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Twitter to release eight years of user data to researchers

As a sociologist, the prospect of acquiring eight years of worldwide Twitter updates would be pretty exciting.

Well, it turns out Twitter is offering just that to the scientific community, providing a handful of research institutions with free access to its data sets.

In collaboration with the now-acquired Gnip, Twitter announced its plan back in February under the hashtag #DataGrants.

In April, the social media giant said it had selected six institutions from 1,300 submissions. Proposals chosen included a study measuring happiness levels in cities from images shared on Twitter, an investigation using geosocial intelligence to model urban flooding, and even a study that looks to discover the effect of Twitter on the performance of sports teams.

Tight-lipped on the matter so far, Twitter likely sees such data experiments as no issue to users, since its privacy policy explains how most user information is intended to be broadcast widely. If tweeters are willing to let the whole world see their thoughts, likes and complaints, then surely a few academics' probing eyes will do no harm?

Scientific American has raised legal and ethical questions about the practice though. After research is conducted, will Twitter have any legal rights to the findings? Mining tweets for scientific research has also been flagged as questionable ethical behaviour.

Whether ethically sound or not though, Twitter data is a trove of documented human interaction for academic researchers. The potential for advancing the research in the fields of anthropology, sociology and marketing, amongst others, is huge.