Category Archives: business

Wetsuits from wetsuits | update

A Knowledge Transfer Programme between Finisterre and the University of Exeter’s Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing are investigating remanufacturing and circular economy initiatives which address the problem of discarded wetsuits.

Full-time Wetsuit Recycler Jenny Banks gives us an update about what the programme has been up to.

This blog first appeared on Finisterre’s THE BROADCAST.

We’re now three months into the Wetsuits From Wetsuits Programme and have learnt an incredible amount about the potential recyclability of our own Nieuwland winter wetsuit. Our committed wetsuit tester community have been a huge help in providing us with some of our Original Tester suits back from 2014, allowing us to compare the performance of old suits that have had real-lives, with that of a new suit.


It actually wasn’t as easy as we thought it might be to get our original tester wetsuits back as nearly all of them are still going strong – which is of course fantastic news! Most wetsuits last around two years before they’re replaced so we’re really happy that our Nieuwland suit is still delivering!


Splitting my time between Exeter and Finisterre HQ provides me with the perfect balance of influences. Over the last two months in Exeter, I haven’t left the lab. From microscopic surface imaging to tensile (elasticity) and thermal testing, we’re building a vital understanding of how and where the Nieuwland wetsuit changes during its life.

When I’m at Finisterre, all that testing is put into context. Being at the Wheal Kitty workshops – by the sea and amongst the team – reminds me of the real needs of cold-water surfers and ensures that I’m not tackling this challenge inside a bubble. Everyone here is really engaged with the programme and the energy within the team keeps me going if I ever feel over-whelmed by the challenge that lies in front of us.


De-constructing the Nieuwland was our first step towards understanding what difficulties we may face when making the world’s first fully recyclable wetsuit.


That complexity potentially poses a challenge for us in terms of wetsuit recycling but it’s not a question of just simplifying the suit – why would we change a wetsuit that we know performs so well?

Thus far, we’ve had some surprising results in the lab. Under the microscope, we can see the difference between our original tester suits and our new suit very clearly. Three years of frigid waters and regular surfing causes the neoprene’s cells to start to buckle (see first image). This change in our neoprene’s cell structure, however, is having next to no effect on the flexibility of our suit, which we really didn’t expect. We will be continuing our testing to verify this but this finding is promising and means we may be able to recycle our neoprene rubber without needing expensive and energy-consuming re-processing techniques.

Now we’re working on finding out whether that same cell structure change is affecting the Nieuwland’s thermal properties.


We want to deliver the world’s first recyclable wetsuit for testing in Autumn this year. Progress is good and we’re now moving into the design phase of the programme. Right now, no idea is a bad idea. We’re being very open-minded and exploring ideas that are far-out as well as those that involve simple, minor tweaks to our current Nieuwland suit.  Watch this space! #wetsuitsfromwetsuits

Business support available in Exeter

Being the founder or owner of a start-up or SME (small and medium sized enterprise) can sometimes feel very lonely. Joe Pearce, business support manager for Peninsula Innovations Limited (PIL) – the operator of the University of Exeter Innovation Centre and Exeter Science Park Centre – shares his advice on how to best make use of the support available for businesses in Exeter.

Joe Pearce

Joe Pearce

Value added activity

With small teams, long hours and overwhelming workloads, being the owner of a start-up or SME can be a lonely and isolating experience, with many reluctant to pass the pressure onto others. Finding the right business support is an essential ingredient for ensure success.

Rather than a luxury, business support should be seen as a “value-added” activity, just as important as making sales or keeping up-to-date with accounts – and it is important that organisations get it right from the outset.

Exeter is an outstanding place to start and to grow your company; with a thriving business community, a diverse support network and access to world-class research facilities. People living and working in Devon enjoy an exceptional lifestyle – Exeter ranked as the number one city in the UK for quality of life in the 2017 Tech Nation report.

At PIL, we understand that businesses need support from independent business advisors, to act as confidential and professional sounding boards. Business mentoring, advice and support is available to small businesses at Exeter Science Park Centre and as well as clients of the SETsquared Business Acceleration Centre.

SETsquared is a partnership between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, supporting high-tech start-ups. You can find out more about SETsquared in Exeter here.

With experts in residence, who have personal experience in owning, running and growing businesses, we can provide feedback, guidance and advice to businesses in the region looking to grow and thrive. Companies have access to a mentor from a pool of entrepreneurs and businesspeople, who can help them to connect with professional partners in relevant industries.

Being part of the business community is another benefit of being located in Exeter. The city is home to a host of fast-growth, innovative businesses, presenting ample opportunities for collaboration and networking.

So, as a business within the Science Park Centre – whether you are a tenant or have a hot-desk – not only are you part of the SETsquared hub, you can also build relationships with someone you trust to offer good advice, ultimately helping your business to flourish. Businesses outside these facilities can access support through organisations like the Heart of the South West Growth Hub.

For more information about the support available for businesses at Exeter Science Park Centre, visit our ‘Why Exeter’ page or for information on shared working space, laboratory and office accommodation, call the Science Park Centre on 01392 249222.

Impact – the new driver for engagement with business

Exeter has rethought engagement with business and other external partners and established a new team to support impact and partnership development across different sectors and themes.  The new team called Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) aims for pro-active co-creation with business and other organisations; building strategic partnerships with key global players; fostering innovation and entrepreneurship amongst our staff and students; and driving place-based research and innovation to help build a South West Powerhouse.

Delivering high quality impact will become increasingly important in universities and will transform the way in which universities go about external engagement and knowledge transfer. Despite Stern’s apparent relaxation of the rules in the next REF there is still a need to submit excellent case studies for each Unit of Assessment – and the impact element will be worth at least 20 per cent of the total income. It is astonishing to note that in the 2014 REF, a 4* case study was worth over 20 times the value of a 3* journal article or publication – up to £500K over five years.  There aren’t many business engagement activities that can guarantee that level of future income.

What success looks like

Exeter has been asking academics to think about the potential future impact of their work.  Over 400 possible areas for development have been identified across all our disciplines.  For the first time in my career, academics are telling business engagement professionals what success looks like for them and the IIB team is taking the hint.

The kinds of things needed to deliver impact are key to the offer of the new Innovation, Impact and Business Directorate – such as building strong partnerships with sets of communities, supporting research collaboration, consultancy, commercial ventures, licensing, training programmes or significant regional engagement. We will also be looking to support policy developments, cultural projects, jointly offered degrees and any number of public engagement initiatives.

Taken broadly, impact activities can act as the glue around which all the normal mechanisms of business engagement can coalesce.  If impact becomes a key currency of success, the IIB team will be helping academics build engaged and long-term collaborations with external partners rather than focusing on short-term income generation.  If we build the impact and prove our value then the income will surely flow.

IIB Taking a thematic approach


The top priority for Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) is to help Colleges increase impact and diversify income. Each College and Institute has an IIB Business Partner to advise on its ambitions and develop implementation plans with senior staff members.

We believe that the best way to deliver College plans is through a cross-college thematic approach and teams have been established in the following areas:

  • Manufacturing, Materials, infrastructure, energy.
  • Environment, Sustainability, Food security.
  • Healthcare and Biotech.
  • Culture.
  • Government and Society.

Initially targeted areas include: mining and minerals, water, cultural protection, language translation, defence and security, digital and creative industry, food security, clinical trials, medical devices, legal and policy developments, data analytics and many more.

The thematic teams will build broad engagement and market development with organisations in their themes and create networks of contacts.  They will also support specific projects between the University and industry.

This approach aims to:

  • Accelerate industrial engagement in each thematic field by developing the brand of the University as a  Centre of Excellence.
  • Build a community of industrial and governmental clients.
  • Improve pathways to impact and income generation.

The thematic approach enables teams to connect academics more effectively to the right businesses and identify multidisciplinary, cross-college opportunities.  We also have a group of around 60 External Associates who can add very specific expertise where it is needed.  We can also cluster academics to provide multi-disciplinary solutions for business  and identify stimulating research questions.

Why do we need stronger links with business?


Over the past ten years Exeter has been hugely successful, growing research income, building student numbers, moving strongly up the league tables.  But one element has remained stubbornly fixed – our income and partnership with business. And when we talk about business we mean all the different kinds of external partners that require special approaches eg museums, local authorities, hospitals, NGOs, government departments.  That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of connections – but these are generally not turning into valued partnerships.  As a result, we rank 104th in the UK in the proportion of our research income that comes from industry; we had the lowest Impact score in the Russell Group in the last REF; our income from CPD, consultancy and intellectual property is low; and the employability of our students is suffering.

Does this matter? With flat cash for RCUK income, a threatening picture on EU funding, TEF with a strong requirement for employability and a new Government department responsible for UK research that has the words ‘Business’ and ‘Industrial Strategy’ in its title we think that we need to embrace this world or risk being left behind. Already over half of all research projects have some form of collaboration with business or other external organisations and we think this is likely to grow.  And the government’s challenges over Brexit are likely to lead to a stronger regional investment policy.

New team

We know that this kind of work can be challenging and time consuming for academics.  We have therefore established a new team – Innovation, Impact and Business – to help academics generate research impact; to connect with new partners; to help create opportunities for collaborations; and to build place-based innovation.  The aim is to enable the University’s world-class research and education to make a real difference in society.

The team will focus mainly on: building partnerships for research projects (working closely with the new Research Service); supporting impact development across the University; managing major strategic relationships with business; generating income and partnership in the region; and supporting innovation for our staff and students.

We are looking forward to working with you.

Sean Fielding, Director Innovation, Impact and Business

Three ways Sports Direct can rebuild its reputation

Dr William Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies for the University of Exeter Business School takes a look at the three ways with which Sports Direct can rebuild its reputation.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo


Will Harvey, University of Exeter

Sports Direct has had a turbulent time of late. Investigations into the working conditions at the retailer’s warehouses led to criticisms from unions, MPs and its own law firm about its labour and governance practices.

Even an attempted PR move to change the company’s image – a Sports Direct “open day” for journalists and members of the public to look around its warehouses – ended in controversy after boss Mike Ashley pulled a wad of £50 notes out of his pocket during a security check.

In a bid to restore confidence in his company, Ashley appeared on prime time news in a rare television interview and agreed to an independent review of its working practices and corporate governance. Will this be enough for Sports Direct to put criticism behind it and move on?

Sports Direct is neither the first nor the last company to face a reputation crisis. To weather these storms, research would suggest three important actions, some of which the company have already put into action.

1. Proactively address critics

Proactively addressing the criticisms the company has had around its labour and governance practices is an important first step in rebuilding confidence. This shows that the company is serious about how it treats its employees and how it is organised.

There have been major shifts in how other organisations in the UK engage with and treat their labour and in how seriously they take the issue of corporate governance. Empowering employees in the workplace through involving them in strategic decisions and ensuring a diversity of skills and backgrounds on company boards are two recent trends.

The challenge for Sports Direct will be to show its staff, shareholders and the public that it takes both issues seriously – not as a knee-jerk reaction to external pressure, but because they are an important part of the company’s values. This takes time to achieve and should be more than a tick box exercise.

For Sports Direct, agreeing to an independent review, instead of using its own law firm, is a step in the right direction.

2. Top-down, bottom-up

Inevitably, when a company does seek to change its reputation, there is both resistance and scepticism from certain quarters within it. This is why such change must be both top-down and led in this case by Mike Ashley and Sports Direct’s chairman, Keith Hellawell. But it must also be bottom-up, with champions leading the change across the entire company.

Too often, attempts at change lead to major disconnections between leaders, managers and the rest of the workforce. This was a problem at food producer Beak and Johnston, which historically had a hierarchical approach to managing workers in the context of a tough working environment of meat processing. Over time, however, this multi-million dollar company has empowered workers to be accountable for line performances and provide input into company strategy, which has transformed the company’s culture and financial performance.

Sports Direct staff need to be brought on side.
Joe Giddens / PA Wire

A disconnect between leaders and workers not only creates tension internally among the workforce, it also raises questions externally among analysts, unions, journalists and others around the authenticity of the change process.

3. True values

Most organisations make grandiose claims about their values. However, when a company faces major questions about its reputation then those values come under greater scrutiny. What is particularly interesting about Sports Direct is that there is very little information on the company’s website about its values. Much more is said about its strategy, business model and operations.

Clearly, writing a set of values does not imply sound labour and governance practices, but their absence might suggest too great an emphasis on economic performance. Sports Direct should consider embedding a strong set of values which are meaningful to its members. To be clear, this should not be a window dressing exercise for its website, but an opportunity to much more closely engage with its core internal and external stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors, unions and regulators.

It won’t be easy, but Ashley’s presence this morning on BBC Breakfast is an important first step, as demonstrated by the boost in the company’s share price that followed it. But it must be about more than just PR soundbites. Other important steps include more directly engaging with key employees and shareholders who are concerned not only about the short-term turnaround, but also the company’s long-term reputation and survival.

Working on the above with a strong and committed board, senior management team and group of employee representatives will help to rebuild the company’s reputation from within. And this, over time, will be recognised externally.

The Conversation

Will Harvey, Director of Public Policy Research Cluster, Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Brexit: why uncertainty is bad for economies

Professor Kevin McMeeking, Associate Professor of Accounting in the University of Exeter Business School, takes a look at how the post-Brexit economy is faring.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo


Kevin McMeeking, University of Exeter

The predicted economic blow of a Brexit vote was core to the Remain campaign before Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Since the vote, the lack of an “Armageddon” has been held up as an example of these fears being overblown. In reality, it is likely to vary significantly across society, affecting people and businesses in different ways. In particular, there is the more nebulous, long-term effect of uncertainty to take into account.

For example, one immediate affect of the vote was a fall in pound sterling to the US dollar – from an average of US$1.42 in the six months prior to the referendum vote to the US$1.30 mark. The evidence of previous plunges in sterling, such as in the wake of Black Wednesday in 1992, suggest that net exporters of goods in the UK will benefit but net importers of goods will suffer.

GBP/USD exchange rate before and after Brexit.

Any gains here, however, could be offset by the increased levels of uncertainty surrounding the UK’s relationship with the EU as a result of the vote. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has argued that political, economic, regulatory uncertainties will persist while the UK redefines its openness to the movement of goods, services, people and capital.

A market for lemons

That uncertainty is bad for business is a well-established theory in economics. In a seminal paper, Nobel-prize winner George Akerlof created a scenario where buyers couldn’t distinguish between high quality cars and low quality cars (which he called “lemons”) in a second-hand market. Buyers would only pay a fixed price that averages the value of the high quality and the “lemons”. Sellers (with the information advantage) responded by removing good quality cars from the market, only selling “lemons”. This resulted in exchanges that could benefit buyers and sellers being lost and an inefficient market. This information asymmetry, Akerlof showed, also led to a degradation of the quality of goods traded.

Significant resources are invested to mitigate against this information problem in businesses. Companies offer guarantees, warranties and refunds to consumers. Consumers and companies review services before buying them. Annual reports are long and detailed. Company management liaise extensively with interested parties such as analysts and institutional investors. Firms also invest large amounts in derivatives to try to reduce uncertainty and manage their risks. But the government will be hard pressed to use similar strategies.

If British suppliers pass on increased costs that are a likely result of Brexit uncertainty to consumers then UK sales are likely to fall. This is bad news for an economy that is already struggling to boost spending. Early evidence suggests that petrol prices have risen, travel company bookings have fallen and the housing market has slowed. Less visible effects might follow such as a delay to investments from overseas or the removal of services like “roam-like-at-home” rules on phone calls and texts in the EU.

Mark Carney: no lemon.
Twocoms /

The Bank of England’s response has been to cut interest rates to 0.25% – the first cut since 2009 – and to also expand its quantitative easing programme to try to get people spending. The effects of this will take time – and there is, as yet, no guarantee that they will work – but this does not leave the Bank of England with many more fiscal cards left to play.

Lessons from Canada

To assess the actual economic impact of Brexit uncertainty, Canada offers some lessons and the sovereignty movement in Quebec (which almost won a referendum in 1995). Uncertainty here prompted a rise in ten-year bond rates and an adverse reaction from stock markets. Undiversified low-growth firms, with transactions focused in the local markets were the worst affected.

Independence from Canada would be costly for Quebec in three main ways – increased levels of debt, increased tariffs and financial transfers. Brexit might benefit the UK by reducing the costs of regulation and reduced payments into the EU, but it is inconceivable that the UK can enjoy the same trading relationship with its European partners without paying for the privilege – as Norway and Switzerland do.

Uncertainty also affects individuals. If they choose to leave for more stable futures, this could impact the broader economy. This would be particularly damaging for niche high-tech markets and government organisations, companies or industries that rely heavily on EU immigrants for large numbers of employees such as the NHS. A brain drain would leave a skills gap that British employees cannot service leading to a decline in trade. UK universities are concerned that they might see a significant decline in tuition fee income and the loss of academic talent in the short to medium-term.

The overall economic effects will take time to materialise and likely vary across the country. The businesses (and people) that are the least diversified; with little or no access to alternative income streams are likely to be the most at risk during these uncertain times.

Kevin McMeeking, Associate Professor of Accounting, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Being at the spearhead of the fintech revolution

Tico Altahona is a One Planet MBA student who has been doing an internship with Droplet.

‘Too big to fail’, is how the importance of banks has traditionally been defined, as they are so large and interconnected that if they collapse, there would be a chain reaction that would affect the whole economy. They are the link that connects the economy and lets everything happen: from government policy (expand the circulation with credits) to buy groceries (payment services).

We are living in exciting moments because a revolution is happening right now. There are serious threats to the banks foundations, and I am happy to announce that I am part of it. The Financial Technology (Fintech) revolution has been made by start-ups that use Internet and mobile applications to side step banks. Companies like Droplet are now able to replace the traditional services offered ONLY by banks, in this particular case: payments with cards.

droplet1I am undertaking my internship with Droplet, and being in the middle of this revolution is an exciting world for an entrepreneur like me, because it’s a place where there is no navigation chart, only a blank page that we are writing on. At the same time is very risky; we have to succeed because there are no second chances. I love it.

We work with a philosophy: banks can no longer be in the dominant position that fills the pockets of the top management with £150,000 per year while the rest of the economy struggles. Our customers share the same philosophy; because we have a strong social core, customers are incrementing their profits as the service is for free. (We feel like the modern Robin Hood –but within the law!). Want to know how we make revenues? !

I am extremely thankful to the University of Exeter because they made it happen. They offered two subsidies for my internship – please take into account I am Colombian, with no British link at all – making me very attractive to Droplet. The company also recognised the relevance of the university because they had just ended a successful round of crowdfunding with Crowdcube that is located in the university innovation centre.

Making the most of my MBA is more than just coming to class; it is also learning in a work environment that is leading a revolution. Taking an internship is an integral part of this experience and the One Planet MBA has offered their unconditional support for making this whole experience come true.

This post first appeared on the One Planet MBA blog.

My Industrial Placement at Microsoft UK

Final year Business School student, Ben Kosky, has been named Intern of the Year by Microsoft UK; in this blog post, he talks about his internship experience, why it helped him plan for life after graduation and why he would encourage new students to consider the the With Industrial Experience scheme.

Learn more about Ben’s award.

Ben Kosky (left) with Michel Van Der Bel of Microsoft

Ben Kosky (left) with Michel Van Der Bel of Microsoft


When deciding on my degree and University the opportunity to take a placement year was essential. The University of Exeter stood out, with an exceptional ‘With Industrial Experience’ (WIE) programme.

I was excited by the opportunity to take a year out of studying to get stuck into the workplace. My ultimate aim being to challenge myself further to learn and develop, whilst also applying the key principles and theories I had studied during my degree.

After a tough interview process, I managed to secure 1 of 125 Internship places at Microsoft UK as a Sales Solution Professional within their Cloud and Mobility divisions of the business, selling to their largest 313 enterprise customers.

To begin with, it was very daunting and I found it completely different to the familiar environment of studying that I was accustomed to. However, by not being afraid to challenge and push myself to learn and develop, whilst also not shying away from sometimes failing, it was truly amazing how much I grasped during my year, in order to grow as an individual and team member, whilst developing into a more rounded business student.

Some of you may be asking yourselves should you do a year in industry? Personally, I cannot recommend it enough! It is a fantastic opportunity to really push yourself, to apply what you have studied and finally to have a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Microsoft, we had an amazing intern community, with a huge array of opportunities and activities to get involved with.

Further, a year in industry really develops your ability to manage your time effectively and improve your work ethic, which will be imperative in having a strong final year. It is known that WIE students secure excellent grades in their final year as they are able to apply the theories they study into practice using their personal experiences, whilst building and utilising the work ethic and time management competencies they developed from the workplace into their studies.

My industrial placement at Microsoft was truly unforgettable and was rounded off with their most prestigious award. Through the contributions I had made to Microsoft’s Sales and to areas outside my actual job specifications, I was named their ‘Intern of the Year’ against 125 other interns across the UK.

Reflecting on WIE

Upon reflection, the award highlights to me that if you’re willing to work hard, apply yourself and if you love what you do, if that is towards your sport, studying or whatever hobby you have, then you have the ability to succeed and excel.

The support I received during my year from my team, manager and WIE programme tutors and directors was incredible and without them, I would not have had such a successful and enjoyable year.

Looking forwards I am excited about coming back to Exeter to finish my final year Business Management with Marketing degree. I truly believe that my ability now to really relate to the theoretical concepts I will study, through drawing on my personal experiences will be imperative to me having a successful final year.

I am also looking at graduate jobs with the aim to start in September 2016. I will definitely be applying back to Microsoft as I cannot recommend the company enough. The time and effort they put into their programmes is truly remarkable and the responsibility and authority you are given, even as an intern, is amazing!

Without these components, I truly don’t believe I would have had such an amazing year and would have learnt and developed as much as I did. However, there are a vast array of companies out there so I would definitely recommend, and have been recommended by others, to apply to other companies.

One final thing I would say is that even if your industrial placement highlights to you an area of a business or industry that you may not want to continue your career in, this is still a key and a vital learning point in your career development and therefore is hugely valuable.

In light of my year I cannot recommend the WIE programme enough and truly recommend everyone to at least consider the opportunity and possibility of taking a placement year. I do hope this brief insight into my experiences has been useful and I would be happy to help with anyone looking for further information or who has any questions I will leave my details below. Thanks and good luck!

Ben Kosky – 4th Year Business Management Student

A political economy of Twitter data? Conducting research with proprietary data is neither easy nor free.

Cultural geographer Dr Sam Kinsley, lecturer in Human Geography and Co-Investigator on the ESRC-funded Contagion project writes about the difficulties you might encounter when you use social media research.

This post originally appeared on the Contagion research project blog; it has also appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Science blog.

Dr Sam Kinsley is a lecturer in Human Geography


Social media research is on the rise but researchers are increasingly at the mercy of the changing limits and access policies of social media platforms. API and third party access to platforms can be unreliable and costly. 

Sam Kinsley outlines the limitations and stumbling blocks when researchers gather social media data. Should researchers be using data sources (however potentially interesting/valuable) that restrict the capability of reproducing our research results?




Many of the research articles and blogs concerning conducting research with social media data, and in particular with Twitter data, offer overviews of their methods for harvesting data through an API. An Application Programming Interface is a set of software components that allow third parties to connect to a given application or system and utilise its capacities using their own code. Most of these research accounts tend to make this process seem rather straight forward. Researchers can either write a programme themselves, such as, or can utilise one of several tools that have emerged that provide a WYSIWYG interface for undertaking the connection to the social networking platform, such as implementing yourTwapperKeeperCOSMOS or using a service such as ScraperWiki (to which I will return). However, what is little commented upon is the restrictions put on access to data through many of the social networking platform APIs, in particular Twitter. The aim of this blog post is to address some of the issues around access to data and what we are permitted to do with it.

Restrictions to ‘free’ access to Twitter data

The restrictions imposed on access to data and their possible uses have a direct effect upon the kinds of questions one can ask of the data, and indeed the kind of research we can conduct. What are these restrictions? In the case of Twitter, there are two particular API access points of interest:

These both come with particular kinds of restrictions, which have the potential to effect the amounts of data one can access. The streaming API effectively filters the full stream of all of the tweets being posted at any given time (named the ‘firehose’) down to one  per cent of the total (colloquially referred to as the ‘spritzer’) and the sampling method is not explained to users. As there are over 500,000,000 tweets per day, with an average in 2013 of 5,700 per second, one per cent  remains rather a lot of data. Nevertheless, as a sample it may be seen as problematic. For example, researchers have compared the one per cent  and firehose streams to statistically investigate how proportionate the ‘spritzer’ representation is of the full data set. Morstatter et al. (2013) suggest that for large datasets, or big issues that generate lots of traffic, the one per cent  is apparently fairly ‘faithful’ to the full stream, with a common set of top keywords and hashtags. However, for smaller datasets the spritzer appears to be a less faithful representation of all activity – this would mean researchers using the API would possibly need to be selective on the issues they study. Further, they suggest there is a ‘blackboxed’ bias in the one per cent  ‘spritzer’ API stream which diverges from random one per cent samples they took from the ‘firehose’.

The search API is slightly more complicated. The data available is typically limited to the last week of activity, although for some search terms it may be slightly longer (this seems to vary). Access is governed by the number of requests to the API any given user can make in a set period (15 minutes). A user with an ‘access token’ can make 180 calls per 15 minutes fetching approximately 100 tweets per call. A user can utilise more than one access token but in their documentation Twitter allude to a limit on application-only authentication (without access tokens) of 450 calls per 15 minutes, so it might be reasonable to assume this is an absolute limit (I don’t have any experimental results to prove or disprove this).

As a thought experiment, if we assume that limit then the total amount of data accessible is 450 calls x 100 tweets per call, per four 15-minute periods (one hour) = 180,000 tweets fetched per hour (in which period, on 2013 averages, 20,520,000 new tweets are added). Taken the other way around, if we assume that we can use lots of access tokens and we wanted to be opportunistic and harvest all tweets related to a phenomenon that occurred in the last three days with approximately 40,000,000 tweets in the corpus – we would need to collect all of those tweets in three days, as the oldest data is already  three days old, and so we would need eight access tokens simultaneously gathering tweets, without any replication of data being harvested between them, for three solid days. There are two big assumptions here: first, we can use eight access tokens to harvest data at the maximum rate for 24 hours per day, without restriction; second, those accounts can be used so that only ‘fresh’ data is gathered, without replication across the eight.

In both forms of the API access to Twitter we may be forgiven for thinking there’s not much wrong, lots of data is available. However, when a researcher begins to ask questions that they would like to answer with that data particular kinds of problem can arise. By and large, to get to the maximum figures indicated for the API, above, one needs to implement a bespoke programme to ensure dedicated access in order to maximise the rate of data collection. Equally, using multiple ‘access tokens’ will, most likely, result in gathering some duplicate data, which will need to be filtered and refined.

In practice, when gathering data through the service ScraperWiki we often encountered rate limiting, which we were powerless to affect. Even with yourTwapperKeeper, for example, one needs to have better than average IT skills in order to implement an effective data collection method (see Bruns and Liang for an overview of what might be needed). This can, of course, be addressed by working with colleagues with the appropriate skills and may lead to interesting cross-disciplinary collaborations. However, should you wish to search the historical archive of tweets (for example: searching for tweets concerning the UK riots in 2011) this is not possible through the API and you will have to pay a commercial reseller of twitter data, or ‘certified partner‘ in the jargon, to get those data. Therefore, in order to have a chance at gathering data, researchers using the API need to be opportunist and set ‘scrapes’ of data running as close in time to the activities of interest as possible.

Equally, if one uses broad enough search terms it is entirely possible that the volume of tweets matching the criteria is such that it is not possible to harvest them before they drop out of the free-to-access pool of data before your search can reach them. Therefore, API-based data gathering for research is best suited to opportunistic highly specific searches (such as the UK badger cull), rather than topics that significantly trend (such as anything to do with an international celebrity).

At the beginning of the Contagion project we accessed the API through the easy-to-use third party online system ScraperWiki. With that system it was easy for us to set up ‘scrapes’ for tweets and search and order the data we retrieved, download it and analyse it in various ways. However, earlier this year, ScraperWiki had their access to the Twitter API revoked. The tools for searching and collecting Twitter data were stopped and never reactivated. We have therefore had to seek alternative means of accessing data.

A political economy of ‘big data’


ESRC fund the Contagion project, which aims to investigate the various ways in which contagion is both studied and modelled within a cross-disciplinary setting.

Perhaps the more serious issue to which this situation of access to data alludes is the proprietary nature of access, and indeed the data itself. While (largely unlimited) use of Twitter as a service is free to any user that signs up, access to the data on the platform is not. Twitter is, of course, a business. Just like many other ‘social’ platforms the data Twitter receives from its users is valuable and can be packaged as a commodity. There is therefore a political economy to this kind of ‘big data’ and accordingly political economic issues for ‘big data’ research.

Access is a commodity

If a researcher relies on the free API access to a platform, with its attendant vagaries of how much data one can access and for how long, then that researcher is at the mercy of the changing limits and access policies of that API. On the other hand, if one pays for access to data, to avoid the uncertainty of access (how much data and for how long), then expect to pay handsomely. Both main ‘certified partners’ that sell access to Twitter data, Datasift and Gnip (recently bought by Twitter), render access a commodity – you not only pay for the data but also for the processing power/time it takes to extract it and the ‘enrichments’ they add, by resolving shortened URLs for you, attributing sentiment to a given tweet (positive, neutral, negative) and so on.

The costs charged by ‘resellers’ of data are not insignificant in terms of typical research budgets, with some charging through a subscription model – requiring customers to commit for a minimum of six months. Twitter themselves have advertised their own ‘data grant‘ scheme, which came into operation this year, and offered a limited number of opportunities to access data through a competitive application process, not dissimilar to funding grant calls. Of the 1300 applicants only six (or 0.5 per cent) were granted data (the numbers here come from this Fortune article).

Data are proprietary goods

The corollary to gaining access to proprietary data is that the license one agrees to abide by for access to Twitter data states that you cannot share that data. Therefore, investing in any form of data access (via the API or a ‘reseller’) through publicly funded research is problematic. For we are all asked to submit data attained in a publicly-funded project to data archives to allow other researchers to access and use it, which is prohibited by Twitter’s Terms of Service (1.4.1). As others have observed, it is possible to get around this by archiving only the unique ID code for each tweet and leaving it up to any future researchers to download the tweets using those IDs, thereby not breaching the Terms of Service. However, with the limits to the API outlined above, for a large corpus of tweets (> 1m, say) this might take a rather long time. A quick calculation suggests, using the status/lookup API, with one ‘access token’ it would take 13 hours 48 mins (at 100 tweets per request, 180 requests per 15 minutes = 72,000 tweets per hour) solid use of the API (without any hitches) to download one million tweets. Not impossible then, but perhaps significantly inconvenient – and reliant upon the system of unique IDs remaining the same for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, such restrictions may be suggested to run counter to the requirements set on research data gathered using UK research councils funds. The (UK) ESRC, who funded Contagion, have general principles in their Research Data Policy that suggest:

  • Publicly-funded research data are a public good, produced in the public interest.
  • Publicly-funded research data should be openly available to the maximum extent possible.

This asks difficult questions of us as researchers: Should we be using data sources (however potentially interesting/valuable) that restrict the capability of reproducing our research results? Should we be using public funds to pay for data that are restricted in such ways?

Not free, not easy

Some argue that conducting research using Twitter data has become something of a fad across academe, but in practice it proves neither to be easy (without non-trivial IT expertise and/or understanding of the policies of Twitter as a company), nor free: it requires investment in terms of hours of work (designing and/or operating systems to collect, store and analyse the data), it may require paid access (depending on what kind of sample of data you require), and it comes with usage restrictions.

This has led to the principal arenas of Twitter-based research occurring outside of the academy – a lot of data science, in fact, is conducted by commercial organisations. Whether or not this research is meaningful is open to interpretation. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, as others have suggested, an awful lot of (computationally-driven) social science is being done by ‘non-academic’ researchers, amongst whom there are significant numbers of people with advanced levels of relevant IT skills. However, I argue that one of the unfortunate effects of this shift in the locus of research is a lack of criticality.

One might convincingly argue, for example, that there is an awful lot of data visualisation for its own sake. It doesn’t necessarily argue anything, instead it describes an impressive amount of data in a visually appealing manner. Equally, there is tendency in some technically-led social research to assume that the context of data, or even the hypotheses one might pose and use that data to address, are secondary to its formatting or scale. For example, in a conversation with a sales person for a data provider I was advised that as a geographer I ought to study the picture sharing platform Instagram because that had the highest take-up of geo-located content. What that content represents, or what kinds of questions we can or might ask of it is therefore of secondary importance to the fact that there is geo-location metadata.

This is not to suggest that valuable ‘theory building’ research cannot be conducted through forms of data mining. We might not know the questions we can ask of the kinds (and scales) of data we are being faced with without performing exploratory analyses. Nevertheless, if we want to be surprised by the data (which may include concluding it is not particularly interesting for various reasons), as others have suggested, we surely need to implement critical forms of inquiry.

The point of this blog post is that to study social media data, and in particular Twitter data, is to concern oneself with emerging economies of data and their attendant politics. Rather than considering platforms like commercial social networking systems as easy and plentiful sources of research data, they require hard work: it is hard to gain access to that data (as non-technical and non-wealthy academic researchers); and: some hard critical epistemological reflection is required upon what can and cannot be asked and/or concluded given the specificities of each kind of dataset and data source we use. The means of access, the APIs and other elements necessary to access the data, are important interlocutors in the stories we tell with these data.

It remains possible to do particular kinds of research with the Twitter data one can access through the APIs, but we have to think pretty carefully about what kinds of questions we can and should ask of these data, and the system from which they are derived.