An unprecedented online data collection project is underway

An interdisciplinary group of Northeastern researchers has embarked on an ambitious multi-million dollar project to study how people behave online and, therefore, how the Internet behaves in return.

With a $15.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the team has begun recruiting volunteers for the Online Data Collection Project, which will monitor the online experiences of tens of thousands of people. volunteer users through a web browser extension that researchers build, then document and analyze the results. Ultimately, the data collected will be made available to scientists around the world and across disciplines for research purposes, in accordance with the foundation’s mandate for the project.

“This is a huge missing piece in the study of the Internet,” says David Lazer, a distinguished university professor of political science and computer science and co-director of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, which leads the project. .

The money is now being used to build a “National Internet Observatory”.

Portraits of David Lazer, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science, and Associate Professor David Choffnes. Photos by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“The observatory enables a wide range of research on the Internet, including examination of the state of the information ecosystem, analysis of harmful online behavior of various types and, in general, studies on many aspects of the online world,” the researchers wrote in their proposal.

Many research questions drive the project with respect to these goals, Lazer says. Like how much does Twitter, for example, amplify certain voices and accounts over others? Or how often does Google direct users to high-reliability or low-reliability resources?

Researchers also hope to learn more about how information systems and their algorithms enable users to find information – reports, commentaries and other sources – that match their own ideologies. This is known as the “filter bubble” effect, which experts have pointed to as a contributing factor to political polarization and wider social divisions.

An underlying motivation for researchers is to explore and, if possible, untangle “human and algorithmic choice” on the Internet. As it happens, the monitoring project will help researchers “better understand what people choose to do” when using social media platforms, “but also what the platforms do in return,” Lazer says.

All of this would be done without compromising the privacy of the volunteers involved.

Other collaborators on the project include Christo Wilson, associate professor of computer science; David Choffnes, associate professor of computer science and executive director of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute; John Basl, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern; and Michelle Meyer, bioethicist at Geisinger Health System. Lazer, Wilson and Choffnes are the principal investigators of the project.

The researchers have created and deployed the web browser extension that will provide them with information about the URLs visited by the volunteers and what they search for on their devices. An essential part of this surveillance infrastructure is to ensure that it captures the activities of not only those with desktop devices, but also mobile users.

That’s the goal of Choffnes, who leads the mobile data collection arm of the project, by rolling out apps for Androids and iPhones that will enable some collection of network traffic from those devices.

“I think a lot of us spend most of our time online through apps on our mobile devices, not web browsers,” Choffnes says. “I’m working on deploying a measurement system that allows us to capture that view, specifically the services people are using on their phones and tablets.”

Choffnes says, “It will give us insight into how people interact with the incredibly rich and wide range of online services that exist in the mobile space, from social media to browsing, health, and more. and how these services tailor content to users and share information with others.

Researchers began recruiting volunteers last week; they hope to spread the word to anyone who might be interested and aim to recruit a diverse sample population.

“You have to go through a pretty thorough consent process,” Lazer says. “We’ll explain exactly what we’re collecting, then quiz people to make sure they understand it.”

Those interested can do so on the website of the National Internet Observatory. Once the information is collected, it will be stored in a secure server managed by Northeastern. Those granted access to the databases include system administrators and researchers who have undergone “a rigorous ethical and technical vetting process”.

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