Human Network Analysis – a new skill for the 21st century?

Ben Schneiderman opens HCI2010 in DundeeToday at the opening keynote of the British Computer Society’s HCI 2010 conference, UX pioneer Ben Shneiderman gave an uplifting address about the need to expand the use of technology and social media for civic good.

He gave many examples of existing systems that harness the Internet to help with human problems – such as, a conceptual site which would allow US residents to report crimes, but more importantly to request and give assistance to each other. For example, allowing a disabled resident being able to find a volunteer to help them get out of the building in an evacuation. Real-world examples included and as well as the use of Twitter to track the spread of Californian wildfires. Another example was which takes a more open view to the sharing of personal medical data than most current medical institutions, but has shown measurable benefits for the participants.

Ben highlighted the nascent nature of such thinking in the public consciousness, and speculated that greater steps need to be taken to help the public see both what is possible but also to give them the tools to make better use of data for good. To achieve this, he said, we will need deep science research to take place which can then be applied to everyday systems and functions.

As an example, Ben introduced SocialAction, a network analysis tool for researchers which can uncover hidden information in human networks. In the following video you can see the tool being used to uncover the strength of relationships between US Senators who voted the same up to 2007. The tool shows that voting is highly partisan – and also identifiers outliers who vote independently, and those who do not have strong voting allegiance to either party.

The research, carried out at the University of Maryland, showed that such techniques can deliver valuable understanding and insights to practitioners in a variety of professions – significant discoveries were made by a political analyst, a bibliometrician, a healthcare consultant, and a counter-terrorism researcher. It can also be used for other problems, such as word sense disambiguation. In one study Flickr photos tagged with the word “mouse” were automatically separated out into those where mouse referred to the input device, the rodent, or the famous Mickey.

Finally Ben introduced NodeXL, a free plugin for Microsoft Excel on Windows that allows anyone to carry out this kind of analysis. With the tool you can import and analyse your own data sources, including your email contacts or Twitter or Flickr contacts. NodeXL is also the subject of a new book by Ben

Ben encouraged everyone to help progress the public understanding and skills in this area, and suggested that in today’s connected Internet age, network analysis could be taught in schools in place of a subject like calculus – as it will be more applicable in future to daily life for our children.

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