University of Maryland

Social Data Science Center Launches With Support From Facebook

The University of Maryland today announced the launch of the Social Data Science Center (SoDa), which will meld computer science with social science theory and analysis to help researchers address challenges in health care, education, climate, entertainment and government.

Facebook is supporting the center’s research and education programs over the next three years, including its inaugural project, a collaboration with the social media giant and other universities to track the global spread of COVID-19 through a public survey tool.

Based in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS) and the College of Information Studies, the center will bring together experts in survey methods, measurement, information management, data visualization, and analytics.

“SoDa researchers solve data challenges with immediate, real-life implications. Whether improving measures of national economic activity or gathering COVID-19 symptom data, we transform the whole data life-cycle—how it is collected, analyzed, communicated, and visualized—enabling data-driven solutions to today’s critical problems,” said Brian Butler, professor and senior associate dean of the iSchool.

He is serving as co-director of the center with Frauke Kreuter, professor and chair of the Joint Program in Survey Methodology in BSOS. The executive director is Jody Williams.

SoDa is recruiting associate and affiliate members from across the university, and future plans include the introduction of a Social Data Science undergraduate major.

“There is a growing demand for social data scientists with the knowledge and skills to analyze large volumes of data and connect big data to human behavior. The value is in the treatment of that data. The mission of SoDa focuses on the mindful use of social scientific methodology and analytics in research, education, and application of complex digital data, key components to extracting valuable insights from modern everyday life,” said Williams.

For the COVID project, Facebook is assisting researchers from UMD, the Center for Health Policy and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on the survey. The company is using the survey to gather data about U.S. residents who are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.  The survey asks respondents about  coronavirus symptoms, testing availability and results, and whether respondents have had contact with anyone known to be infected. The researchers hope to predict virus hot spots in the United States and around the world. UMD also hosts the international data.

The project expands on an existing Carnegie Mellon University/Facebook collaboration to track early symptoms of infections.

“We are thrilled to work with Facebook and other partners to take the symptom survey global. The survey data have the potential to help researchers better monitor and forecast the spread of COVID-19, and possibly when, where, and how to reopen parts of society,” Kreuter said.
Related projects are developing across SoDa as researchers are building COVID-19 dashboards and other data visualization products. Researchers in BSOS’s Center for Geospatial Information Science are interested in incorporating the Facebook survey findings with COVID-19 maps that are already being produced.