One press on the keyboard and the message is sent – leaving anonymous comments is so easy on the internet. A touch of the enter key and your praise, insult, opinion or idea is out there. Many may think that writing on the internet is just words with no impact, but for Krista Lagus (@KristaLagus), the comments are valuable research material which can shed light on the mental landscape of the nation.
Suomi24 is one of Finland’s most popular open discussion forums. It invites discussion on almost any topic. In the Citizen Mindscapes (@Mindscapes24) research project, approximately 20 researchers from three universities and several research units are focusing on this material of online discussions. One of the most important people for the research is Krista Lagus, cognitive scientist and researcher of information technology methodology.
Analysing the human mind
In her work, Lagus analyses large digital text resources. The research material proper consists of discussions from the Suomi24 forum. But why should we be interested in what anonymous people are shouting at each other in the recesses of the internet?
“Discussion forums form the foundation of national discussions. Anyone can make themselves heard there. It's important to hear and understand the opinions of the nation. We have a valuable research resource in our hand which can help us better understand each other,” explains Lagus.
Lagus has always been interested in the human mind and its operation. Previously she has delved into the topic through meditation, but this research project has allowed her to examine it on the collective level.
“I’m particularly interested in interpersonal interaction: what constitutes positive or negative interaction? What can take an interaction in a positive or negative direction? These are some of the questions I am trying to answer through the research material," says Lagus.
Lagus hopes that the study will increase understanding and awareness of the different sides, and enable various segments of the population to better hear one another.
The macro- and micro-levels of the mind
The discussion material can be examined in a number of different ways, both on the macro- and the micro-level.
“For example, we can study waves of emotion which sweep the nation, or how individual words are used and how the uses change," Lagus explains.
Lately, Lagus and her colleagues have focused on the use of the word sosiaalipummi (“benefit bum”) – what changes have occurred in the frequency of its use, and in which contexts has it been used.
“Vocabulary choices can express political opinions, as many individual words are very loaded, possibly in this case too," Lagus points out.
Waves of emotion in the discussions may be linked to social events, but the time of the year alone can have a significant impact.
“Summer is a happy time, but the stress that September brings is immediately apparent in the discussions. The happy, expectant mood is rekindled in December, but crashes again in January,” Lagus states.
Discussion open to all
Thanks to its breadth, the material offers opportunities for many different types of research, and can be of interest to sociologists, anthropologists and economists in addition to linguists. Many individual active researchers have expressed interest in the material, and one Tekes (the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation) -funded project is already underway on the material.
Lagus believes that one of the biggest breakthroughs of the projects is that its research data has been made openly available to anyone interested.
"We determined the basic properties of our data and produced a report that enables people to access them. We are also constantly trying to make it easier to use our data, so different institutions could better access them," says Lagus.
According to Lagus, one of the biggest challenges for open science is opening data in an accessible way.
“People come from very different backgrounds and have very different tools at their disposal. That’s why we should think about how to make the data available so that people understand what they can do with it,” says Lagus.
According to Lagus, this will be a collaborative learning process, requiring that operating systems, interfaces and processes are designed so that as many people as possible will be able to learn how to interact with data.
Open data is valuable
Opening research data is not yet a given, but Lagus believes that openness will continue to increase, and that this is a permanent change in the academic world, not just a passing trend.
“Typically, individual institutions won’t have the abilities needed to use their own data. The data accrue value when more institutions link to them and people start to work with them. The best way to involve new institutions is to open the data so that it can be easily used," says Lagus.
Lagus has noticed that companies are currently wary of openness.
“Companies may be worried about how opening their data will impact their reputation, or whether they have the resources to promote their data. And it is an intensive process, needing a great deal of time and resources. It can, however, also be very beneficial,” says Lagus.
Researchers are also still getting used to openness
“I feel like we are in a major shift in research culture, suddenly starting to cooperate in very extensive networks,” says Lagus.
Possible issues may include how the people using the data should credit the work that has been done to enable the open use of the data.
“There are currently no established policies for cooperation in this area, but we must develop them,” states Lagus.
Lagus also believes that open science must be supported and developed. Lagus praises Open Knowledge Finland for its work on increasing openness.
“We are constantly seeing wonderful development both among the pioneers and the academic community at large," says Lagus.
Think Open website brings together the University of Helsinki’s open research data, open source code and publications.