The Secure Information Management Environment (SIME) social media lab was launched on Thursday, April 5, during a ceremony attended by the American Ambassador H.E. Bob Godec, Chancellor Dr. Manu Chandaria, Vice Chancellor Prof. Paul Zeleza and other senior University and embassy officials.

The lab, which is a joint effort funded by the United States government to the tune of KES 20 million, will be based in the Incubation and Innovation Center, and overseen by Lab Coordinator Dr. Patrick Wamuyu (Assistant Professor of Information Systems and Technology).

The lab, an unprecedented undertaking, is predicated on providing big data and social media analytics insights, powered by the IBM Watson Analytics for Social Media software.

Massive collections of user-created information often termed big data, are frequently generated through social media sources. This has inevitably led to the proliferation of misinformation - a challenge that has been the focus of the U.S. Embassy’s #StopReflectVerify campaign to combat ‘fake news’ - a term that has come to refer to deliberate misinformation or hoaxes created to deceive and thus influence views, push agendas or cause confusion.

In “The Reality of Fake News in Kenya” - a study by Portland and Geopoll based on the 2017 Kenyan General Elections, it was revealed that 90% of Kenyans were exposed to fake news concerning the elections, while 87% reported instances of deliberate fake news.

The Vice Chancellor Prof. Paul Zeleza underlined the role the lab will play in promoting the use of research to provide accurate well-informed engagements within and between the different facets of society.

In his remarks, Ambassador Godec singled out the privacy and security threats arising  from the ‘boundless opportunities’ presented by digital technology.

He expressed his hope that the lab’s “upcoming research on Kenyan social media use will bring us all to a better understanding of Kenya in the digital age – and especially Kenyan youth.”

The SIMELab at USIU-Africa is the first multidisciplinary research laboratory to be set up in Africa, to study social media.

The laboratory will provide a platform for research and training in analyzing the social media and internet consumption in Kenya. This will thereafter culminate in an annual publication on the situation analysis, regarding the consumption of new media and social media in Kenya, and the launch of the first-ever International Digital Communication Congress.

Increasingly, the need to sort through and classify big data, requires analytical tools that will enable businesses and media outfits to make decisions and communicate information that is accurate  and useful.

IBM Watson Analytics for Social Media software provides tools for Product Research and Development, Marketing Strategy and Competitive Intelligence. These tools, use Natural Language Processing (NLP) to parse and synthesize data.

While demonstrating capabilities of the IBM Watson Analytics for Social Media software, Dr. Maria Canudo (Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications), initiated a sentiment-driven search of social media mentions, using the keywords “Winnie Mandela”. Sentiment analysis, a concept premised on extracting subjective data, will be useful for deducing trends in public opinion and extracting relationships between customer perceptions and brand messaging.

The large volume of data, in this case fifty thousand results, displayed during the demonstration, points to the potency of the  analytical capabilities and storage capacity of IBM’s cloud-based infrastructure.

Following the launch, some students such as Applied Computer Technology major Mr. Jacktone Momanyi, were offered a chance to voice their current and planned undertakings regarding social media analytics. His application involves integrating a local Twitter analytics application with Tableau - a data visualization service.

Other laboratory services include consultancy services that will entail research for companies interested in social media and other aspects of new media,  that cover a wide range of matters such as impact evaluation for partner projects, advocacy on different topics, training, education and management.

The laboratory will further train investigative journalists on how to use big data and inform the public through social media research.