Professor Andrea Parker Receives Grant to Research the Use of Social Network Tools among Youth Activists

October 30, 2018

By Christian Stafford

Dr. Andrea Parker, an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University in both the College of Computer & Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences has recently been awarded a three-year, $469,000 National Science Foundation grant to study how social network visualization tools can help support youth activism. This project is a collaboration with Dr. Brooke Foucault Welles, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design, and Catherine D’Ignazio, Assistant Professor of Civic Media and Data Literacy at Emerson College.

According to Parker, “Collective organizing through social computing platforms such as Twitter have catalyzed new and exciting forms of civic engagement.” Historically, it has been difficult to get youth active and engaged in civic action, but that seems to be changing with the rise in popularity of, “social computing platforms”, which “offer a media-relevant way for youth to address issues that matter to them.” Parker said.

“Audiences on social networking applications often lack visibility — the complex, intertwined relationships that make up a person’s online social network can be difficult for people to envision and discern,” said Parker. “This lack of visibility creates challenges for understanding and putting to use the social capital within networks — that is, the beneficial resources that can support collective action. These challenges, together with the difficulty youth face in evaluating the impact they have through online civic action, present important opportunities for social computing innovation,” she said.

In order to address the aforementioned opportunities, Parker said that she and her team will utilize the 3-year grant period to, “design, build, and evaluate novel smartphone applications that help youth explore and leverage their social networks to engage in collective action, and assess the impact of this action.”

Parker and her team will be collaborating with The Center for Teen Empowerment, an organization that, “employs and trains youth from low socioeconomic neighborhoods to act as youth organizers, identifying social issues within their communities that they wish to impact and organizing initiatives that address these problems,” Parker said.

This grant will allow Parker and her team to evaluate the effectiveness of social network visualization tools in helping to amplify and support the efforts of youth activists. “Specifically, we will evaluate how well these tools help youth to understand and put to use the social capital available to them and affect their sense of individual and community empowerment. We will also evaluate the relative benefits and challenges that arise in interactive systems that support individual versus collaborative sense-making of social network data,” said Parker.

The hope for Parker is that her research will help contribute to a better understanding of how to get youth more engaged in collective action and interact with individuals beyond their small, intimate social circles. “Young people cannot rely solely on their close, personal friends to support collective action efforts —leveraging weak ties (acquaintances, neighbors, etc.) and the broader networks to which our contacts connect us, are imperative for successful collective action,” Parker said. “Visualizations that help youth understand and navigate extended social networks may therefore be especially crucial for achieving collective action goals,” she said.

Parker also serves as the Director of the Wellness Technology Lab, where researchers are dedicated to the development and evaluation of interactive technology to help achieve health equity. Their research explores how new technologies can help support improved health outcomes in vulnerable populations such as low socioeconomic households and racial/ethnic populations, who often experience poorer health outcomes and increased barriers to wellness.