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NYU Stern Hosts First Workshop on Information in Networks

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In September, NYU Stern hosted WIN – Workshop on Information in Networks – to bring together leading researchers across disciplines studying ‘information in networks.’ The conference was attended by speakers and participants from top companies and universities, including Google Research, HP Labs, IBM, Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Harvard University, MIT, NYU Stern, Stanford University, University of Cambridge, and University of Pennsylvania. The Conference was sponsored by the School’s Center for Digital Economy Research (CeDER), Facebook, Coriolis Ventures, the Machine Learning Journal, Media6 Degrees, The Institute for Innovation and Information Productivity, and Yahoo!

Hosted by NYU Stern Information Systems Professors Sinan Aral, Foster Provost, and Arun Sundararajan (pictured from right to left), the workshop was the first summit for scholars and practitioners addressing information in networks – its distribution, its diffusion, its value, and its influence on social and economic outcomes. These professors, along with their Stern information systems colleagues, have pioneered studying networked data in business and economics, a theme of the group’s research for over five years. Integrating ideas from economics, game theory, information retrieval, machine learning, sociology, and statistics, their research focus is on how complex social networks and the information in them changes business outcomes. For example, they have studied how social network data improve predictions about likely product choice, examined the role of information and information technology in the productivity and performance of firms, modeled the effect of underlying social networks on the adoption dynamics of technology products, and analyzed how visible product networks affect individual choice, global demand patterns, and demand prediction in electronic commerce.

“The increasing availability of massive networked data is revolutionizing the scientific study of a variety of phenomena in fields as diverse as computer science, economics, physics, and sociology. Yet, while many important advances have taken place in these different communities, the dialog between researchers across disciplines is only beginning,” explained workshop co-organizer Sinan Aral. “The purpose of WIN is to bring together leading researchers studying information in networks in order to lay the foundation for ongoing relationships and to build a lasting multidisciplinary research community.”

The program consisted of research presentations, panel discussions, and poster sessions. The discussions centered on how networks shape and influence the world, such as with stock markets, the spread of disease, warfare, marketing, politics, and the modern enterprise.

Of note was James Fowler, one of the “dynamic duo” of social networks research, according to Science magazine, and author of Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, who shared his recent experimental research findings on how cooperative behavior cascades through human social networks.

In addition, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, one of the most-cited computer scientists in the world; one of the 100 Americans likely to shape this century, according to Newsweek (1997); and the author of Honest Signals: How They Shape Our Lives, presented his research on using reality mining – the collection of machine-sensed environmental data pertaining to human social behavior – to study how the dynamics of social networks influence productivity, creativity, happiness and social health.

Another conference highlight was Duncan Watts, often credited with co-birthing modern network science; one of the most influential young scientists to address social networks; and author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, who showed how the technological revolution of the Internet has allowed researchers to study interactions between people on a large scale over time. He said that until recently, it would have been impractical to attempt, for example, network surveys using Facebook, observational network analysis using email server logs, psychological experiments using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and “macro-sociological” experiments using custom-built websites.

Additionally, Jon Kleinberg (pictured right), one of Discover magazine’s “20 Best Brains Under 40” (2008) and a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, discussed his study in which he tracked pieces of text as they traveled through online networks, such as emails and blogs, in order to analyze how information spreads between people on a global scale and how news stories evolve and compete for attention.

The three conference organizers also presented their latest research. Professor Aral explained his study that developed a framework to distinguish influence and homophily effects in dynamic networks in such domains as marketing and public health. Using data from Yahoo!, he found that peer influence in product adoption decisions have been overestimated by 300-700 percent, and that homophily explains over 50 percent of perceived behavioral contagion. Professor Provost discussed his research on privacy-friendly social-network-based audience selection for online brand advertising. He said that 30 percent of consumers’ free time is spent online, while only 8 to 10 percent of advertising dollars are spent online. His paper shows how data mining for brand advertising can be effective, and is the first published work on the topic. Professor Sundararajan talked about his study on the diffusion of exogenous demand shocks initiated by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and the New York Times Book Review in the recommendation networks of books sold on Amazon.com. His findings show that the neighborhood of reviewed books experiences a substantial spillover effect that translates into an average six-fold inflation in the demand of first neighbors, an increase that persists longer in more clustered networks.

The two-day conference concluded with a dinner and reception.

More information about WIN