By Abby Weingarten
In a mid-pandemic era—when teleconferences and other forms of remote exchanges are the new norms—New College’s data scientists are at the center of the movement.
Due to a recent grant from New College Foundation, allowing the data science graduate program to partner with Riff Analytics (a Boston, Massachusetts-based tech company), New College faculty and students are researching ways to fundamentally improve virtual communication. Their findings could be instrumental in determining how people interact in an evolving, more socially-distanced world.
“Riff is a small company that started from the research that was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. They analyze group and team communications, and they try to find signals that they think are relevant for predicting group performance,” said Burçin Bozkaya, Ph.D., New College’s professor of data science and the director of the data science graduate program. “For teams to be productive or reach their deliverables, they have to communicate effectively. This company is taking it to the digital communication world.”
In essence, Riff Analytics (a 2017-founded startup run by CEO Beth Porter) uses vocal data to model human interactions in video meetings and text chats, showing how individuals and teams interact when they collaborate. Riff metrics then give insights on engagement, dominance, influence, interruption and flow. Over time, people become more aware of their impact on others in team settings, and they use Riff feedback to change their behaviors and become more effective contributors. Porter was thrilled to find a team at New College to help enhance Riff’s model.
“New College is like this little hidden gem in the university system. It’s not a brand name like MIT or Harvard, but it’s full of such high-quality, incredibly intelligent people. Finding that pocket of excellence is just wonderful,” said Porter, who met Bozkaya while the two were both fellows in the MIT Media Lab. “At Riff, we engage in our own research, and we want to talk to (and work with) people who we think can add value to our grants.”
Riff has its own proprietary video and text-based chat platforms (teaching and learning programs), and the company is hoping to become a leading fixture in the industry. Porter has been involved in the study and practice of remote team management for two decades and, when the pandemic came into the picture, her research became more relevant than ever.
She knew Bozkaya would be a stellar collaborator, and he enlisted two of his students for the research: first-year Andrew Reilly (also a psychology/sociology student) and second-year Austin Anderson (who has done extensive work with sound data and voice analysis). Their team research began on April 22 and will continue for four months.
“We want a smart, thoughtful group of people to work with so that we have a good, robust, research-backed, sound set of principles going into our product design,” Porter said. “Andrew has a background in sociology/psychology and Austin has a background in voice analysis, which is exactly what we do. Those people are really hard to find.”
Riff and New College will collaborate in real time, conducting weekly check-ins as the research progresses.
“If we find something that works in the experimental setting, Riff will take that and incorporate it into their platform and product,” Bozkaya said. “We’ll develop some new approaches in trying to understand the different dynamics of human behavior in group conversations (such as online classrooms) and hopefully it will have an impact. If this is becoming more the norm, I think there have to be studies developed like this one.”
The New College Foundation is proud to provide the funding for this initiative.
“I’m excited to see our data science program give our students opportunities in real-life projects which are on the forefront of the field,” said MaryAnne Young, vice president of advancement and executive director for the Foundation. “The Riff Analytics gift makes possible the involvement of New College students in the cutting-edge telecommunication sphere. The Foundation is delighted to be involved in making such opportunities available.”
For more information on New College’s data science program, visit ncf.edu/academics/graduate-program.
For more information on Riff Analytics, visit riffanalytics.ai.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.