University of Illinois

University of Illinois


University of Illinois is one of the 2014-15 winners of the Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education. See all 12 winners and the Honorable Mentions.


  • Brant Houston, College of Media, University of Illinois, Professor and Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting, Co-founder and Managing Editor,
  • Loretta Auvil, Senior Project Coordinator, Illinois Informatics Institute at University of Illinois
  • Pamela Dempsey, Journalism Instructor, Editor and Coordinator of
  • Acton Gorton, Graduate Student and PhD Candidate in Informatics
  • Michael Bolhman, Director of Information Technology, College of Media
  • Safiya Noble, Assistant Professor, College of Media

Test out the finished project: University of Illinois’ Intersections.

Describe your project as a tweet

See how social media intersects with your life every day and in every way even if you don’t see it – whether events, policies, ideas, opinions or decisions.

What is your live news experiment?

We will use various text analysis and data mining techniques to track and understand significant social media activity in the community so that we can follow up with “in the field” work to report on the intersections between social media and events, opinions and ideas as they manifest themselves.

Out of this we will build an “Intersections” social media presence that will reveal what is going on in social media in Champaign-Urbana. Our hypothesis is that every community has a large and often invisible life in social media that is only noticed when unusual events occur and that through tracking and analysis it can be made visible and increase community engagement.

We expect this project will provide a place for people to see and share on social media varied experiences and thoughts.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Many reporters follow and analyze social media – whether Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others – but they seldom actually go into the streets or establishments or institutions where the producers of social media are to bring the online and in-the-field together.

The kinds of social media and events range from serious to festive to hobbies. For example, there was a recent stream of hate tweets against the University chancellor when she refused to cancel classes because of subzero temperatures. The tweets led to counter tweets, community and national discussion and finally a campus-wide meeting.

The ebb and flow of Tweets over the racists comments on Twitter regarding the chancellor of Illinois. University of Illinois, “Intersections,” will use similar analysis to openly map the invisible social media conversations in our community and measure its impact on journalism coverage.

Coverage of this burst of tweets and the people who sent them would be more detailed in this experiment with interviews with those tweeting and in the streets reporting.

In a less serious example, a significant Salsa-loving population lives in the community and communicates through Twitter and other social media, but little is reported. This experiment would report on the social media and its outcome – the gatherings, how it shows an increasing Latina community and its concerns.

Another example is an ongoing movement on social media to reduce the number of people in jail and the experience of those in the county jail. Little is reported but it exposes the social injustice, the damage to families and other issues. The intersection of what is written and interviewing and recording the people (involved) would lead to greater understanding.

How will you collaborate?

The researchers will work on gathering and analyzing Twitter feeds and Facebook pages initially to identify significant social media in the communities of Champaign, Urbana, the University of Illinois and in the county.

We will apply social network analysis to identify significant groups and also topic modeling and clustering to discover patterns within the data. We will also try applying other research to the content as being done by scholars and researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the College of Engineering, the College of Computer Science, and the Graduate School of Library Information and Science.

Various researchers and scholars will be added to the project as it develops. The journalism professors and instructors and students will meet weekly with the researchers, suggesting areas of interest and planning reporting out of the findings of the researchers. Reporting will be done at events and interviews and shared at weekly meetings and then stories and visualization of data will be created and distributed with encouragement of comment and interactivity.

What technology platforms will you use?

We will use various forms of topic modeling (Mallett) and cluster analysis. We are also using Meandre, which processes data from download to text mining to visualization. Our platforms with be Drupal and WordPress.

How will this project provide an educational experience for students above and beyond their current learning?

This would be a breakthrough in education for journalism students and computer science and library science students through the sharing of methods and digital tools and techniques. Journalism students would learn how to do more sophisticated analysis of social media while computer science students would get experience in journalism and reporting in the community.

If this project works, how might the media organization and academic institution change its practices?

We would become much more adept at data and text analysis and routinely reviewing research by scholars and applying it. The number of cross-disciplinary courses and collaborations would increase significantly.

The University of Illinois team provided an update on its project in a July 2015 report. The following are excerpts from that report.

Update: What is the most important impact of your experiment?

We now have a reporting tool on events and conversations on Facebook pages. An archive of events pages and the ability to search them did not exist before.

Our impact so far has been to see that indeed there are numerous events, issues and conversations on social media and that we have done the programming to capture and download extensive archives of Facebook Event pages. In the coming semester, we plan to use this archive, which is updated daily, to improve the reporting in the community.