Social Fabric – University of Copenhagen

For three years, researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark harvested and analysed data activity from up to 1,000 students’ smartphones as part of the Social Fabric project, and the researchers now have precise knowledge of how, when and how much the young people communicate with their fellow students. The data shows whether the students talk on the phone, write texts, emails or Facebook messages, or meet physically.

The project was part of the UCPH Excellence Programme for Interdisciplinary Research.

About the project

Social Fabric was an interdisciplinary research project aimed at answering a range of questions regarding the formation and importance of social networks. An integral part of the project was the experiment SensibleDTU, in which 1000 freshmen at the Technical University of Denmark were given a smart phone that logged their social interactions, thus supplying a more than state-of-the-art empirical data set that formed a basis for the investigation. Furthermore the experiment in itself served as a research object, since part of the goal was an examination of big data research, and specifically ethical and methodological questions within in. You can read a much more detailed description of the project objectives in the research section.

The project engaged researchers from a wide range of fields in both natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. The following departments were represented in the project:

The program ran in the period 2013-2017, and was funded by a grant of DKK 16 million from the University of Copenhagen Programmes of Excellence for Interdisciplinary Research.

Partners

The project was made in collaboration with the group of Sune Lehmann at DTU Compute, The Technical University of Denmark, who was in charge of the SensibleDTU experiment.

Furthermore, Sune and his group worked on how to model dynamic networks and their properties mathematically.

DTU Compute, The Technical University of Denmark

  • Sune Lehmann, main coordinator of the SensibleDTU experiment, Associate Professor, DTU Compute
  • Jakob Eg Larsen, Associate Professor, DTU Compute
  • Arek Stopczynski, PhD Student, DTU Compute
  • Vedran Sekara, PhD Student, DTU Compute
  • Piotr Sapiezynski, PhD Student, DTU Compute
  • Andre Cuttone, PhD Student, DTU Compute

Research

Human behavior is to a large extent determined by social interactions. Traditionally, however, social networks have been difficult to map, and most data have typically contained only thin slices of the web of social interactions that envelop us. The digitalization of modern society has changed this fundamentally: Every cell phone call, credit card transaction, shared photograph, online comment, and email check is recorded in a database somewhere. Almost every aspect of our daily lives is being captured in great detail, resulting in so-called ‘big data.’ However, studies have so far failed to produce as compelling results as one might have hoped because the quality of the data sets often is quite low. While databases with data on millions of users are abundant, each database contains only a fraction of the relevant information regarding the specific user.

The overarching goal of the Social Fabric project was to address these limitations and to push the current boundaries of quantitatively as well as qualitatively based understandings of social networks by measuring and utilizing a new source of data, the social fabric, which consisted of recordings of social interactions at all communications channels at very high resolution, for a larger group of people than had been attempted before. This was effectuated through the distribution of smartphones to 1000 freshmen at the Technical University of Denmark, each of which was equipped with an app that logged social interaction on all relevant channels: face-to-face, mail, phone, sms, facebook etc. as well as the ability to couple this data with answers to surveys and with register data.

The resulting data set was of unprecedented size and quality and allowed researchers from a broad range of backgrounds to answer a wide array of research questions, loosely grouped under the three captions:

1) Information and influence in the social fabric: How does information spread in social networks, across communication channels, and how does the social fabric aggregate information to be used for predictive purposes?

2) Friendships, networks and interaction: The fact that the experiment monitors a social network during its formation allows for answering of questions on how friendships and networks form. Furthermore it will be investigated how offline and online behaviors and personalities correspond to each other, and how human interaction is mediated by digital media use?

3) Studying ‘Big data’: As well as supplying empirical data, the experiment will serve as a research object in itself. With the advent of Big Data as a high profile research topic questions regarding ethics and methodology in the field become important, and these will be addressed within the Social Fabric project.

Each of the participating departments supplied a more comprehensive description of their specific research topics and their contribution towards addressing the fundamental research questions. Please read more about the sub projects 1-6 by clicking here.

Participants

External participants are shown on the section 'Partners' on the 'About the project' section.

Andersen, Ingelise, Associate professor Public Health
Blok, Anders, Associate professor, Sociology
Christensen, Ulla, Associate professor Public Health
Dammeyer, Jesper Herup, Professor, Psychology
Jensen, Mogens Høgh, Professor, Niels Bohr Institute
Kyllingsbæk, Søren, Professor, Psychology
Lassen, David Dreyer, Professor, Economics
Lund, Rikke, Associate professor, Public Health
Madsen, Mette My, PhD Fellow, Anthropology
Mathiesen, Joachim, Associate professor, Niels Bohr Institute
Pedersen, Morten Axel, Professor, Anthropology
Rod, Naja Hulvej, Associate professor, Publich Health
Zahle, Julie, Associate professor, Media, Cognition and Communication

The experiment: SensibleDTU

An important part of the Social Fabric project was SensibleDTU experiment: the collection of a data set of hitherto unprecedented size and quality by the distribution of smart phones to 1000 newly started students at the Technical University of Denmark. The phones came equipped with an app that collected data on social interactions among the students on all relevant channels: face-to-face (via Bluetooth), sms, phone conversations, email and online social networks.

The data not only served the researchers but also the participants themselves. A focus area of the DTU project was to innovate how the data could be made available and useful for the students.

The experiment had its own website (www.sensible.dtu.dk), but the website no longer exists.

Participation was only open for DTU Students in their bachelor’s degree during the academic year 2013-14.

Contact

The main coordinator of the project was Professor David Dreyer Lassen, Department of Economics, University of Copenhagen
Phone: +45 35 32 44 12
E-mail: david.dreyer.lassen@econ.ku.dk