In 2010, Hillary Clinton described social media as a new nervous system for our planet (1). So can the pulse of the planet be captured by looking at social media activity?
There are many who are skeptical not least because of the digital divide: “You mean the pulse of the Data Have’s? The pulse of the affluent?” These rhetorical questions are perfectly justified, which is why social media alone should not be the sole source of information that feeds into decision-making for policy purposes. But millions are joining the social media ecosystem everyday, so the selection bias is not increasing but decreasing. We may not be able to capture the pulse of the planet comprehensively at a very high resolution yet, but the pulse of the majority of the world is certainly growing louder by the day.
This map of the world at night (based on 2011 data) reveals areas powered by electricity. Yes, Africa has far less electricity consumption. This is not misleading, it has been shown to be an accurate proxy for industrial development (amongst other indexes). Does this data suffer from selection bias? Yes, the data is biased towards larger cities rather than the long tail. Does this render the data and map useless? Hardly. It all depends on what the question is.
What if our world were lit up by information instead of lightbulbs? The map above from TweetPing does just that. The website displays tweets in real-time as they’re posted across the world. Strictly speaking, the platform displays 10% of the ~340 million tweets posted each day (i.e., the “Decahose” rather than the “Firehose”). But the volume and velocity of the pulsing ten percent is already striking.
One may think this picture depicts electricity use in Europe. Instead, this is a map of geo-located tweets (blue dots) and Flickr pictures (red dots). “White dots are locations that have been posted to both” (2). The number of active Twitter users grew 40% in 2012, making Twitter the fastest growing social network on the planet. Over 20% of the world’s internet population is now on Twitter (3). The Sightsmap below is a heat map based on the number of photographs submitted to Panoramio at different locations.
The map below depicts friendship ties on Facebook. This was generated using data when there were “only” 500 million users compared to today’s 1 billion+.
The map below does not depict electricity use in the US or the distribution of the population based on the most recent census data. Instead, this is a map of check-in’s on Foursquare. What makes this map so powerful is not only that it was generated using 500 million check-in’s but that “all those check-ins you see aren’t just single points—they’re links between all the other places people have been.”
TwitterBeat takes the (emotional) pulse of the planet by visualizing the Twitter Decahose in real-time using sentiment analysis. The crisis map in the YouTube video below comprises all tweets about Hurricane Sandy over time. “[Y]ou can see how the whole country lights up and how tweets don’t just move linearly up the coast as the storm progresses, capturing the advance impact of such a large storm and its peripheral effects across the country” (4).
These social media maps don’t only “work” at the country level or for Western industrialized states. Take the following map of Jakarta made almost exclusively from geo-tagged tweets. You can see the individual roads and arteries (nervous system). Granted, this map works so well because of the horrendous traffic but nevertheless a pattern emerges, one that is strongly correlated to Jakarta’s road network. And unlike the map of the world at night, we can capture this pulse in real time and at a fraction of the cost.
Like any young nervous system, our social media system is still growing and evolving. But it is already adding value. The analysis of tweets predicts the flu better than the crunching of traditional data used by public health institutions, for example. And the analysis of tweets from Indonesia also revealed that Twitter data can be used to monitor food security in real-time.
The main problem I see about all this has much less to do with issues of selection bias and unrepresentative samples, etc. More problematic is the centralized nature of this overall data and the fact that it is closed data. Yes, the above maps are public, but the underlying data is not. In their new study, “The Politics of Twitter Data,” Cornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess argue that the “owners” of social media data are the platform providers, not the end users. Yes, access to Twitter.com and Twitter’s API is free but end users are limited to downloading just a few thousand tweets per day. (For comparative purposes, more than 20 million tweets were posted during Hurricane Sandy). Getting access to more data can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In other words, as Puschmann and Burgess note, “only corporate actors and regulators—who possess both the intellectual and financial resources to succeed in this race—can afford to participate,” which means “that the emerging data market will be shaped according to their interests.”
“Social Media: Pulse of the Planet?” It’s getting there, but only a few elite doctors can take the full pulse in real-time.
Patrick Meier is a 2012 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for positive social change. He currently serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI). Patrick also authors the widely respected iRevolution blog and tweets at @patrickmeier.