Australia needs a step-change investment in national research infrastructure for large-scale online data.

The Australian Social Data Observatory (ASDO) is a new proposal for landmark National Research Infrastructure that would provide the tools and capabilities to gather and analyse online user experience data, algorithms and interactions, making social data dramatically more useable for Australian researchers—across universities, government, industry and civil society.

The next decade will see a new wave of digital transformation and many challenges in the way data, communication and digital platforms operate. Large-scale online data has the potential to substantially contribute to the capacity of business, government and the community to understand and address Australia’s major social, economic and public policy challenges.

There is now a global network of activities, goods and services that are enabled by information and communications technologies, such as social media, artificial intelligence and e-commerce, which impact almost every part of Australia’s economy and society. Currently the tech sector contributes $122 billion to Australia’s GDP, representing 6.6% of the economy however without dedicated investment in national research infrastructure (NRI) we risk falling behind in research and innovation with emerging technologies.

Despite the vast quantities of social data now circulating, our capacities to analyse large-scale social data are still very limited. There is also a need to develop new skills in digital research and data analysis among researchers in Australia.

Australia’s NRI framework has not yet responded to the major challenge of collecting, analysing and connecting the national social data and analytical tools required to support research on the social, cultural and economic benefits and challenges of digital transformation.

To address these challenges researchers at ADM+S have developed a proposal for an Australian Social Data Observatory (ASDO) which would be a new, cross-cutting, national level facility for collecting and analysing online data.

ASDO would be a world leading research facility for the Australian community, providing the cross-cutting capability to support collaboration and data intensive analysis and modelling on critical social, economic and public interest issues using big data from digital platforms and other sources.

Using innovative methods of collecting and analysis data, such as data donations and crowdsourcing, combined with machine learning, natural language processing and other tools, ASDO would enable research on critical national issues from the distribution of misinformation to the patterns of everyday engagement with business, culture and science, the flows of communication in emergencies and humanitarian crises, and the dynamics of political conflict and consensus.

Find out more on the ASDO website.

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A step-change for Australia’s National Research Infrastructure Roadmap

The 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap Expert Working Group described ASDO as a landmark initiative, capable of achieving a step-change to drive Australia’s research growth. The 2021 Roadmap recommends that a national level facility such as ASDO be established to drive digital research across many disciplines:

“ASDO would provide tools and resources to deliberately gather and analyse online user experience data, dramatically extending access to social media data beyond the small group of specialists who currently work in the field. …Such a capability would enable researchers across HASS and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as government, industry and civil society to benefit from the insights derived from social data.”

A national system for curating and analysing social and human behaviour data from diverse sources would also provide a cost effective response to cross-cutting issues such as the need for system-wide enhancements to NRI including integrated datasets, software analysis tools and platforms, and contribute to cutting-edge national digital research infrastructure (NDRI).

ASDO will build on current investments and existing facilities across the NRI sector for data and tools where possible, however the proposal here is for a significant advance on what currently exists at the institutional or national level. Given the difficulties in accessing large-scale social media data through commercial platforms, ASDO will also provide tools and guidelines for data donation, crowdsourcing and citizen science approaches, allowing researchers to access and analyse social data from multiple platforms.

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Dr Amanda Lawrence
Research Fellow, RMIT University