Ian: Matt, it feels strange to welcome you as a more recent Lab Director when I think I’ve known you as part of the Web Science community for at least 10 years
Matt: Probably longer – I think my interest in Web Science and particularly Web data goes back to the very first Web Science conference in 2010 and perhaps before that.
Ian: So was Web Data your point of entry to Web Science?
Matt: Thats right, I’d spent a lot of time looking what was thought of as archived web data and trying to render those as large-scale researchable data collections. We went through a number of iterations from a system called Hub Zero through to Archives Unleashed and most recently that work was integrated into the Internet Archive research services by a team at University of Waterloo so that people who are looking to extract value and sound research conclusions from these data sets can find them and access them through well -supported high quality platforms and tools.
Ian: How hard it is to get everyone involved?
Matt: Well one of the major challenges is trying to get people to share and engage with these data sets outside of tightly controlled commercial offerings.
Ian: Well we’ve certainly seen Palantir, Recorded Future et al. work to derive interesting conclusions and predictions from large data sets like this.
Matt: I think the difference here is partly that many users (even if they are data rich) are much less interested in creating/curating data sets than they are in using them. We’ve seen humanities, CIS and engineering groups all derive huge benefits from well-curated third-party data. Getting those groups to create and share their own data too is tough without aligning the process with their academic objectives and the academic recognition system.
Ian: Has anyone cracked that problem in this space?
Matt: The Harvard Dataverse is an attractive platform which hosts data sets and generates benefits for both the contributors and the community as a whole by tracking/reporting which datasets are downloaded via a data DOI.
Ian: Which translates to recognisable impact in academe?
Matt: Absolutely, I had a data set which I was able to show had been downloaded more than 35’000 times. Thats significant impact.
Ian: So lets talk about the NetSci lab at Rutgers
Matt: This is a collaboration between a great team of leading academics in Communication, Information Science, and Journalism who are addressing a wider view of Human Networks interacting through Technological Networks as well as other contexts.
Ian: What is your current focus?
Matt: We are looking at systems of local information that feed/support their communities and how this intersects with the phenomena of misinformation. We’ve mapped the transition to more regional news structure and a steady decline in the production of quality local news (critical information, politics, education, disaster/safety) in favour of less substantial/serious content (sports, human interest etc) which, whilst potentially of interest, does little to support a local communities in more serious situations.
Ian: Do users simply live with less local content as a result?
Matt:In fact, this gap in local news coverage tends to increase the use of (local) social media such as Next Door and Facebook for new, where stories are largely unverified, not edited by a third party and, in some cases, anonymous. This leads to a greater risk that the information provided may be misinformation or even malicious.
Ian: How serious is the potential impact?
Matt: For example we have seen a troubling loss of local news connections between communities and infrastructure providers such that in the event of power outages in adverse weather events there is no longer a trusted independent local news source to disseminate news updates, timetables and disaster response information from the power company to the community but only what potentially poorly informed social media commentators may be saying. We are focused on better understanding the impact of the loss of a robust and trusted connection between physical systems and information systems.
Ian: What could be a potential response to address this disconnect?
Matt: We are considering the process of re-establishing a trust-based relationship between communities and service providers (industrial, government) via trusted intermediaries – a role that quality news/media organisations used to fill.
Ian: This sounds like really interesting work
Matt: We don’t believe we are even close to seeing the potential impact of mis-information – both inadvertent or even the weaponisation of (dis)information as it will continue to affect local and national news and our understanding of the truth.
Ian: Thanks for speaking to me today and welcome to the WSTNet.