Microsoft's New NYC Lab To Boost Data-Driven Social Science

Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City, headed by ex-Yahoo senior scientists. The star crop of researchers includes sociologist and network theorist Duncan Watts, computational scientist David Pennock, and machine learning expert John Langford.

"I would place a bet, that something that Duncan and his colleagues do will have a profound impact on one of the many social networks that we have in the company," Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England and co-lead of the NYC lab tells Fast Company. "We don't know where the impact will be, but we've got very good at guessing that a researcher will be influential." Microsoft Research doesn't start out with an agenda though, Chayes explains: Instead, they focus on hiring the brightest people they can and encouraging them to do what they love.

Microsoft's research hubs are behind several of the company's successful products. The Kinect and Bing were both developed for years as research projects before Microsoft turned them into products.

"Many of these people have been on our radar for years," says Chayes of the new hires. "We've been trying to find people who do computational social science. There are very few people in the world who do this research, but it's an area that's really taking off." 

The NYC lab recruits bring in mathematical and computation tools that could work magic with existing social media research already underway at Microsoft Research, led by folks like Gen-fluxer danah boyd. "I would say that the highly simplified version of what happens is that data scientists do patterns and ethnographers tell stories," boyd tells Fast Company. While Microsoft Research New England has strengths in qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics, "We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us," boyd explained in a blog post announcing the NYC labs. 

Data available via social networks like Twitter and Facebook finally offer a discrete measure of how people interact with one another, and how influence flows through their web of social links. As Watts explains it: "We want to understand how these phenomena work, we have to take a very large scale view of the world but have to refine our viewing a very fine grained way."

Microsoft has hired 15 founding members (8 of those names are public), but that number is likely to grow in the coming months "like a university department in good times," Chayes said. (Microsoft Research's other units vary in size from 40 to 400 members of staff). The lab will draw on collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, Princeton, New York University, and Columbia who've expressed an interest in working with the NYC labs.

"There are dozens of startups flourishing in lower Manhattan and we hope to be a part of that scene as well," says Watts.

The investment is talented researchers is likely to be felt at Microsoft, but also in the larger community, boyd says. "The success of Microsoft and the success of the industry as a whole is dependent on the development of basic knowledge and talent… the whole industry, the whole community benefits when we invest in research."

Bell Labs and Xerox PARC established a healthy tradition of industry-sponsored research, boyd explains, and in today's quick-paced Internet startup world, basic research isn't something most companies seem to be investing in. In the new Internet industry, "the irony of it all is that it was Yahoo who did it well," boyd says. Now, in terms of research, Microsoft is worth watching.

[Image: Flickr user Leol30]

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and the world. Follow on Twitter, Facebook

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