The Social Media Research Foundation and the Guardian’s Facebook Timeline app

Visualizing the Future: The Social Media Research Foundation

If we are approaching the age of Big Data, then it is imperative that companies, schools, governments and people alike learn to make sense of and see patterns in vast amounts of data. To that effect, the Social Media Research Foundation is here to save the day.

With an aim to create “open tools, generate and host open data, and support open scholarship” about social media, the organization is poised to dissect the mountains of data that are updated continually online.

The foundation is truly a collaborative effort by researchers from an array of institutions including Microsoft Research, Morningside Analytics and many universities including our very own University of Georgia.



The organization’s biggest project to date is NodeXL, a free, open network discovery and exploration add-on for Excel.  Using this familiar spreadsheet format, NodeXL offers companies and social media researchers a way to collect, analyze and visualize complex social networks in an easy way.

Visualization is the key to understanding how and what we communicate via social networks.  Take, for example, the Bill Gates Foundation.

Marc Smith, one of many researchers involved with the foundation, visually graphed the social networks of the Bill Gates Foundation using NodeXL and, according to a article, found that their network is a “fairly insular and uncommunicative group of people.”  Gates serves as a broadcaster, but does not encourage the community to actively connect with each other.

Without the use of visualization, this trend may not have become apparent.  NodeXL hosts a gallery of hundreds of social media visualizations that have been submitted by users.  The gallery graphs everything from the connections among Twitter users who recently tweeted the #knightfdn or Knight News Challenge to a graphic representation of an individual’s Facebook connections.

The visualization add-on has mostly been used to graph Twitter hashtags or connections, but the tool has the potential to offer companies a chance to find patterns of use and trends among Facebook users

In short, the Social Media Research Foundation’s NodeXL add-on can help companies in their search to prove that they really understand their customers.

Want to learn more? Visit to learn more about the foundation or to view the open gallery.

The Guardian’s Facebook Timeline App


Since Facebook first launched its Facebook Timeline app component, more than 3000 apps have been created to take advantage of frictionless sharing. In the media world, several apps have resulted in a large increase of user traffic, mostly by users that are traditionally hard for traditional media outlets like The Guardian to reach.


That being said, The Guardian’s new Facebook Timeline app is a step in the right direction. The app has been installed over 5 million times with more than half of its users under the age of 24.

Like many other media outlets, The Guardian Facebook Timeline app is a social reader.  With a few clicks allowing The Guardian app to access your Facebook data, the app allows you to read The Guardian’s content and seamlessly share what you’ve read with your friends. As soon as you’ve clicked on an article, that article is then posted to your news feed or ticker and your friends get a glimpse at your news reading habits.  You can also, thereby, see what your friends have been reading at

The launch of this Facebook Timeline app has meant a monumental increase in traffic for The Guardian UK.  According to an article on, The Guardian recently reached a new record of unique visitors to its website, and 30 percent of those visitors were attributed to Facebook referrals.  That’s up from 2 percent just six months ago, prior to the launch of the Facebook Timeline app.

While an increase in traffic is good for The Guardian, besides recommendations from friends and time saved from sharing articles that you’ve read and liked, the app could also offer content that is personalized. The Guardian is poised to show readers that they really get them by tailoring recommended content to a person’s interests, saving the user precious time in finding content that’s relevant to them.

Want to know more about the power of The Guardian’s new Facebook Timeline app? Visit

How WebMD Can Change The Future of Health

In 2011, CNN and many other media outlets reported on a new study about where patients get their health information.  According to this study, one in five people uses Facebook or Twitter to get health information.  That being said, the market is growing larger as we speak, as start-ups and established technology companies alike compete in the Health 2.0 race.  Just take a look at this 200-slide presentation on what the future of healthcare is beginning to look like–iPhone vital sign monitors, localized health data presented in interactive visual format, mobile apps with 3D interactive visuals to explain conditions. The list goes on and on.  And if you’re like me, you want to know what’s worth your time and what isn’t.

WebMD has a unique market.  People visit WebMD to find out more about a condition, to read the latest health news and to find easy to digest information to help them make informed health decisions.  They are mostly women, ages 30 and up, with an aim to keep themselves and their families in good health.  Call it the natural caregiver instinct.  But say you’ve read article after article about preventing cancer or you’ve self-diagnosed yourself using the WebMD diagnostic tool. Wouldn’t you like to know whether it is more likely that you have something as common as food poisoning versus something more severe with similar symptoms?  Wouldn’t you like to know just how likely you are to get cancer in 10 years?  Thanks to Facebook’s open graph, not only can you find out your own personalized risk, you can share it with your friends, and thereby proverbially pass the crystal ball. Your age and gender and location are already there to provide personalization.  The rest of the data is out there as open data, waiting to be personalized.  Once you’ve personalized your risk, you can share what assessed risk with friends. And WebMD can then push you suggested content to read based on your risk assessment.

Say I created a Social Reader application for Facebook. The social reader lists the most popular health videos, emerging health applications and health technologies, interactive data sets, WebMD articles and topics on Twitter from your friends. You see that your friend Jane has read an article about cancer treatments.  This gets you to thinking.  What is my risk for getting cancer in 10 years?  Lucky for you, there’s information out there to help you gain some perspective–a risk chart.  For a 35-year-old woman who smokes or smoked more than a 100 cigarettes in a lifetime, the risk of dying in 10 years from cancer is 1 out of 1000. Want to know what percentage of people suffer from all of those side effects listed in the commercial for a prescription drug you’re taking? There’s a data out there for that. And thanks to Facebook’s open graph interface, you can share what you’ve learned and encourage other people to seek out their personalized risk data on what’s important to them.

So why is this important?  Well, knowing that, for instance, if I take Lunesta I have 16 in 100, or 16 percent, chance of getting an infection such as a cold, will help me arrive at the best health decision I can make.  The point is: you can’t make good health decisions without all the facts, without some bit of perspective on how big of a risk you’re dealing with.  WebMD is a trusted source of information. However, when people are searching for answers to their health troubles, they often sit down to find a diagnosis for a stomach ache and by the end of their interactive experience, they’ve talked themselves into thinking they might have stomach cancer.  Perspective is everything.

Open data on a wide range of health statistics is available from numerous sources.  As a first year Health and Medical Journalism student this year, I read a book that I found to be immensely helpful.  Called “Know Your Chances,” the book teaches readers how to read a news story, understand how big of a risk the topic of a new story may be for people like you and essentially gives readers an opportunity to judge whether or not an article on a new study was really “all that and a bag of chips.”  Anyhow, that’s my idea for WebMD–a social reader with visual, interactive statistical risk assessment tools.  Users gain the knowledge of perspective as a means to make evidence-based health decisions. WebMD gains the possibility to educate people on the statistics of health. It’s a win-win.

Another four topics…

So far, it looks like there are some good ideas out there.  Some of the following ideas may overlap with others that have already been posted, but I think we’ll find a consensus amongst the class once we’ve all posted our ideas.  So here goes:

1. The evolution of sharing (i.e. pushing the creep factor):  While I think many company representatives might be excited about the possibilities of this new technology, some of our data methods may be off-putting.  For me, some context could help alleviate any stress about this.  We’ve talked a lot in class about the creep factor and how social media is constantly pushing the envelope as to what people are willing and not so willing to share in the public domain.  That being said, a quick piece on the historical evolution of more and more sharing might help put those who have a “creep factor” problem at ease.

2. Online Consumer Protections Laws in the U.S.: I think we need to address what laws are being proposed that could affect this project going forward.  While this is a potential downside, say if Europe’s laws prevail as the norm, the recent proposal of guidelines for companies is worthy of discussion here.

3. Online Consumer Data Protections Elsewhere: You can’t talk about U.S. online privacy protections without talking about what other countries are doing in terms of data protection.  Europe, China and India may all be worthy of discussion here.

4. The Importance of Transparency, User Control: Recently, the social networking website Path had a bit of a PR crisis on its hands when users were alerted to the fact that their personal data, from their cell phone address books, were being stored by the company.  This example, and several others are out there as well, provide good context about the importance of creating products for our companies that are transparent in their efforts and offer users the ability to have control of their data.

Another look at differences in privacy…

I feel as though this topic has been thoroughly covered by others here, but I was also assigned the topic so bare with me as I provide yet another explanation of why there are big differences in privacy between the United States and Europe. I’m also throwing in China and other potential global economic powers in the mix.

If you think about the political mentalities in both Europe and the United States, there is a definite difference.  As is common in political rhetoric these days, American culture is generally more accepting of the idea that companies can regulate themselves and be responsible.  Not so in Europe.  This article published recently in the Economist provides ample explanation and context for the issue at hand.  A big part of the difference, says the author, is history.

A Eurobarometer poll last year found that 62% of Europeans do not trust internet companies to protect their personal information. A big reason is history. In the 1930s Dutch officials compiled an impressive national registry. This later enabled the Nazis to identify 73% of Dutch Jews, compared with just 25% in less efficient France, notes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of Oxford University in his book “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”.

Even though the United States is proposing new privacy legislation in regards to the data, the political climate, especially given that it’s an election year, make the chances of the bill passing very slim.  All the while, incompatibility between the E.U. and U.S. laws could hinder company’s abilities for interoperability.

Right now, there are obvious differences in the laws.

The ability to provide data protection laws and encourage interoperability may well be the basis of innovations of the future and without ample laws, that innovation could be hindered.  On the other hand, just talking about privacy laws in the U.S. and the E.U. is a moot point if one does not consider the other major players in the global economy, writes the author of the economist piece.

America and Europe will set the global standards. But other countries’ privacy rules matter too. China and India will soon have more people online than Europe and America have citizens. Neither Asian country has yet passed formal national legislation, but both are considering it—with every indication that their new laws will outdo even Europe in their severity.

This week I had the pleasure of viewing this video and then the sequel.  Talk about a world of innovative technology!  It made me wonder what environment would better encourage innovation while also protecting consumer data at a reasonable data.  I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether the EU policy goes too far, but one things for sure, some greater amount of consumer data protection legislation or company policies regarding consumer data protection are needed in the United States if this is what our future will look like.  There’s just too much sensitive data out there–on everything from major health scans and test results and credit card history information to menial data such as a lifetime of Facebook data–that could lead to systematic discrimination.

Big Data, Health and WedMD

Well, I’m home from my trip to California to attend a conference on atrophic macular degeneration as a science writer.  The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, I must say, but at the end of it all I found myself stepping back from all of the medical and scientific jargon and thinking about the big picture.  Atrophic macular degeneration is the biggest cause of blindness in people over 50.  That being said, studying the eye causes a significant challenge for researchers, as it’s next to impossible to take a biopsy from the eye as is possible when studying other tissues.

I sat in a room for three days with the genetics groups as they plotted their course for finding further evidence of the genetic risk of atrophic macular degeneration.  Approximately 50 percent of the genetic risk factors are known, thanks to recent findings in research, but geneticists are struggling to pin down the rest of this risk  because the tissue is difficult to get a hold of immediately following a patient’s death and the remaining genetic risk factors are likely to be rare and varying, requiring a larger collection of population data to find any sort of genetic pattern.  The solution?  My group suggested an eye tissue bank as a means for collaboration with other research studies to collect an aggregate of genetic knowledge about AMD that will hopefully show patterns in genetics to help locate the rest of the genetic risk.

So…what’s the big deal?  They’re using all of this data to find a cure for this disease.  And it got me thinking about the future of big data and healthcare.  I’ve been assigned WebMD as my company and while I’m up to the challenge, it certainly seems like a murky subject.  Thanks to regulations protecting patient data, connecting this data socially via Facebook seems to have created a particularly tricky position for companies like WebMD. There’s no Facebook Connect option with the WebMD website. And they reached 100,000 Facebook fans today, despite being one of the top health websites.

They recently released a very popular app for the iPhone called WebMD baby. And they do have personalized health record keeping and a weight loss and food tracker with a WebMD account.

The Washington Post had this to say about the future of healthcare and big data. It seems that no one has been able to crack the code in terms of getting people to participate who are both healthy and combating an illness, an issue that can be problematic if you’re trying to analyze data for replicable use in science.

The frictionless approach of Facebook, at least for WebMD, could prove to be useful, at least in terms of health and wellness at a preventative level.  I’ve been thinking about the possibilities.  How can people’s actions and reading preferences be used in a way that is both useful and helpful to them, without necessarily advertising embarrassing or otherwise private health conditions to all of your friends?  With the new action settings, does Facebook have the potential to monitor your healthy and unhealthy actions based on status updates.

Say you post a status update about your lack of sleep, over-consumption of coffee and general stress from grad school. (That’s every other Facebook status for me.)  If I were WebMD, I could refer you to articles that provide basic information on how to combat stress in a healthy way, the health effects of not getting enough sleep or the negative or positive effects of drinking lots of coffee.  WebMD has a treasure trove of health information at hand, and while much of that content is there ready for a user to find it, a lot of people go to WebMD to use the symptom checker when they have a cold or to seek out further information if they’ve recently been diagnosed with a disease. This would provide personalized content based on your reading habits.

But what if WebMD could keep you on track for staying healthy and give you recommendations based on your actions to help you live a more healthful life.  Would this work?  Would people use it?  I don’t know.  But it would A. give the user a benefit of better health information and B. give WebMD more hits on its website, which results in better leverage to attract advertisers.

WebMD isn’t selling the company anymore, so that’s somewhat positive news.

However, I’m not entirely sure that using Facebook is a solution for WebMD beyond preventative information.  Big Data, it seems, is the wave of the future for healthcare, as genomic data and medical histories are aggregated and used to provide personalized medical care based on genetic risk, etc. People sharing their medical histories and genetic data via social media, for me at least, is the ultimate line for the creep factor.

Incorporating something like this new NYT project could be useful for preventative medicine and WebMD perhaps. Imagine having some sort of facebook app that allows you to set health goals, allows the WebMD app to monitor your actions, likes, and readings and then gives you personalized recommendations on healthier actions, or different scientific-data related stories to provide a differing perspective on health based on some other health article you read (science is, afterall, written in pencil, not pen).

Looking forward to feedback from anyone here.  I’d give WebMD access to my habits in exchange for a preventative medicine  Personal Health Coach, so to speak.  Would you?  Let me know your thoughts and comments please.  Sorry for the long post.  It helps to type all of these thoughts out.

Open Graph: The latest and the greatest

This week for our Big Data class, I was asked to write about Open Graph. What is it? How will it be useful? What are the drawbacks? And what’s the latest and the greatest in Open Graph news?

A simple Google search for open graph brings up myriad posts related to application development for Facebook and, most importantly, a breaking news story about new open graph applications allegedly being implemented this week.  So what is open graph? And why should be we care that new applications for Facebook will be using it?

To answer this question, I found this video to be quite helpful in explaining what open graph is and what it means for companies and marketing.  It’s a 20-minute video, but provides knowledgeable insight into the future of marketing for companies on facebook.

To boil it all down to a single point, open graph on Facebook is a means by which to keep up with everything you click “like” on–whether you’re viewing it through facebook or viewing it on another website.  It integrates all the things you like, lets you know which of your friends like it and serves as means not only for Facebook, but for companies to make money in a new kind of marketing. Just as celebrity endorsements have been used for years to recommend products, Facebook’s open graph now give you the opportunity to get recommendations not from celebrities, but from the very people you know.

Previously, the open graph allowed users to like links to articles and content.  Here’s a quick video about Open Graph that was made when the idea was first introduced in April 2010.  Beginning tomorrow, users will be able to share their actions and activities.

According to this business insider article:

Until now, we’ve only had our hands on a few Open Graph apps like Washington Post Social Reader and Spotify. These apps let friends know when you’re listening to or reading.

Here’s how it’s going to look:

facebook open graph timeline

Each Open Graph app gets its own “verb” like ran, listened, cooked, watched or read. These verbs show friends how you’re interacting with something in your digital life.

If you spy a friend listening to a song, you can even hop in and start listening with your friend, at the same point in the song as he or she is.

Want to know more?  Here’s a few more links for your perusal:

Here’s Zuckerberg’s reveal in September 2011 of changes coming to Facebook.

Here’s Facebook’s page on Open Graph.

What tomorrow’s changes are.

Did I explain that well enough?  Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts and questions.