Data, Not Dollars: Twitter Announces a Grant Program

February 07, 2014

Tweets have become fodder for all kinds of academic research. Scholars mine Twitter to track how voters view politicians, how the public reacts to antismoking campaigns, even how people’s moods change through the day. But academics have faced technical and financial obstacles to obtaining the tweets.

This week Twitter Inc. announced a pilot program that should make it simpler to pursue social-media research—at least for some scholars.

The program, called Twitter Data Grants, will give researchers at "selected institutions free and easy access to Twitter data sets," according to a company blog post announcing the effort and soliciting project proposals. Those researchers will also get the chance to collaborate with Twitter’s engineers and researchers.

Scholars already have other ways to get Twitter data. The company provides an interface that allows people to gather a limited sample of tweets, said Sherry L. Emery, a University of Illinois at Chicago public-health researcher who uses social-media data to study communication about smoking. But that free sample can be insufficient for rigorous analysis, Ms. Emery said, and it also requires some technical expertise to obtain.

Ms. Emery and her colleagues get their Twitter research corpus from a company called Gnip, which enhances and resells Twitter data. But they can afford to buy it: The research is well funded through the National Institutes of Health. Ms. Emery, who described herself as "middle-aged," said raising such money can be challenging for younger scholars. "The majority of social scientists and public-health researchers that are interested in social-media research are early-career," she said.

Barriers to Entry

Ms. Emery welcomed the Twitter grant program: "It’s giving people that otherwise would think they can’t get the data the idea that, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll try this.’" She added, "Part of the barrier to entry to using social-media data is the sense that it’s expensive. … The idea that there’s a grant out there, or a program, that takes away the expense, and also just makes it possible to play around with the data, I think lowers the barrier to entry."

Twitter says it is working with Gnip to provide the free data sets to researchers. Proposals are due by March 15.

In 2010, Twitter signed an agreement with the Library of Congress to archive tweets. The library posted an update on the project in early 2013: "Although the library has been building and stabilizing the archive and has not yet offered researchers access, we have nevertheless received approximately 400 inquiries from researchers all over the world. Some broad topics of interest expressed by researchers run from patterns in the rise of citizen journalism and elected officials’ communications to tracking vaccination rates and predicting stock-market activity."