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University of Maryland Launches New Social Data Science Center with Support from Facebook

Initial Projects include Survey Tools to Track, Predict COVID-19 ‘Hot Spots’

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSOS) and the College of Information Studies (iSchool) are launching a Social Data Science Center to help researchers better access, analyze and use powerful social science data. Such data is critical to understanding and addressing many of the pressing challenges facing the nation and world.

UMD’s new Social Data Science Center (SoDa) leverages the university’s strengths in survey methods, measurement, information management, data visualization, and analytics. Facebook is providing support for the center’s research and education programs over the next three years. SoDa already is collaborating with Facebook and with other universities to address the COVID-19 pandemic through a public survey tool.

The center’s co-directors are Frauke Kreuter, professor and chair of the Joint Program in Survey Methodology in BSOS, and Brian Butler, professor and senior associate dean of the iSchool. The executive director is Jody Williams.

SoDa Mission and Scope

“Effectively, ethically, and efficiently creating high-quality information products about human activity and behavior is critical for progress in many domains such as health, education, climate, policymaking, and government,” Kreuter said. “BSOS and iSchool colleagues are working with academicians and industry leaders across campus and around the world to address major societal challenges by first gathering and evaluating data.”

SoDa faculty and collaborators believe the unique challenges of working with social and behavioral data at ever-increasing scales, broader scope, and for novel purposes can be effectively done only by a multidisciplinary community of researchers who are able to draw on and contribute to basic research in a variety of domains.

“SoDa researchers solve data challenges with immediate, real-life implications. Whether improving measures of national economic activity or gathering COVID-19 symptom data, we transform the whole data life-cycle—how it is collected, analyzed, communicated, and visualized—enabling data-driven solutions to today’s critical problems,” Butler said.

SoDa currently is recruiting associate and affiliate members from across the university, and future plans include the introduction of a Social Data Science undergraduate major.

“There is a growing demand for social data scientists with the knowledge and skills to analyze large volumes of data and connect big data to human behavior. The value is in the treatment of that data. The mission of SoDa focuses on the mindful use of social scientific methodology and analytics in research, education, and application of complex digital data, key components to extracting valuable insights from modern everyday life,” said Williams.

Multi-Institution/Facebook COVID-19 Public Survey Tool

Kreuter and SoDa colleagues are now working with researchers at other universities on a public survey tool to help to track the spread of COVID-19 worldwide. Facebook is assisting in gathering data about U.S. residents who are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The researchers hope to predict virus “hot spots,” both in the United States and around the world. The survey asks respondents about coronavirus symptoms, testing availability and results, and whether respondents have had contact with anyone known to be infected.

The project expands on an existing Carnegie Mellon University/Facebook collaboration to track early symptoms of infections. UMD researchers are collaborating with the Center for Health Policy and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on the survey. UMD also hosts the international data.

“We are thrilled to work with Facebook and other partners to take the symptom survey global. The survey data have the potential to help researchers better monitor and forecast the spread of COVID-19, and possibly when, where, and how to reopen parts of society,” Kreuter said.

Related projects are developing across SoDa as researchers are building COVID-19 dashboards and other data visualization products. Researchers in BSOS’s Center for Geospatial Information Science are interested in incorporating the Facebook survey findings with COVID-19 maps that are already being produced.

Faculty, students, and staff from across UMD are encouraged to join SoDa in future discussions and projects.

A virtual launch event will be held for SoDa September 28–30, 2020, featuring panel discussions with center researchers and affiliates, as well as industry leaders. Learn more at


Social Media COVID-19 Research

Areas of Expertise:

Social Sciences

Colleges and Schools:

College of Behavioral and Social Sciences College of Information Studies

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