in a recent interview. “The policy challenge has to do with designing transparency policies so that they produce information that is actually highly valuable to people and that people can take action on.”

Many of the perils and promise of transparency have been explored at length in “Full Disclosure,” by the directors of the Ash Center’s Transparency Policy Project, from calorie counts to restaurant inspections. As is so often the case, such research raises as many questions as it answers. When and how do consumers respond to new information? What factors influence whether private companies respond to disclosure mandates by reducing the risks posed to consumers or improving practices? Where and when should policy makers apply disclosure versus other policy tools?

The answers to all of these questions are further complicated by the introduction of networked systems for communication and disclosure, particularly the emergence of powerful mobile devices and social media. The Ash Center is actively looking for examples of socially networked transparency systems that reduce risks and provide new tools for citizens and consumers to navigate the world. Examples of networked transparency include:

  • hospital ratings by individuals that may help other patients avoid the risk of medical error or infections
  • Websites like PatientsLikeMe that may provide earlier warning of drug side effects, safety or effectiveness problems
  • Civic media services like Safecast, which leverage citizen science and public data to inform the public about radiation risks
  • Data sources like Google Flu Trends, where the actions of individuals provide tacit information that can augment existing systems for early warning of outbreaks

In each of these examples, the collective actions of many individuals reporting information based on their experience, aggregations of reliable reports, or sensor data is collected and then disseminated in a way that makes the associated risks to the public risk more visible and transparent. Such networked transparency systems can then be adapted and used to inform individual choices or change behaviors of the entities creating the risks, saving lives or reducing harms.

Over the next several months, the Transparency Policy Project will be looking for more examples of networked transparency, from grassroots efforts created by public laboratories to reporting systems created by governments.

As you’d imagine, the people collaborating on the research (including the fellow writing this post) will be looking for tips, feedback, comments and links from you. Please email your ideas or pointers to alexanderbhoward [at] gmail.com, or reply to @digiphile or @sunshinepolicy on Twitter. Each week, we’ll gather together what we’ve learned to date and share a digest at this blog.

After high school students revealed that a quarter of the fish in New York City sushi samples were mislabeled, consumer groups headed for grocery stores and found about the same portion mislabeled at the seafood counter. Then last summer students tested herbal teas and found 35 percent included unlisted ingredients, including grass and weeds. Cheap DNA testing is now widely available to the general public with commercial labs charging around $20 to analyze a fish sample. Anyone who owns the equipment can test for about $1 a sample. Students and consumer groups are showing the new power of biotechnology. But only routine testing and labeling by suppliers, restaurants and grocery retailers will protect the public. Now the Boston Globe has run a two part series on restaurants in Massachusetts selling fish of species inferior to those they advertise on their menus. Reporters found that half of the fish they DNA-tested were mislabeled at restaurants. Below are links to the stories and an interactive database of findings.

On the menu, but not on your plate (Part 1) by Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley, Oct. 23, 211.
From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abuse (Part 2) by Abelson and Daley, Oct. 24, 2011.

Mary Graham, co-director — Transparency Policy Project