|Want to Know Who's the Top Twitter-er?! Math Student and Prof Have Figured Out How!
December 03, 2010
by Robert Abare '13
A Davidson College student and professor have developed a new way to search and connect on the popular social networking site, Twitter. Lake Trask '11 and Associate Professor of Mathematics Tim Chartier developed an algorithm for the site based on one already used to rank teams in the NCAA Bowl Championship Series (BCS). But instead of football teams, Chartier and Trask's algorithm compiles and connects data based on different Twitter users.
|Assistant Professor Tim Chartier and Lake Trask '11.
Twitter is a web service that allows users to send and read other users' "tweets," or text-based posts of up to 140 characters. Users may choose to follow other users and read the tweets these others send. Chartier and Trask's new algorithm may allow users to search for more relevant tweets by other users and find which other users they might want to follow.
Their idea has a similar goal as Google's search algorithm called PageRank, which ranks sites based on links to that site. Chartier explains, "When you type ‘Davidson College' into Google, the Davidson homepage appears first because more pages link to that site than any other Davidson College-related site."
However PageRank has limiting factors in the context of Twitter that Chartier and Trask seek to overcome with their algorithm.
Trask came up with the idea to use a ranking algorithm similar to the one used by the BCS. In this method "games" occur between Twitter accounts when one user decides to follow another, or vice versa. A Twitter account wins a game when it is followed by another Twitter account, but does not conversely follow that account. Accounts gain importance, or weight, not only by the number of games won, but by the importance of defeated "opponents," just like in the BCS.
Trask explains, "An account followed by Barack Obama would significantly increase in importance, for example, since Obama has millions of followers, but doesn't follow each of them."
This new way of searching Twitter may provide users a way to find the most important Twitter users tweeting on a given subject. Trask also imagines that it could be used by businesses for advertising purposes. "Suppose a fashion designer wants a celebrity to wear their new dress and tweet about it," says Trask. "Using this algorithm, the designer could find the most ‘powerful' celebrity Twitter user available."
Chartier and Trask developed the idea for their project when observing PageRank's results for Twitter accounts. "We looked at the results and said, ‘These don't make much sense!'" Chartier recalls. The two initially supposed their idea would make an interesting classroom demonstration for other Davidson mathematics professors before they realized the project's potential. Trask then began the lengthy research process, periodically returning to Chartier for guidance.
Trask enjoyed the opportunity to use his Davidson mathematical education to solve a real problem. "It was vindicating to apply my math skills to this situation, because a lot of people don't understand how math applies to the real world." He admits the project did pose some difficulties, however. "It required a lot of patience and learning, especially when it came to computer programming."
Chartier and Trask recently secured a provisional patent for the project to protect the idea while they refine their work. This allows them a year of further research and data compilation, during which they plan to compile it as a smart phone application.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.