Research profile: Matteo Magnani
Amin Kaveh, Matteo Magnani och Davide Vega D'aurelio develop methods for analyzing online data. Photo: Anton Norberg
"Good democracy needs good communication"
How is online communication affecting social development? Nowadays a lot of human-generated information is available online and can be used to better understand our society. Matteo Magnani and the Information Laboratory (InfoLab) develop algorithms to study, among other things, how information arises and spreads on the Internet.
Matteo Magnani's research is about developing algorithms for analyzing online data, especially content that users themselves have created in social media, in order to gain a better understanding of society.
- Here at the Infolab, we work with the technical aspects of data analysis. We also collaborate with social scientists helping us with the understanding of the data and of the results of the analysis, says Matteo Magnani, who is Associate Professor of Computer Science at the Department of Information Technology at Uppsala University.
Examples of analyses can be to identify key people who drive the discussion on certain topics in the political debate on, for example, Twitter. Or to identify online conversations, that is, to be able to aggregate short comments or small pieces of information about the same topic.
- We work a lot in the area of "social network analysis". In this area, for many years, simple graphs have been used as a mathematical representation of the data. With graphs, you model social networks with circles that represent, for example, people and lines that represent the connection between these people, Matteo explains. But this model is not enough to cope with the complexity of human information networks.
For example, there can be different types of social interactions. On Twitter you can reply to a tweet, retweet other users’ content, or use hashtags to position your topic inside a specific conversation These different interactions have different meanings and there is a need for mathematical models that can handle these differences. This is something on which the Infolab group has focused a lot in the last few years.
- We are also interested in how information, such as fake news, is spread online. This is a complex phenomenon that can happen through different layers of interaction on different platforms.
Perhaps the most important outcome of their research, according to Matteo, is their contribution to the field of multilayer network analysis. Matteo is one of the authors of the book Multilayer social networks, and the lab has also developed and maintains a software library for the analysis of multilayer networks.
- In recent years I have traveled to several conferences to give seminars and tutorials about multilayer networks, our methods and software, says Matteo. Among other places, at Sunbelt, the largest social network analysis conference.
The fact that Matteo started researching in this interdisciplinary field depends a lot on the contact with a childhood friend from Italy.
- Luca, who is now at the IT University in Copenhagen, studied sociology and I studied computer science. Ten years ago we started discussing how we could use social media data in social research. That was how it started and we are still working together. He was one of the co-authors of our book on multilayer social networks.
Matteo also felt that information technology, and especially his field, databases, did not focus enough on people.
- Information technology is so important to us: social media mediate our communications and contribute to how we get and exchange information, which in turn may contribute to how we shape our ideas.
Matteo says that he wants to be part of solving the big problems in society. One of them is the current troublesome political situation, characterized by the spread of populism. He points out that it is not information technology that has caused this situation, but information technology nevertheless plays a role, for example through the dissemination of disinformation.
- So for me it is important to find out how we can use our knowledge in computer science to do something good for society.
Matteo and his colleagues have just received grants from the NOS-HS (Nordic Co-operation Committee for Humanities and Social Sciences Research) to build a Nordic network on online disinformation and how it affects democratic processes.
- We will organize three Nordic workshops, says Matteo. In order for this network to become effective, it needs collaboration between different areas, it can not just be about computer science or sociology. Analyzing WHAT disinformation is, it’s complicated. Who has the right to decide if something is true or false, and what are the consequences of these decisions for example on policy making? In the political discourse facts, values and emotions can be difficult to separate.
- Complexity is a keyword for me - reality is complicated and we need to find methods to meet this complexity in the analysis of online data. One cannot create good solutions only with a mathematical abstraction or an algorithm or a social theory that does not look at the data. We need to work together to make it good.
Right now, the focus is on research on text, time and uncertainty. Matteo’s colleague Davide Vega D'aurelio works with social network analysis methods also including text analysis, and Amin Kaveh studies how to analyze networks when one is unsure about the existence of connections between people or texts.
- It is also important in the analysis to know WHEN things have happened online, Matteo says. Together with my colleague Christian Rhoner, we have a collaboration with the Tokyo Institute of Technology to develop analysis methods for when interactions happen. It will help us not only to understand WHO is talking about WHAT, but also how discussions develop and change over time.
Today some of the research is on public persons and interactions that have been manifestly made public in social media. The GDPR makes it difficult to research other types of social networks. Getting permission from private individuals can be difficult, even impossible, when platforms limit how their members can be contacted. Matteo and his colleagues have written an article with social scientists and a lawyer that problematizes this and provides practical guidelines.
- This ethical and legal discussion is important, what can and should we do? means Matteo. We, as researchers in computer science, need to think more about this. Information must be free, but we must also be able to protect the individuals.
Right now, Matteo and his colleagues at the Infolab are working to get more resources and be able to extend their research and to further develop the methods and models for network analysis.
- We need more complex models that can take into account more factors because we want to study society which is a complex system, says Matteo. Good democracy needs good communication - that is the contribution we want to provide with our research - an increased understanding of how communication is used online and affects society.
In addition to research and his assignment as director of studies, Matteo is also responsible for developing a new Data Science Arena, which will be a network for everyone who works within or is interested in data science. He also leads the development of a proposal for a new international master programme in Data Science. Matteo is also the teacher over time.
- It's a super-important role for me! says Matteo. There I feel that I make a contribution to society. By teaching future professionals, teachers play a great role. In addition to teaching technical knowledge, I also want to teach the ability to think about consequences and ethics. Creating an understanding that the solutions we develop in the field of information technology can be quite problematic and have non-obvious consequences. There I feel that what I do is really important!
Facts - Matteo Magnani
Title: Associate Professor in Computer Science and Excellent Teacher
Education: Doctorate in Information Science and Diploma in violin.
Place of residence: Uppsala
Family: My wife, Stine, is from Denmark and I also have three children: Alessandro 4 years, Anna-Sofia 2 years and Vincent 4 months.
Leisure time activities: I play a lot of violin and I play tennis every week.
Currently: The development of the Data Science area – which includes the establishment of a Data Science Arena and of a Master Programme takes a lot of time right now. Decisions about the programme are made before the summer.
Listening to: Mostly classical music and old songs (Yves Montand, Charles Trenet…) and podcasts to teach me Swedish.
Hidden talent: I like to cook. We make a lot of Italian food from scratch at home - cheese, pasta, pizza and bread.
Strength: I am quite stress-resilient, which is an advantage when working at a university, but it is a strength you should not need to have ...
Weakness: I feel that I could be better at communication and language. I am a hand-waving person.
Dream project: Creating an interdisciplinary lab where people with different scientific backgrounds can work together.