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Survey researches social networks

Sara Felsenstein | Thursday, September 8, 2011

Two hundred freshmen, new to campus and college life, received a special gift when they came to college in August: a free smart phone.

Researches from Notre Dame’s Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA) and the Wireless Institute gave the incoming students cell phones to monitor how social networks change and form over time.

Called the “NetSense Project,” the study will examine how social networks help spread ideas and information from one person to another, according to the NetSense website.

Selected students were loaned the Nexus S 4G smartphone, along with a plan from Sprint that includes unlimited texting, unlimited data, unlimited voice calls to and from other cellular telephones and unlimited night and weekend calls.

David Hachen, associate professor of sociology, Co-Director of iCeNSA and a senior investigator for the project, said the study, which is funded by a grant through the National Science Foundation, has been in the works for a while.

“This is a really big study and we’ve been thinking about trying to do this for a number of years,” he said.

Hachen said Notre Dame is a great location for social networking research because of its diverse student population — most students don’t arrive knowing more than a few people from high school.

“Most people, when they come to Notre Dame, don’t really know each other. It’s almost an experiment to see who’s interacting with whom,” he said. “Most people are interacting with a few [others] in the study, maybe two or three. We expect that to increase over time.”

The phones are programmed to capture information on how students are using their phones to text, voice call, post on Facebook and email, Hachen said.

The plan was provided to participants at no charge and is available until the close of the academic year in May of 2013.

In the past, the best way to find out about people’s social networks was to just ask them, Hachen said. A huge advantage of this particular study is that researchers can track students’ social behavior through unobtrusive measures.

“Eventually, people don’t even think they’re in a survey. They’re just behaving as they [normally] would. [It's] much less biased,” he said.

Hachen said researchers have taken a great deal of precautions to ensure students’ safety and privacy. Research publications developed from the data will focus on general network patterns, not on people’s specific networks, the website said.

“We’re not going to be looking at individuals. We’re going to be looking at patterns,” Hachen said. “We’re never getting any information on the content of their interactions.”

Freshman Ellen Roof, a participant in the study, said she’s not at all worried about her privacy.

“At first, I didn’t even consider any issues with people being able to take data from my phone or analyze my phone usage,” she said. “I was just about to upgrade my old phone anyway, so it was perfect timing.”

Roof said her programmed Nexus S 4G feels “completely like a normal phone.”

“The researchers assured us they wouldn’t look at the content of our messages, so I don’t worry about any invasion of privacy,” she said.

Freshman Colleen Doyle was also unconcerned about any threats to her privacy.

“It’s more just monitoring how you use it,” she said. “I don’t think about it much.”

Roof said the main rules for students participating in the study are to keep the phone’s Bluetooth on at all times, use the phone as their primary cellular device and answer one-question quizzes that pop up on the screen occasionally like, “Did you go to the football game?” or “How are you feeling today?”

“Overall, I think the study’s results will be interesting to see, and I’m glad I was able to participate in it,” Doyle said.

Aaron Striegel, associate professor of computer science and engineering and a senior researcher for the project, said the study originally kicked off after a meeting last fall with Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint and a Notre Dame alum.

Striegel said the NetSense Project wouldn’t be possible without donations from Sprint.

“[Sprint is] donating about $300,000 worth of service to make this all happen,” Striegel said.

Hachen said one of the main questions sociologists will attempt to answer with this study is whether people choose their friends based on similarities, or whether they become more similar over time.

“There’s a lot of debate … about why certain ties emerge,” he said. “My theory is that people make ties at random. The real question is why some ties persist and some don’t.”

Hachen said the focus of the study is trying to use media to map out people’s networks.

“Formation and persistence or decay of social ties among people are … crucial,” he said.

Researchers are also taking note of whether students maintain high school friendships as they start to build new friendships at Notre Dame.

“I expect pretty important networks to start emerging, some ties to start and stop, others to develop,” Hachen said.

The NetSense Project is not only valuable for sociologists — engineers also find it helpful.

Striegel said that from an engineering standpoint, the study provides data that can be used to design better cellular networks.

“The forecast for cell traffic is said to double every year for the next 10 years,” he said. “We’re interested in seeing how people actually use [their] phones.”

Questions researchers from the Wireless Institute will consider include how students use their phones when friends are around versus when they are alone, and whether students tend to congregate more where there’s better network coverage.

He said programming in the phone allows researchers to monitor how close people are while they’re interacting with their phones, i.e. if they’re texting one another even when they’re a few feet away.

“We’re just interested in where and when you use your phone,” Striegel said.