2015 iConference Social Media Expo — Open Government Data and Social Media

opengovntYesterday we held our third Social Media Expo at the 2015 iConference, sponsored by FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research.  This has been a great way for us to encourage interdisciplinary student teams to explore emerging themes in the field that are also of particular interest to FUSE Labs.

The 2015 Theme:  Open Government Data and Social Media

This year’s challenge was to “explore new and exciting ways to foster societal awareness and conversation at the intersection of open data and social media”.  In 2009 the white house sent out an Open Government Directive, requiring government agencies to adopt the principles transparency, participation, and collaboration in part by publishing government data online in open formats.  Five years later there is an amazing plethora of information freely available, enabling people to “conduct research, develop web and mobile applications, design data visualizations, and more”. (see  At the same time, an analysis of social media data helps us understand and reflect on historical and real-time aggregate behavior, allowing both organizations and individuals to gain a deeper understanding of their society. These two trends create an opportunity for a kind of large scale conversation – as governing agencies share their data with their citizenry, and as the population at large engages with organizations through tools such as Twitter, blogs, and Facebook.  We encouraged teams to approach this year’s theme with an interdisciplinary combination of user research, design explorations, prototyping, real world deployments with usage analysis, or community engagement.

The winning teams:

We were very pleased with the quality of the submissions this year, and we to thank the five winning teams who received the grant for all the work that went into their projects and their presentations at the Social Media Expo.   The best project award went to the University of California, Irvine’s team, for their project “ Racial Violence Archive: Public Information System on Incidents of Violence during the Civil Rights Period”.

eMigrate: Aggregating Government Open Data for Enhanced Job Category Selection in Support of Immigration Applications

School: University of Toronto: Faculty of Information
Team: Eva Hourihan Jansen, Jenna Jacobson, Gabby Resch
Faculty Sponsor: Rhonda McEwen

The Police Officer Involved Homicides Database Project

School: University of California, Los Angeles: Department of Information Studies
Team: Morgan Currie, Brittany Paris, Irene Pasquetto, Jennifer Pierre, Ashley E. Sands
Faculty Sponsor: Leah Lievrouw

Racial Violence Archive: Public Information System on Incidents of Violence during the Civil Rights Period

School: University of California, Irvine: The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences
Team: Hosub Lee, Michael Bellato, Sowmya Jain, Fernando Spanghero, Roeland Singer-heinze, Ya-Wen Lin, Sunakshi Gupta, Geoff Ward
Faculty Sponsors: Alfred Kobsa and Geoff Ward

Society Key: Integrating Social Media Data with Governmental Open Data to Encourage Community Wellbeing

School: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey: School of Communication and Information
Team: Ziad Matni, Jennifer Sonne, Dongho Choi
Faculty Sponsor: Chirag Shah

TransparencyScience. Return on research investment, where do the funds go?

School: Polytechnic University of Valencia: School of Informatics
Team: Lidia Contreras, Cristina I. Font, Paulina Morillo, Diego Vallejo
Faculty Sponsor: Antonia Ferrer Sapena

Emerging Themes and Discussion:

Following the presentations we had a brief discussion.  Common threads across the talks and discussion include:

  • Filing the gaps.  As noted particularly for the Police Officer Involved Homicides project, there is often a gap across different sources of data, and social media may be used to help fill the gaps to increase accuracy and interpretability.  Government data can also sometimes be out of date, and social media may be used to help bring it up to date (e.g., classification of job categories for the eMigrate project).

  • Translating data for end users.  Government data as shared in its raw form can be fairly opaque to the average person.  A key problem that can be addressed by information technologists is transforming it through simplification, explanations, and visualizations, so that it is actionable for everyday citizens.

  • Community Engagement.  Student teams generally found that people were very interested in engaging around the data, and further found that a hackathon format was quite successful vehicle for enabling deep engagement and community connections with like-minded others.  As researchers/information technologists, they found they tended to take on a teaching role, helping people to engage with the data.  Many have low levels of self-efficacy around engaging with open data and technology, and require some hand-holding.

  • Developing the community of practice.  Researchers, technologists, and “digital journalists” need to develop best practices for dealing with ethical issues, increasing engagement and end-user confidence, and assuring projects are not exploitative.

  • Social media facilitates participatory.  Across the student projects, we observed social media and social media design patterns could play a meaningful role in helping the new open data environment become more participatory and collaborative.

Thanks again to our student teams for their hard work, their faculty sponsors for providing guidance, the organizing committee for developing the theme and writing reviews, and  the iConference for generously hosting the Social Media Expo.

Please learn more about the team project by reading their abstracts or watching the video submission on Youtube.

Designing for Hack the Commute

Local civic tech hackathons and uncoferences are a great way to get to know a community even as it is gelling into one.  I went to Hack the Commute, hosted by the City of Seattle and the Washington State Department of Transportation, and was very happy to see a number of familiar faces there.  It was a great event, and very well run — a good role model for future hackathons.

As someone who can wear multiple hats I am never quite what role I will fall into at these events — research scientist, data analyst, developer, designer, artist — however by some intuition I brought my Mac to this hackathon (loaded up with Illustrator and Photoshop) and joined the Dokoji team as the designer for a day.  They are developing an app that “turns your conversation in to smart decisions”.     It was a very interesting problem — how might we integrate different sources of open data relevant to the moment-to-moment context of a text conversation, as people seek to converge in place and time?

Here are some of my design mockups:

Design mockups exploring integrating contextually relevant open data and social media into text messaging conversation.

Design mockups exploring integrating contextually relevant open data and social media into text messaging conversation.

The full slide deck for our short wrap-up presentation is posted on github here.  To quote their summary:

“For Hack the Commute, we integrated data sets that would allow people to explore green transportation options, so once a group of people had picked a destination, they would be presented with 3 options: Find the closest bus using the OneBusAway data set; find the closest bike rental location using the Pronto data set; and a carpool option (future implementation). On the back end, we also integrated impact data from Washington State Department of Transportation. “

Thanks to the Dokoji team, it was great fun hacking the commute with you.

Apolis: Our Third Place Heatmap Project at HackHousing

This past weekend I attended “HackHousing”, a hackathon hosted by Zillow in coordination with the White House, U.S. Department of Commerce and theDepartment of Housing and Urban Development and in partnership with the Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.

It was a great hackathon, very well attended and facilitated by Chris Metcalf from Socrata.

I was very lucky with my impromptu team (Saba, Daniel, Elizabeth, and Jim), who were excited to do a project exploring how can we indicate that a neighborhood has a thriving community based on open data. Building on a long history of research showing that thriving communities are more likely to grow when there are “third places” in a centralized location, we created a heatmap quantifying the number of third places in a neighborhood and the neighborhood’s community “hubbiness”.


Apolis, with heatmap indicating community places, and bullseyes indicating neighborhood community centroid & density


In addition to the heatmap, we found the centroid and density of each neighborhood’s hubs and represented them with little bullseye’s on the map (larger bullseye = more third place density) so people would know where they should live.

We used the City of Seattle’s neighborhood map data to find places such as libraries, parks, community centers, and schools.

We also used the Location Affordability Index open data provided by HUD for the event to help people filter over the map.

The code is shared on github here.

Upcoming Seattle Open Data Day

I’ve been helping Seth Vincent (Code for Seattle) organize Seattle Open Data Day with Will Scott at the University of Washington.

I strongly encourage you all to go to Seattle Open Data Day, an unconference on open data and civic technology.  Held at the UW Computer Science Department on February 21, the goal is to continue the conversation on civic technology issues around Seattle.

Some of the topics we hope to discuss are:

  • Defining what we as a city/region want from open data in the future, and how the government & companies can help.
  • Making it easy for everyone to participate in open data and civic technology.
  • Where open data should be used to make and improve decisions.

More information here:

Sign up through the Code for Seattle meetup group here:

Consider leading a session!

Draft of paper Neighborhood Community Well-being and Social Media


In neighborhoods that actively used Twitter, Twitter message positivity correlated with self-reported neighborhood community well-being.

With the transition leaving Microsoft Research and starting up Third Place Technologies, I have not had much time for revising this paper, but still wanted to throw it out for people to read if they are interested.  This line of research has hugely influenced my own thinking in this space, including my decision to venture in to the non-profit sector to more proactively apply some of the lessons learned to real world problems.

Here is the PDF

Title: Neighborhood Community Well-being and Social Media

Shelly D. Farnham Microsoft Research (formerly), Michal Lahav, Living Research Labs Seattle, Andres Monroy-Hernandez, Microsoft Research, and Emma Spiro, University of Washington

Abstract: In the following study we adopt a multi-method approach to examine whether the growing use of social media as a channel for hyper-local conversation may provide meaningful insights into the well-being of neighborhood communities. First, through interviews and a questionnaire with 174 residents of 26 neighborhoods we explore what are indicators of neighborhood level well-being, and what are current communication practices around the use of social media to support community well-being. Second, through an analysis of neighborhood-level Twitter messages we examine the extent to which mood and social interactivity in Twitter correspond with our neighborhood well-being indicators.  Overall, we found self-reported usage of social media positively correlated with community well-being. However, while smaller neighborhood communities had higher community well-being, they were lower in usage of social media for interacting with neighbors.  Only in larger, more urban centers characterized by younger professionals, did Twitter message mood and social interactivity correlate with well-being.

Indicators of Community Well-being Percent Mentions
Thriving local businesses 47%
Safe, low crime 33%
Community events 25%
Community resources 25%
Friendly 25%
Walkability 25%
Gathering places 24%
Social support 20%
Well-maintained 19%
Other health: mental, economic, physical 19%
People know each other 14%
Diversity (race, SES, age, families) 12%
Vibrancy — people out and about 11%
People interact/communicate 11%
Civic engagement 10%
Environmental/geographical assets 10%
Growth – embracing change 10%

“What does this community have that indicates to you that it is healthy or unhealthy?”