Twitter releasing trove of user data to scientists for research

Joe Silver at ArsTechnica: “Twitter has a 200-million-strong and ever-growing user base that broadcasts 500 million updates daily. It has been lauded for its ability to unsettle repressive political regimes, bring much-needed accountability to corporations that mistreat their customers, and combat other societal ills (whether such characterizations are, in fact, accurate). Now, the company has taken aim at disrupting another important sphere of human society: the scientific research community.
Back in February, the site announced its plan—in collaboration with Gnip—to provide a handful of research institutions with free access to its data sets from 2006 to the present. It’s a pilot program called “Twitter Data Grants,” with the hashtag #DataGrants. At the time, Twitter’s engineering blog explained the plan to enlist grant applications to access its treasure trove of user data:

Twitter has an expansive set of data from which we can glean insights and learn about a variety of topics, from health-related information such as when and where the flu may hit to global events like ringing in the new year. To date, it has been challenging for researchers outside the company who are tackling big questions to collaborate with us to access our public, historical data. Our Data Grants program aims to change that by connecting research institutions and academics with the data they need.

In April, Twitter announced that, after reviewing the more than 1,300 proposals submitted from more than 60 different countries, it had selected six institutions to provide with data access. Projects approved included a study of foodborne gastrointestinal illnesses, a study measuring happiness levels in cities based on images shared on Twitter, and a study using geosocial intelligence to model urban flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia. There’s even a project exploring the relationship between tweets and sports team performance.
Twitter did not directly respond to our questions on Tuesday afternoon regarding the specific amount and types of data the company is providing to the six institutions. But in its privacy policy, Twitter explains that most user information is intended to be broadcast widely. As a result, the company likely believes that sharing such information with scientific researchers is well within its rights, as its services “are primarily designed to help you share information with the world,” Twitter says. “Most of the information you provide us is information you are asking us to make public.”
While mining such data sets will undoubtedly aid scientists in conducting experiments for which similar data was previously either unavailable or quite limited, these applications raise some legal and ethical questions. For example, Scientific American has asked whether Twitter will be able to retain any legal rights to scientific findings and whether mining tweets (many of which are not publicly accessible) for scientific research when Twitter users have not agreed to such uses is ethically sound.
In response, computational epidemiologists Caitlin Rivers and Bryan Lewis have proposed guidelines for ethical research practices when using social media data, such as avoiding personally identifiable information and making all the results publicly available….”