Societally-useful applications of Networks

Aravind Srinivasan writes:

I am teaching a new grad course on Networks in the Fall, and would like to include some societally-useful applications of networks as possible projects for the students (can be theory, very applied, or anywhere in the middle); these would be among a menu of choices available to the students. Could you please let me know if you have any suggestions? Of course, I will be happy to suggest anything useful that came out of my course, if you are interested.

I am interested, and it’s a fun/important thing to think about the societal value of your work periodically (not that I get to work on networks very much these days). I’ll put my response “below the fold”, in case you want to come up with your own list first.

My response: Fun question to think about.  In health stuff, you probably know more than I do about the infectious disease applications, and I’ve been following the research on “social influence” (mostly by Christakis and Fowler) that attempts to draw parallels between spread of ID through contact networks and the spread of smoking, obesity, depression, etc through social networks.  There has been some pushback recently on the “your friends make you fat” hypothesis from a methods perspective recently.  A related, but separate area where networks are important in health is in respondent driven sampling (which is the emerging name for the snowball sampling approach to surveying hard-to-locate populations, once you make your method precise).  Giles and Handcock have a comprehensive review of this that I browsed through recently.  Also, hidden in the discussion of health services that accompanied the health insurance reform debates last year is an idea that social networks in doctors and/or patients is a driver of cost differences, although I haven’t seen anyone take this on directly yet.

Outside of health, I’ve seen some interesting applications of networks to housing, like Vladis Krebs work Uncloaking a Slumlord Conspiracy with Social Network Analysis Actually, his orgnet website is a wonderful place for your students to get inspired by societally-useful applications of social network analysis.

I’m not sure if this is “networks” enough to fit into your class, but I think that the recent work by Princeton folks on the computational complexity of financial products is very interesting and networky.

I also recently read about a political science application to voter turnout that used networks to increase civic engagement.  It makes for a good discussion of what is ethical in research and in politics as well.
Do you mind if I turn this into a healthy algorithms blog post?  That way we can get more “wisdom of the crowd” about what societally-useful applications of networks are out there.

So crowd, can you add some wisdom to the list for Aravind’s students?


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3 responses to “Societally-useful applications of Networks

  1. Ahmet Yükseltürk

    I will suggest looking for examples in books on networks. (Linked by Barabasi, Six Degrees by Watts etc.)

  2. Thanks Ahmet. I’ll add that there are a bunch more network science books out now. If I have some time, maybe I’ll make a list of them.

  3. Ahmet Yükseltürk

    Listing new books is really good idea. I really like this topic, it changes the way you look at things.