Twitter Bankrolls MIT Research with $10M, Wide-Open Data Access

MIT is mining its close connections with the technology industry to build a new research lab that hopes to harness social media for the public good.

Twitter says it’s committing $10 million to sponsor social-media research at the renowned university and giving it access to the two most coveted streams of Twitter data: its “firehose” of real-time tweets and the entire archive of every item ever published on the social media service.

The research will be conducted at the school’s Laboratory for Social Machines, which is led by Deb Roy, an MIT Media Lab professor who also works as Twitter’s chief media scientist. Roy joined the company last year after it acquired Bluefin Labs, a television data startup he co-founded.

What will Roy and the 15 other researchers be doing with that treasure trove of tweets? Broadly speaking, it sounds like they’re targeting good-for-society projects affecting the news media, government, and political action.

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As Twitter said in its announcement, “the hope is that their research team will be able to understand how movements are started by better understanding how information spreads on Twitter.”

More specifically, the laboratory says it plans to partner with external news organizations and political reformers that might be able to use new ways of gathering data or communicating with large groups of people.

The large dollar figure, special data access, and leadership from a Twitter employee will certainly inspire questions about how beholden the MIT project will be to Twitter’s corporate goals.

MIT addressed that concern in its announcement, saying the project “will have complete operational and academic independence” and also be expected to use other social media sources in its research.

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