#researchmethods: Using social media for social research

I recently evaluated a pilot project which used online surveys to get local peoples’ views on policing priorities (A virtual approach can mean real engagement). As part of the evaluation, I utilised web-based survey software to gather the views of participants. It was quick and easy to use and succeeded in getting a very high response rate.

This got me thinking about other ways of using social media in social research. I was inspired by the new Fixmytransport website which aims to identify common meltdown points in Britain’s public transport system and lobby to get things changed. Developed under the aegis of Mysociety, responsible for a great range of resources including the simplest way to make a freedom of information request (Whatdotheyknow?), members of the public are encouraged to report public transport problems online and find people responsible so that transport operators are put under public pressure to make improvements. Fixmytransport has publicised itself extensively on Facebook and Twitter – if they tweet a problem that directly affects your commute, you’re quite likely to want to join in that mini-campaign. In order for the website to make a difference – as opposed to just being a magnet for tales of commuting woe – it was vital to develop an extensive, accurate database of contacts details for all the transport operators. They did this by “crowdsourcing” online; they uploaded a Google spreadsheet and asked people to enter the details – some transport providers even provided their own information direct. The other key change to the site was that transport providers successfully lobbied to enable commuters to post positive experiences as well as the usual moans and groans.

So what has this to do with my day job in the world of drug-related crime? Well, one of the major challenges of evaluating large-scale initiatives (such as the Drugs Intervention Programme or the new MoJ pilots on reducing reoffending or justice reinvestment) is when and how to get the views of sufficient numbers of frontline staff. Traditionally, these groups respond badly to questionnaires (either real world or online) and, especially in these days of limited resources, attendance at focus groups is often on the low side. In my experience, if you invest in a large consultation exercise any time in the first year of a new programme, half of your interviewees will not have heard of it (or claim that they haven’t). If you leave consultation till later, it can be difficult to do it thoroughly and still meet report deadlines.

I think there is real potential to use Twitter in this situation, particularly in new initiatives where staff are working in new settings, operating new systems. Provider organisations could get all their operational staff to sign up to Twitter with a work account (to keep a firewall between personal and work spheres) and encourage them to tweet whenever they encounter a new part of the system that either worked well or had problems. The ubiquity of smart phones and the 140 character limit mean that it’s possible for staff to give detailed feedback on a number of micro issues in less than a minute:

• ‘no option for mixed race on new referral form’,
• ‘custody sergeant would not admit me for 25 minutes’
• ‘missed new client in cells but caught up in court 2 hours later’

By entering a simple hashtag (such as #DIPpilot), it would be straightforward for researchers to collate responses and identify common themes. There are a number of “back-office” applications for Twitter which would enable responses to be filtered by pilot area etc. This approach is probably particularly effective in an action research approach with issues promptly identified and fed back. Indeed, there would be no need to wait for a formal interim report. Any self-respecting programme coordinator would have TweetDeck installed with a number of columns to follow key themes. Important issues would be quickly identified by the number of re-tweets. In some cases, these issues would be easy to address – refining a referral form – in which case it would be easy to send out the new version to everyone by Twitter with an online link. Of course, the great thing about using Twitter, whether to develop a new initiative or research it, is that it is freely available with no costs for software licenses or back-office investment.

The main purpose of this blog is to stimulate debate and innovative thinking around digital engagement in the criminal justice and social care spheres. So please contribute your views and, if you’ve used Twitter, Facebook or any other social media in this sort of way, please share your experiences.

4 thoughts on “#researchmethods: Using social media for social research”

  1. Thanks for sharing your blog post on Public Health Science Communication 2.0 (http://bjerglund.wordpress.com/), Russell. I think you’re absolutely right that there is a potential in Twitter for doing social research. Getting real time data can be hard to obtain at low costs, so this could be a really good an rather easy solution. It will however, I think, require some investment in training people in using Twitter (eg. in Denmark Twitter is not (yet) very widely used and there seem to be a general scepticism towards it. Therefore training and openly explaining the objective would be necessary. But then again, that is the case in any kind of data collection survey.

    Apart from the data provider, the data collector (the researcher) should also be willing to ‘share’ his data. Being an open platform it could (if restrictions to viewings are not put in place) be that other researchers (policy makers, ngo’s etc.) will tag along and perhaps do what many researcher fear the most: steel data, good ideas and go public with it first.

    But I agreed, Twitter as a tool for social research is something just wainting to be explored further

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nina

      There is still widespread scepticism about Twitter in the UK too, but it has started to change rapidly over the last 6-9 months.

      I’m hearing about(and beginning to experience)theft of ideas online, it’s definitely something that has to be factored into the equation.

      Secret Facebook groups and Google+ might have a partial answer. But the real-time uses of Twitter do make it potentially very valuable… and very vulnerable.

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