Social Media | Project Spotlight

Students at Clemson U Monitor Social Media for Collaborative Research

Clemson University in South Carolina has developed a Social Media Listening Center (SMLC) for real-time monitoring of online blog posts, tweets, status updates and other public social media communications. Students in the university's Creative Inquiry class use the SMLC for research projects, as do students in management, communications and other classes. Clemson also uses it to monitor online conversations about the university itself, and researchers use it for partnership projects with industry.

Project Inspiration

Jim Bottum, Clemson's chief information officer, was inspired to create the SMLC after a visit to Dell headquarters in Round Rock, TX. He was there on unrelated business when somebody suggested he check out the company's social media command center, which Dell uses to monitor trending online conversations related to the company. According to Barbara Weaver, IT lead of the SMLC at Clemson, Bottum is "a very visionary kind of person," so when he saw Dell's social media command center, he immediately thought of the undergraduate students in the university's Creative Inquiry class for collaborative, multidisciplinary research projects.

"Jim's immediate thought was, Clemson students in Creative Inquiry will discover things that faculty and staff would never think of because they don't feel the same kind of constraints that we do," said Weaver. "They come up with great ideas that just wouldn't cross our minds, so he was excited about the possibility of having them use the Social Media Listening Center."

According to Weaver, Bottum had other visions for Clemson's SMLC as well. She said he wanted to use it to learn what people were saying about the Clemson Computing and Information Technology (CCIT) department, so they could use that information to respond to customers' needs proactively; to work with South Carolina businesses; and to monitor online conversations about the public affairs office, admissions and other campus organizations. "But his first thought was for our undergraduate students," said Weaver.

Implementing the SMLC

Dell mentored Clemson through the process of setting up the SMLC, and the university used the same technology as Dell's social media command center: Dell computers and Salesforce Radian6 social media listening software. Radian6 is hosted in the cloud by Salesforce.com and provides a graphical dashboard of social media content, including trend information, geolocation information and more. Clemson uses the Dell PCs to drive the information from the cloud onto the center's video displays.

The SMLC is located in a single room with six large video panels arranged in a three-by-two configuration on a single wall. "There are six computers tied to the six different screens," said Weaver. "It's all hardware driven and there's a touchpanel on the wall where the professor or the student can say, I want this computer's screen on that display and that one on that display, or they can have it on all of them, or whatever best fits what they want to see." The room also has a a little teaching area for presentations or training.

Clemson's SMLC welcomed its first students in the spring semester of 2012, and it was so successful, the university has already developed a second Social Media Listening Center in another building on campus. Because the team already had experience implementing that type of facility, they tried some different technology the second time around.

The second room also uses Salesforce Radian6 "because we were in a contract and things were going great, so we didn't look at anything else or think about replacing it," said Weaver. But the team wanted to try something different with the second listening center so they could experiment and learn new things. The second Social Media Listening Center uses Mac Minis instead of Dell computers, operated via a Hiperwall video wall system. "Hiperwall drives what is being shown on each screen, so instead of having a touchpanel, we just use a wireless keyboard and interact with the Hiperwall software to get what we want on the screen," said Weaver.

SMLC in Action

The university uses the Social Media Listening Center for collaborative student research projects, as well as for industry partnerships and funded research. Students using the center come from a wide variety of disciplines, including management, psychology, communication studies and computer science, as well as the Creative Inquiry class.

"Because we're able to view complex visualizations across different screens, we're able to have much richer conversations around the data," said Jason Thatcher, director of the Social Analytics Institute at Clemson. "It's really different working on a 13-inch monitor and a laptop or standard overhead projector versus a three-by-two video wall and two HD-quality monitors. So we're able to see the data more effectively. We're able to coordinate activities. We have a much better workspace for spreading out and for consistently working with industry. We have a higher speed access in the room. We're dropping a 10 Gig line into it, so we can move data around more effectively. We have access to more processing power, more storage and more state-of-the-art software in a secure location to do work."

Thatcher illustrated what the SMLC can do using election night monitoring as an example. "Say you're monitoring election night and you've got multiple races in play. If I'm only able to see one monitor at a time, all I can do is monitor that single conversation," he said. "However, in the Social Media Listening Center, we can roughly monitor six different conversations in real time, as well as what you're able to do on a laptop, or multiple laptops in the space. You can plug in to HD-quality projectors from the laptops, so anyone working on a project can take their analysis, plug it in and punch it up to the big screen, and we can have a really rich conversation around what's happening and then take that information and loop back and do something different."

Student researchers have also used the SMLC for "monitoring of the National Parks Service around stakeholder management; monitoring around packaging and brands for a large company; monitoring around the Affordable Care Act for the South Carolina division of Health and Human Services; and we have another project looking at Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement," said Thatcher. "That's a smattering of it. It's a mix of social, government and business issues, which is probably the right mix because we have students who come from all disciplines — communications, political science, engineering, management, information systems and computer science."

According to Thatcher, the SMLC enables students to conduct research that wouldn't be possible otherwise. "It's possible to run an analysis on any computer because most of these tools sit in the cloud, but what's not possible is really collaborating effectively," he said. "And what this lets us do is collaborate effectively. It allows us to do real-time monitoring when we need to for a specific project or activity. That unique capacity of the room is really helpful."

But Thatcher emphasized that the SMLC is just a tool, and people are still the key component of social media-based research. "There's still a qualitative piece to this," he said. "A lot of people think this is an automated process. It's not. It's a blend between using software and then interpreting the data so the kids really have to go through and learn a rigorous process on how to build a search, what are the limits of the tools. They can get all of this information, but they have to step back and reflect and actually figure out what it all means."

What Does the SMLC Mean for Clemson?

The SMLC has resulted in numerous benefits for the university and its students. Thatcher described Clemson as "a little tiny college town in the middle of nowhere," which can make it difficult to give students experience working with industry. But the SMLC has put Clemson on the map. People from industry visit the SMLC, and students give presentations on the SMLC and its capabilities. "As a direct result of this, we're now sending kids to New Jersey with a large publishing house to go intern over the summer. Our kids have presented at conferences. Those are opportunities that weren't there for us before," said Thatcher "So it has really let us connect better with the external world, which is an unexpected outcome."

A second benefit of the SMLC, is that it has "really pulled together people that don't normally talk to each other on campus. You have people from the business school, communications, the arts and humanities. And that's because of the way it was designed. It was an interdisciplinary project," said Thatcher. "We hear a lot of university campuses talk about the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, and we're actually doing it. It's not just lip service."

The third benefit has been improved collaboration between university staff and faculty. "We all work together, but we don't really collaborate all that often," said Thatcher. "And this has been a really good collaboration between these two parts of the university."

More Project Spotlights

comments powered by Disqus