Monday, February 9, 2009

The Study of Large Scale Human Networks

There is a small but rapidly emerging thread of research on large-scale human networks. There is diverse research underway based on the digital traces that people leave behind of their communications, through their use of e-mail, mobile phones, instant messaging, and many other tools of the information age. Until recently, the study of social networks (largely within sociology) was almost exclusively based on surveys of who has relationships with whom.

As a result, most research on networks has involved a single snapshot of a small human system. In contrast, the more recent work on call log and instant messaging data involves massively longitudinal data on millions or hundreds of millions of people. It is, however, unclear what these data can tell us. What is the significance, for example, of a phone call between two people? Does it signify, for example, a friendship or a wrong number? The objective of this symposium is to pull together an interdisciplinary panel to discuss the scientific potential of these emerging large-scale network data. Disciplines represented include physics, information science, communications, sociology, medicine, political science, and computer science.

Outlined below is a summary of diverse leaders and their research areas on further understanding large scale human networks and the implications of increasing our intelligence with digital media solutions it is increasingly clear humans are going digitally native.


David Lazer, Harvard*Life in the Network: The Coming Age of Computational Social Science* Large-scale network analysis is based on massive amounts of observations of communication behavior, while small scale network analysis has been based on self report data. Whereas the scientific relevance of the latter has been well established, based on decades of research, it is less clear what the scientific significance of the former. David's research focuses on This examining and understanding the scientific potential of large scale network analysis.

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Northeastern University, Boston, MA
*People in Motion: Studying Human Movement Based on Mobile Phone Data* The next challenge of network research is to go beyond the structure and quantify the dynamics of interconnected systems. A particular difficult facet of this research requires us to understand the temporal and spatial driving forces that govern social, technological and biological networks. Albert's research focuses on the opportunities offered by large datasets collected by mobile phone carriers to explore the dynamical mechanism that drive the activity of social networks as well as the travel pattern of individuals in social systems.

Alex Pentland, MIT*Honest Signals Predict Outcomes in Face-to-Face Interaction Networks* We have developed a wearable sensor `badge', called a sociometer, and used it to analyze thousands of hours of face-to-face interactions among networks of hundreds of people in common situations. These experiments demonstrate that up to 40% of variation in human behavior can be attributed to biological `honest signaling,' an unconscious, evolutionarily ancient communication channel. Pentland's research demonstrates that these honest signals play a fundamental role in human decision making, and are predictive of outcomes in social situations ranging from dating to sales to business management and productivity.

Noshir Contractor, Northwestern*Digital Traces: An Exploratorium for Understanding and Enabling Social Networks* Recent advances in digital technologies invite consideration of organizing as a process that is accomplished by global, flexible, adaptive, and ad hoc networks that can be created, maintained, dissolved, and reconstituted with remarkable alacrity. These technologies also provide comprehensive digital traces of social actions, interactions, and transactions. These data provide an unprecedented Exploratorium to model the socio-technical motivations for creating, maintaining, dissolving, and reconstituting knowledge and social networks. Using examples from research in a wide range of activities such as disaster response, digital media and learning, public health and massively multiplayer online games (WoW - the World of Warcraft), Contractor has developed a visual-analytic framework that is being used to Discover, Diagnose, and Design our social and knowledge networks.

Alessandro Vespignani, Indiana University *Mobility Networks and Contagion Processes* Transportation and mobility networks vary over many time and spatial scales and span international, inter-cultural and linguistic boundaries. The multi-scale nature and complexity of these networks are crucial features in the understanding of epidemic, contagion and connectivity processes in both the biological world and the ITC domain defined by the novel WiFi technologies. Vespignani's research discusses the central statistical features of these networks and the recently developed mathematical tools for the study of weighted and time dependent complex networks. He is also interested on the the impact of the complex features of mobility networks in the definition and study of stylized and realistic contagion models.

For a good source to follow on this research check out David Lazer (, Program on Networked Governance Associate Professor of Public Policy Harvard Kennedy School Harvard University or visit his netgov blog:

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