SOBACO, a new 'big data' initiative, aims to facilitate the growing need for analysis of social science questions and online behavior trends.

The recent explosive growth of social media combined with the sudden increase of "big data" is a treasure trove for today's businesses seeking insight into behavior trends, pricing strategies, peer effects, or any social science question that can be posed. However, even though these data points are out there, few businesses have the resources and expertise needed to effectively extract this vital information from the new media. SOBACO plans to change all this.


SOBACO, the Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative, is a large-scale, real-world laboratory where researchers design and conduct experiments through social media and collect the data to obtain answers to a variety of social science questions. Although the University of Minnesota has long had active research programs in the areas of social computing and big-data business analytics, SOBACO brings them to a whole new level.

"The SOBACO initiative institutionalizes this effort and brings people from various departments at the U together around big-data and social media-related questions," says SOBACO Academic Director Ravi Bapna, the Board of Overseers Professor of Information and Decision Sciences at the Carlson School. "The University information systems program has a storied history, having founded the field 40 years ago and having been ranked in the top five as far as one can remember. We want to continue to be on the leading edge in creating knowledge around IT-enabled societal transformation."

SOBACO is motivated by a unique aspect of large-scale online social networks, in that some, like Facebook and Twitter, are based on a "platform" architecture. What this means is that outside entities, such as SOBACO, can build applications, interface, and ultimately conduct scientific experiments with hundreds of millions of real-world online users in an environment where they are naturally interacting.

New Opportunities for Researchers and Businesses
"Online behavior - browsing, buying, blogging, etc. - leaves a digital trail richer than the data we usually have," says Carlson School Professor Joel Waldfogel, one of SOBACO's Faculty Affiliates. "Analyzing these data to understand consumer behavior - and new opportunities for sellers - is a frontier that's opening wide right now. It's important for us to take our research questions and expertise and jump into this area."

College of Science and Engineering Professor and SOBACO Faculty Affiliate Joe Konstan has been involved in collaborative and social computing for nearly 18 years and sees two winning sides of this initiative. "Businesses are mostly flying by the seat of their pants in the realm of social media; there is a need to build both deeper knowledge and understanding and the tool sets that will enable businesses to harness social media effectively," he says.

The strength of SOBACO lies in its ability to provide a platform of hardware, software, and programming experts that enables fast, cost-effective means for experimentation. Additionally, SOBACO's aim is to provide researchers with a large, real-world pool of study participants that can number in the hundreds of millions.

Corporate Partners will Drive Research
Going forward, SOBACO is eager to partner with companies and organizations to explore opportunities in this new media realm. SOBACO's corporate partners will have priority in determining the projects to be undertaken as well as special insight into all work being performed. In the end, these partners will be positioned alongside the Carlson School as leading actors in the creation of social media value based upon business analytics.

Learn more about the SOBACO program and relevant industry information at the upcoming SOBACO Speaker Series events:

  • Friday, November 15
    Jui Ramaprasad, McGill University
    "Music, Media and Money: Drivers of Consumption in Digital World"
  • Monday, December 10
    Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, Harvard Business School
    "What do users really do on social platforms and what it means for companies"

Connect with the SOBACO program on Facebook and Twitter.