Celebrating a Decade of Twitter – One of the Largest Platforms for Big Data

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On 21 March, Twitter celebrated its 10-year anniversary. And, as it’s been one of the central data sources here at UN Global Pulse during our first years of implementing big data for development programs, I wanted to take a minute and do a quick overview- of Twitter, of our use of Twitter, and of Twitter as a Big Data source in the world of Global Development.

Twitter, 10 Years After

The first-ever tweet was written by co-founder Jack Dorsey, and since then the “Live SMS service” has turned into something of a global phenomenon with more than 300 million active users.

As you can see from Jack Dorsey’s tweet, it started out as “twttr” (as would be expected from a startup name of the Web 2.0 era), but the rest of his tweet still holds true: Jack Dorsey is even now setting up his Twitter. We’ll not go into a treatise on “what happened on Twitter through the last 10 years” as that is something we’d like to leave to the awesome journalists out there. For a few good, interesting, and amusing places to get a feel of Twitter’s history, you could browse through Wired’s “On Its 10th Birthday, a Short History of Twitter in Tweets“, FiveThirtyEight’s “The Worlds Most Prolific Twitter User Tweets Mostly About Nothing“, and Wikipedia’s “Timeline of Twitter“.

Here, we’ll just add some of the seminal tweets that have defined how we can more easily use Twitter for development and humanitarian work: crowd-sourced meta-data:

@ for replies:

# for topics:

RT (or ReTweet) for amplifying:

UN Global Pulse on Twitter

At UN Global Pulse we have a few official accounts for you to look over and join if you haven’t already. Our main account, @UNGlobalPulse, broke the 5,000 tweets barrier just in time to celebrate Twitter’s 10th birthday. With almost 40,000 followers, @UNGlobalPulse gives you the latest on big data innovations and tools for global development from our three Labs as well as from partners within the UN System and public and private sectors.

Let’s do a quick analysis. If we look at how much the account posts and how often tweets get liked (or “favorited”, as large parts of the Twitterverse prefer to still call it), a few interesting patterns come up. As I see it, we mass-tweet in spurts – around international events – and get the most likes when we speak or present during events and of course, when we launch new projects. That is no surprise!

Our two field labs – Jakarta (Indonesia) and Kampala (Uganda) also have official accounts that focus on Big Data for development applied to local realities. You can follow them on @PulseLabJakarta and @PulseLabKampala, respectively.

Our last account, @UNGPDataScience, is only quasi-official, and is definitely not updated as much as I would personally like it to be. But it does tend to be very lovely and perfectly geeky, one could argue.

But, if you want to get the latest on what all of us in UN Global Pulse are doing to integrate big data into development and humanitarian work – plus the added bonus of unrelated tidbits flavoured by personal taste – you can also take a look at our individual accounts. Most of us have been using Twitter since before we worked at Global Pulse. Here’s when some of us joined Twitter (only considering somewhat active accounts):

  1. March 2007: @rgkirkpatrick@ReneCNielsen
  2. October 2008: @artate
  3. June 2009: @jonggunLee
  4. July 2009: @lodyandrian
  5. January 2010: @Lukolyo
  6. September 2010: @melly_frederika
  7. December 2010: @diastika_akbar, @litonidas
  8. February 2011: @slabedo
  9. May 2011: @lurglomond
  10. November 2011: @FeliciaAV
  11. December 2011: @GijsJBrouwer
  12. January 2012: @MilaRomanoff
  13. March 2015: @dervalausher

The world has become more interconnected than ever and substantially more interested in how new data sources can be used for the public good. That means that UN Global Pulse is regularly referenced for our expertise in the matter.

As always, it’s a little hard to get rid of noise when we have to do with data, but sorting out Twitter’s blog post titled, “Twitter: Global Pulse” does help quite a bit (no, it was not about us). Also, this year, the world is celebrating the International Year of Pulses, an event similar to the Global Pulse Confederation (something that hasn’t exactly made my Google Alerts more relevant. (Unless, of course, I start getting interested in pulses. Which we definitely all should).

Anyway, using a taxonomy like the one below, it is quite certain that chatter will be about us (UN Global Pulse).

((UN OR “United Nations”) AND (“Global Pulse” OR GlobalPulse OR “Pulse Lab” OR “Pulse Labs”)) OR (@UNGlobalPulse OR @PulseLabKampala OR @PulseLabJakarta OR @UNGPDataScience)

As it turns out, UN Global Pulse mentions and coverage during Climate Week and the UN General Assembly of 2014 piqued the most interest. Why? Because that is when we created a Climate Change Twitter Monitor which, among other things, showed when and where people talked about climate change during Climate Week in New York. One of the most popular tweets by or about Global Pulse is this one:

The 5 non-employees accounts, who most often mention or retweet our main account are:

  1. @gquaggiotto
  2. @NiliMajumder
  3. @WidescopeCSR
  4. @Peculiar_Prof
  5. @s_nish

For mentions of the Pulse Lab Jakarta account, the top-5 most tweeting are:

  1. @gquaggiotto
  2. @ArnaldoPellini
  3. @CountMeInID
  4. @meetiboy
  5. @RoshniVenkatesh

The Pulse Lab Kampala account has most often been mentioned by:

  1. @hilleviekberg
  2. @mwirigipaul
  3. @UNDPUganda
  4. @UNinUganda
  5. @pernillan

Twitter as Big Data

These above-mentioned ‘sample’ descriptive statistics are a good first step of analysing tweets, but that is not all we do at UN Global Pulse.

We use Twitter as a vast source of insights into the everyday life of Twitter users. When aggregating the public thoughts of millions of people around the world (roughly 50 million different Twitter users in our Post-2015 project, for example) we see trends in the wishes, aspirations, obstacles and grievances of people around the world. In these studies, we do not look at individual users or individual tweets; instead, we look at Twitter as a proxy of sustainable development indicators such as the drop or increase in food prices, fuel subsidies, or the spread of diseases. Twitter enables us to analyse these in real-time or near real-time in a cost-effective way to support the recently approved 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.

For a flavour of what I’m talking about, I suggest you check out these interesting Twitter-based big data innovation projects (some are done by UN Global Pulse and UN partners, others are just some of my favourite Twitter projects):

  1. Using Twitter to measure global engagement on climate change
  2. Using twitter data to analyse public sentiment on fuel subsidy policy reform in El Salvador
  3. Using Twitter to understand the POST-2015 global conversation
  4. Gender-Based Violence in 140 Characters or Fewer: A #BigData Case Study of Twitter
  5. Online Social Media in the Syria Conflict: Encompassing the Extremes and the In-Betweens
  6. Psychological Language on Twitter Predicts County-Level Heart Disease Mortality
  7. Methods of using real-time social media technologies for detection and remote monitoring of HIV outcomes
  8. Inferring international and internal migration patterns from Twitter data

To round it up, happy birthday Twitter! And for all social media/data science/global development/technology for good enthusiasts out there, do join our network and help us achieve a world in which no one is left behind!

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News, thoughts and ideas about big data and AI, data privacy and ethics from across the Pulse Lab Network. Read more on the blog.

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