Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Social Data Initiative?

Recent revelations about the abuse of social data and spread of disinformation make clear that social media can have harmful ramifications for society. The SSRC’s Social Data Initiative examines this pressing problem; facilitates and funds research on the responsible use of data by the private sector and social researchers; and cultivates cross-sector collaborations between data providers and researchers to ensure ethical access to and use of social data by scholars. The Social Data Initiative’s first effort, “Social Media and Democracy,” considers the impact of Facebook on contemporary politics globally. Through the Social Data Initiative, the SSRC serves as a bridge in an emergent social science ecosystem that increasingly requires collaborations among media and technology companies, municipal, state and federal governments, philanthropy, and scholarly researchers.

Why is the Social Data Initiative needed?

For more than 90 years, the SSRC’s work has been guided by the belief that justice, prosperity, and democracy require a deeper understanding of complex social, cultural, economic, and political processes. And many of these processes are now online. The Social Data Initiative seeks to study these processes in an independent, transparent, and ethical way according to the highest standards of data privacy and academic research, ultimately to improve the lives of all by fostering a better understanding of social processes in the age of social data.

A couple of decades ago, much of the data in the world relevant for social science research was available inside the university, at cross-university institutions like the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), or was accessible from government agencies and international organizations such as the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With the revolution in computing and the growth in the sector of companies for whom knowledge of human attitudes and behaviors are central to profitable business models, the quantity of socially relevant data has grown exponentially and is largely held as the intellectual property of companies. This has raised a host of critical issues, not least of which is personal data privacy when so much of what so many of us do and think are now recorded as part of everyday life. Indeed, realizing the potential of social science under these new conditions requires tripartite cooperation among academics, the private sector, and government.

How will the Social Data Initiative work?

The Social Data Initiative’s first effort, “Social Media and Democracy,” considers the impact of Facebook on contemporary politics globally. In collaboration with Social Science One, an entity developed by Professors Gary King and Nate Persily, Facebook will make data available for the first time to social science researchers via an independent process. The SSRC will independently administer a transparent research funding and peer-review process. The SSRC role includes forming the Social Data Initiative Advisory Board to develop the Council’s research agenda about social media’s impact on society; supporting Social Science One with funding; issuance of requests for proposals (RFPs) for the Social Media and Democracy Research Grant Program, selection and appointment of peer reviewers, and stewardship of both the independent application and peer-reviewed selection processes. For further details on the peer-review process, visit ssrc.org/rfp. Peer reviewers will reflect the enduring commitments of the initiative: data privacy, the highest standards of academic research, ethical research outcomes, and harnessing the perspectives of leading scholars from diverse geographies and backgrounds.

Any proposal submitted through this process must first have been reviewed by a Common Rule-compliant University Institutional Review Board (IRB), federally approved IRB, or international equivalent. Any proposal selected as a finalist for funding will undergo further ethics and privacy review via an SSRC committee of experts in this area appointed and convened by the Council, with consultation from the NSF-sponsored PERVADE (Pervasive Data Ethics for Computational Research) research team.

What is the role of the funders involved in the Social Data Initiative?

Funders are supporting an independent process and independent research; they will not have access to data. The SSRC serves as the fiscal manager. Funding will be provided to the SSRC by a consortium of funders: the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Neither Facebook nor the funders will have a say in the selection of research proposals or the publication of the research findings.

Are Facebook, Social Science One, or any of the funders profiting from the Social Data Initiative?

No.

I’m an interested researcher. How do I apply?

Proposals are accepted on a rolling basis and you may apply here. The full RFP can be found at ssrc.org/rfp

Is there an estimated timeframe for this project? If so, what is it?

The initial commitment from the funders and Facebook is for one year beginning July 1, 2018.

Will researchers be independent?

Yes. The SSRC has operated for nearly a century as an independent, nonpartisan institution committed to pursuing projects that advance society and improve lives. As with every social science initiative we touch, we will abide by the highest standards of academic research and ensure research autonomy; we continue to be focused on that guiding principle. Moreover, Facebook’s relationship to the research ends at the contribution of the raw, anonymized data. It will make no financial contribution to the initiative or the research and will not have approval over which information is made public.

How will you ensure transparency?

The SSRC is fully committed to transparency at every level of this important work. The SSRC will provide regular public updates about its efforts and Facebook’s. An independent commission of scholars will also provide regular public reports on both. The SSRC will additionally engage ethicists, advocates, and civil society communities via its advisory committee and other outreach. Per agreement with the funders, the decision-making criteria guiding the research grantees and the selection of researchers will all be made public by the SSRC.

How will you protect sensitive data and privacy?

The SSRC is committed to protecting privacy rights and, at its core, the SSRC’s Social Data Initiative is committed to data privacy. Scholarly researchers will only have access to anonymized data. The SSRC will actively engage with technologists, advocates, and ethicists on its Social Data Initiative Advisory Board to develop twenty-first-century academic standards for anonymized digital data use—with particular emphasis on the potential impacts on vulnerable groups by the dynamics the initiative studies. Additionally, Social Media and Democracy Research Grant grantees will be required not only to have secured IRB approval or its international equivalent, they will also be required to sign data access agreements indicating that they will abide by the highest ethical standards. And, Facebook and the users of its data are bound by the data access and privacy laws where they operate. In addition, working with its collaborators on the PERVADE research team, the SSRC will use the Social Data Initiative as a unique opportunity to generate new research insights on the data ethics and privacy issues that may arise as research with social data expands.

This is the SSRC data ethics and privacy process:

  • Data is solicited from all proposals, so that an independent research team in working collaboration with the SSRC can begin to collect data on the spectrum of issues regarding data ethics and privacy. This research of the Social Data Initiative will contribute to social researchers and the general public’s understanding of the risks posed by social data analysis and ways to mitigate them.
  • Only research proposals submitted with federal or international IRB approval or its international equivalent are eligible to apply for the Social Data Initiative. In cases in which IRB is not available at a scholar’s institution, approval from a private IRB may be submitted.
  • Proposals that are successful in the peer-review process are sent to the SSRC’s Data Review and Ethics Committee for further review. This committee examines the risks to privacy that might be raised by the proposed research and suggests privacy-preserving methods that will improve the research as necessary.

Will the SSRC hold any data?

No. Researchers will have access to anonymized data for specific research via Facebook. The work will be monitored and approved by an independent steering commission of scholars and results will be made public without prior approval from funders or Facebook. The Social Data Initiative connects social data researchers and privately-held data providers in a transparent, peer-reviewed process in a purely nonprofit context.

What kind of data will be shared with researchers?

Only anonymized Facebook data will be shared, although the specific types of data are to be determined in a rolling RFP process. Scholars who submit proposals that are accepted upon peer review will receive access to the anonymized data necessary to answer their questions. These datasets will come from Facebook and/or from other sources such as surveys or focus groups.

How will proposed projects to access Facebook data be reviewed?

The SSRC will appoint and convene independent peer-review committees of scholars that will assess all eligible proposals submitted for funding consideration. According to the highest standards of academic research, proposals will be subject to rigorous peer review managed by the SSRC. Finalists’ proposals will be subject to review by the SSRC’s data ethics and review committee and will also be reviewed by commission cochairs Gary King and Nate Persily to ensure that the project proposes no risk to privacy, before funding is processed and distributed by the SSRC.

Does the SSRC profit from the Social Data Initiative?

No, the SSRC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

Can I work as an intern on the project?

No, the Social Data Initiative is not accepting applications for interns. We are however hiring a program officer and two program assistants to administer this project. You may apply here.

Why is this good for the public?

So many of the complex social, cultural, economic, and political processes that govern our lives and our decisions now occur online, but access to these new and massive amounts of data is largely restricted to private companies. Access to these types of data, anonymized, by independent researchers committed to privacy rights is necessary for better understanding of social processes in the twenty-first century.

Why is this good for researchers?

The Social Data Initiative has the potential to usher in a new paradigm for research collaboration between industry and the academy, enhancing our ability to produce findings that advance society. The need for industry-academic collaboration to make private data more readily accessible is a central recommendation of a report to be released this fall by the SSRC’s To Secure Knowledge task force, which began its work a year ago. Gary King of Harvard University, who is a member of the SSRC’s To Secure Knowledge task force, and Nate Persily of Stanford Law School, who is a member of the advisory committees for the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs, which have been examining related issues for years, are a driving force in the development of this pioneering model for industry-academic collaboration. Allowing independent social science researchers to study this massive new dataset—while keeping in mind privacy concerns and placing a particular focus on the impact on vulnerable communities—can produce findings that improve everybody’s lives.

What is Social Science One?

Professors King and Persily have incorporated elements of their white paper on industry-academy partnerships into an entity called Social Science One, LLC (SS1), which will function as SDI’s primary research contractor in studying Facebook data. SS1 has absorbed what was formerly referred to as the Commission, and will manage the working relationship with Facebook; including the creation of datasets. For more information on SS1 visit https://socialscience.one.

The SSRC has engaged with SS1 in accordance with the core commitments of the SDI: the highest standards of academic research, data privacy, harnessing the perspectives leading scholars from diverse geographies and backgrounds, and mobilizing knowledge for the public good. The SSRC will independently administer research funding, lead the peer review and data ethics review process, and work with SS1 to manage the research. Their direct role in handling the data and liaising with Facebook helps to ensure that all-important review and funding decisions remain independent of the company. For more information on the relationship between SS1 and the review structure, please visit https://www.ssrc.org/rfp.

What is the To Secure Knowledge task force?

SSRC appointed the To Secure Knowledge task force in spring 2017. It has been working for more than a year on a report to be released this September offering recommendations on how to enhance social science’s ability to contribute to scientific innovation and public problem-solving. The recommendations will cover ways to better collect, analyze, and share data, support scholars, create national policy, and more.

What are the Anxieties of Democracy and Media & Democracy programs?

The SSRC promotes scholarly field-building and agenda-setting research globally across its twenty-two programs. The SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program promotes research and dialogue on a range of topics related to democratic functioning, including political participation and how democracies respond to climate change, deal with challenges to national security, and address other economic and political issues. One of its projects is the Media & Democracy program, which focuses on the media’s relationship to democratic life. It brings together social scientists, journalists, and technologists to examine the interplay between journalism and the political landscape.

How do I receive updates about the Social Data Initiative?

To sign up for updates about the Social Data Initiative, please visit this link.

Last updated July 18, 2018

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