Digital Social Research Tools, Tension Indicators and Safer Communities

Digital Social Research Tools, Tension Indicators and Safer Communities: a demonstration of the Cardiff Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS) (ESRC and JISC)

Dr. Matthew Williams, Dr. William Housely, Mr. Adam Edwards, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.
Dr. Pete Burnap, Prof. Omer Rana, Prof. Nick Avis, School of Computer Science and Informatics, Cardiff University.

How has the rapid and widespread uptake of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube created new ways for people to interact and to share information? What are the benefits and risks of using social media for civil society and what are the new challenges for agencies responsible for safeguarding the public?  These are some of the questions that we are addressing in our recently funded ESRC/JISC project “Digital Social Research Tools, Tension Indicators and Safer Communities: a demonstration of the Cardiff Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS)”.

 The most senior prosecutor in England and Wales recently stated that “Social media is raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors, but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers.” (BBC, 2012).  There is little doubt that certain behaviours that manifest on social media networks have become of concern for policing. In 2011 several networks were implicated in playing a part in political demonstrations and riots, and subsequent HMIC reports have called for the expansion of the police diet to include the word on the ‘cyber street’ in the anticipation of future public disorder.

 Tension indicators or ‘community monitoring systems’ have been developed by police services for the purposes of anticipatory governance to provide early warning of civil unrest and its escalation into major instances of collective violence. Hitherto this community monitoring has been terrestrial, premised on qualitative intelligence from front-line police officers and other ‘sentinels’ such as watch committees, residents and tenants associations, local media and criminal justice data, including records of court proceedings. We argue that the development of digital social research tools, particularly for mining social media, can make a major contribution to the indication of ‘online’ tensions in anticipation of major civil unrest.

 Existing research has framed the issue of tension indicators and community safety in ‘panoptic’ terms, reflecting the interests of public authorities in enhancing their surveillance powers for monitoring populations of interest. In this project we propose the counter-argument that social media analysis and other Web2.0 mobile technologies give rise to ‘synoptic’ power for the many to watch the few.  With over 97 percent of the public owning mobile phones in 2009, and just under half of these using smartphone functions in 2011 (Dutton & Blank 2011), an opportunity has arisen for the reversal of the traditional power-dialectic, affording synoptic power to the masses.  Even the socially excluded and disenfranchised can yield this power with the advent of smartphones on cheaper pay-as-you-go services.  The Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 2011 stated that ‘the game [of policing public order] has changed’ referring to the short-notice or no-notice events, swift changes in protest tactics and the ability of protesters to collect video evidence of police behaviour and upload it instantaneously to the internet, all facilitated by social media networking (HMIC 2011: 3). These technologies are allowing citizens to better hold public authorities, such as police forces, to account for their actions. Opportunities for investigating rival accounts of civil unrest, in particular through accessing the sentiments expressed by those directly involved, are also opened up by the widespread mobile use of Web2.0 technologies such as Twitter.

 Our project, a joint venture between social scientists and computer scientists at Cardiff University, is developing the Cardiff Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS): a software platform that facilities the ethical harvesting, storage, analysis and visualization of social media data.  The ‘social media tension monitoring engine’ module of COSMOS affords users (e.g. academics, law enforcement, local government, civil society) with the ability to monitor social media data streams for signs of high tension which can be analysed in order to identify deviations from the ‘norm’ (levels of cohesion/low tension).  This analysis can be overlaid onto curated (e.g. ONS neighbourhood statistics, the Vulnerable Localities Index etc.), media reports (via RSS feeds) and crime rate data to provide a multi-dimensional picture of the ‘terrestrial’ and ‘cyber’ street generating what we term ‘Neighbourhood Informatics’.  Neighbourhood Informatics will afford users to gain a more detailed and triangulated multi-layered picture of populations and their actions, perceptions and sentiments.

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