Twitter Has Data That Could Potentially Help Solve the World’s Biggest Problems.
Twitter’s announcement that it will expose the comprehensive contents of its data to the six winners of the Twitter Data Grants is interesting for what it does–and what it doesn’t. For example, the Harvard Medical School/Boston Children’s Hospital, one of six Twitter grant winners that will be able to examine every tweet in history, will use the data to study “Foodborne Gastrointestinal Illness.” They’ll try to find out exactly where and how these spread, and discover linkages with other relevant data to reveal cause and possible prevention techniques. Wonderful news, right? Next, NICT of Japan will look at Disaster Information Analysis (in the wake of the nuclear accidents there) and determine what can be improved–potentially building new systems that save lives. The University of East London’s grant will allow it to look at the relationship between Tweets and Sports Team Performance–research sure to reveal some strange psychological bonds, and possibly valuable sociological insight. The possibilities are magnificent, even dreamy–data has always been the key element in problem solving and here is Twitter, a database on virtual steroids, that potentially holds all the clues we need (waiting to be properly assessed and untangled). Solutions for millions of problems might be close at hand.
So why just six awards? Doesn’t Twitter want to see these problems solved as much as anyone? Are Twitter founders Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Ev Williams immune to illnesses other than the gastrointestinal kind? One reason for Twitter’s stinginess is that the data are enormous–and only a small number of organizations are equipped to parse them with any measure of intelligence. In fact even Twitter needs help there: that’s why Twitter bought GNIP this week, because GNIP helps sort the data. GNIP was Twitter’s first data partner (it’s the company that delivers Twitter data to the Library of Congress) and it’s GNIP that will deliver the Twitter data to Harvard and NICT, et al. GNIP is like Santa to Twitter’s 300 million elves (that’s you), who are busy building the data. If you’re an optimist you can look at the six lucky grant winners and marvel at the deductive miracles they may be able to perform on society’s behalf given this Twitter access. But if your glass is half-empty, you’ll probably think of all the miracles that won’t come to be because free access to Twitter data is only going to six organizations. And all those other solutions will have to wait, while the data remain locked up in a private vault called Twitter, Inc. And if you’re a researcher hoping to unlock that vault, it will cost you.