My colleagues and I at QCRI are spearheading a new experimental Research and Development (R&D) project with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) team in Cairo, Egypt. Colleagues at Harvard University, MIT and UC Berkeley have also joined the R&D efforts as full-fledged partners. The research question: can an analysis of Twitter traffic in Egypt tell us anything about changes in unemployment and poverty levels? This question was formulated with UNDP’s Cairo-based Team during several conversations I had with them in early 2013.
As is well known, a major challenge in the development space is the lack of access to timely socio-economic data. So the question here is whether alternative, non-traditional sources of information (such as social media) can provide a timely and “good enough” indication of changing trends. Thanks to our academic partners, we have access to hundreds of millions of Egyptian tweets (both historical and current) along with census and demographic data for ground-truth purposes. If the research yields robust results, then our UNDP colleagues could draw on more real-time data to complement their existing datasets, which may better inform some of their local poverty reduction and development strategies. This more rapid feedback loop could lead to faster economic empowerment for local communities in Egypt. Of course, there are many challenges to working with social data vis-a-vis representation and sample bias. But that is precisely why this kind of experimental research is important—to determine whether any of our results are robust to biases in phone ownership, twitter-use, etc.