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Team to probe social networks by phone

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Posted June 1, 2016

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers have earned a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to build a smart phone application and software that will analyze people’s behaviors, social networks and relationships in real time.

In addition to enabling UNL sociologists to track and examine future study participants’ interactions with others, the new network will collect exhaustive data that will inform research projects in areas such as public and rural health for years to come.

“Normally, how (sociologists) collect social network data is we sit you down and we say, ‘Can you tell me, in the last six months, how many times have you spoken to person X or person Y?’ and we would try to draw connections among those,” said Kirk Dombrowski, a UNL sociology professor, co-leader of the project and director of the university’s Minority Health Disparities Initiative.

“We’re up against a real challenge, because how much does a person remember? But our phones can potentially know when we’re in the same space and that can give us really live data,” he said. “We’re trying to turn the phone into a sociologist. That’s a step forward because the phone is there all the time the way a sociologist never could be.”

Over the course of the grant, Dombrowski and fellow UNL sociology professor and co-project leader Bilal Khan will head an interdisciplinary team to develop ODIN, short for Open Dynamic Interaction Networks.

Research participants would download the app to their phones, which would communicate with other app users and form relationship network data for future studies. The smart phone application will be backed by cloud-based analytical software.

It sounds simple but isn’t, Dombrowski said – the app must also include and be sophisticated enough to form questions for study participants to enable human researchers to determine the type of relationship it is analyzing and whether it might be relevant to their area of study.

“Phones don’t do a very good job of knowing what we are talking about, why we meet – is this a social meeting or something else?,” he said. “For a phone to be able to ask the right questions at the right time, it has to be able to think like a person about human relationships, and human relationships are very complicated. Sometimes we don’t know what to think about our own relationships.”

Khan and Dombrowski are experts in social network analysis, having used it in the past to study the incidence, distribution and possible control of things such as HIV, drug abuse and cultural violence. But as effective a research tool as social network analysis is, there are still limits to its reach – which is why the ability to gather such rich data through smart phones is exciting, he said.

Ultimately, the open-sourced software will be made available to other researchers to adapt and study a range of behaviors. Dombrowski said he believes ODIN could be applied to study anything from obesity to drug and alcohol abuse to juvenile delinquency.

“It will be particularly useful for studying health disparities in rural areas, which are historically difficult for researchers to reach,” he said.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the NIH is funding the grant. The grant number is R01GM118427.

Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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