Alliance Blog

The Human Side of Data

Last week, The Alliance for Southern California Innovation hosted a mini-showcase of researchers whose work fit the theme of The Human Side of Data: Understanding and Influencing Human Behavior.  This virtual showcase of presentations, curated and moderated by Krisztina ‘Z’ Holly (Venture Partner at Good Growth Capital), is part of our monthly Research Innovation Spotlight series, which brings together research scientists with industry leaders (corporates + investors) from across the greater SoCal region. 

This was a rich conversation introducing a variety of problem spaces from brain science and cognitive development to social media and public health. Indeed, breakthroughs in understanding and influencing human behavior are now possible when research teams with similar objectives use radically different approaches. The diversity of techniques are getting scientists much closer to understanding the many factors that affect human behavior. Through observation and experimentation, researchers are learning how data can be used to influence behavior toward more desired outcomes.  

If that sounds scary to you, fear not.  These scientists are interested in benefiting humanity.  Sumner Norman, a Postdoctoral Fellow, Biology and Biological Engineering at Caltech showed that a quadriplegic man was able to move a robotic arm to raise a drink to his lips simply by thinking. While instructive, the first implementation of the brain-machine interface required invasive surgical procedures. Their latest implementation produces high definition imaging via ultrasound, making it possible to “read the brain” with a much smaller device that works outside of the skull to collect signals. Discoveries like these can revolutionize treatment protocols for future patients with motor or cognitive impairments. 

In another example, Aaron Seitz, Professor of Psychology and Director of UC Riverside’s Brain Game Center shared how researchers are using the latest technologies to analyze brain structure changes. They are developing portable digital testing and measurement interfaces, including VR, which allow them to identify novel biomarkers and predict the health needs for people with diseases like Alzheimers. These tools can be sent home with the patients, making treatment and monitoring accessible via telemedicine. This not only opens up the aperture of the study to more individuals, it also increases the amount of data collected from being episodic to continuous.  This means better tracking of subtle changes in cognition and motor skills which can lead to more effective treatments.

Human behavior operates at a collective level as well. In the realm of public health, social media offers up huge treasure troves of data (tweets and posts) that analysts consider to be signals for measuring trends. Sean Young, Founder and Executive Director from  UC’s Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT) shared how these signals were used in their research to predict HIV outbreaks and other concerns such as spikes in opioid abuse in various geographic areas. Understanding the patterns of influence of social media helped them design effective intervention programs that leveraged peer role models online to encourage behaviors that lower the risk of HIV transmissions.

Scientists are not the only ones using social media to influence human behavior. On the darker side of the web, bad actors often use social media platforms to scam, debase and exploit others. While user reporting algorithms are in place to remove objectionable content, it is not enough. Sarah Roberts, Co-Director at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry shared information on the scope and challenges of the content moderation space. Community standards can vary wildly across different groups and that is just one reason that platform providers must continue to rely on humans to augment the moderation process for the foreseeable future. 

This smorgasbord of projects on the human side of data is just a sampling of some of the innovative research that is taking place in universities across the Southern California region. They are concrete examples of the innovation, creativity and diversity that SoCal should be known for.

You can see a video replay of the webcast on the Alliance YouTube channel.  Our next Research Spotlight will focus on Immunology. If you’d like to be part of the live conversation, email us at [email protected].