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Crowd-sourcing sex research

Speed read
  • New Kinsey Reporter app adds language capabilities to increase scientific reach.
  • Smartphones democratize access and increase the data needed for better interventions.
  • Politically-charged subject hampers funding, but smartphones bypass that hurdle by enabling computer models. 

Let’s talk about sex.

Before the digital age, collecting information about sexual practices and norms meant responses were limited to a narrow sample of the world’s population, typically of the relatively wealthy and Western persuasion. With the advent of smartphones, however, this dynamic is changing. People in developing nations who previously lacked access to computers or sex researchers now have a way to take part in the conversation.

The Kinsey Institute has always sought information about sex and has used, in addition to lab research, a combination of face-to-face and online surveys to gather data, says Julia Heiman, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. Next month, the Kinsey Institute will launch a new version of the Kinsey Reporter mobile phone app. Now featuring 25 languages, this edition should open doors to developing nations. The app is available on both Apple and Android mobile phones. <strong>Sex in 25 languages. </strong> The Kinsey Reporter app has expanded to include 25 languages, bringing access to sex scientists to more citizens of the world. Previously the domain of primarily western, wealthy subjects, sex research can now include input from areas previously overlooked. Courtesy Kinsey Institute, IU SOIC.

“The Kinsey Reporter allows users to play with the data and explore relationships among variables like sex, gender, desire, preferences, side effects of medications — especially when we have more data to do this with,” says Heiman. “With the app, we can explore what is impacting behaviors that could be then studied in a more controlled or randomly sampled methodology. Kinsey Reporter may be a first step to other science approaches to the topic of interest.”

The data sets generated by the three-year old Kinsey Reporter are still relatively modest. But as availability to people in developing nations increases, implementation of the research will increase as well.

“With domain-specific knowledge from Kinsey Reporter and general knowledge about how memes spread through social networks,” notes Clayton Davis of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research (CNetS) at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing (SOIC), “we can make models about how people talk to each other about sex, and how one might stage an intervention if, for instance, you want to reduce sexual violence on college campuses or other affected communities.”

In addition to their work on the Kinsey Reporter, CNetS researchers study the diffusion of online information. Their research is informed by a distributed database of public social media data that resides in a 212-core cluster with 480TB of storage recently built by CNetS. It uses customized indexes to store, retrieve, and aggregate billions of social media interactions. This cluster is one of the central pillars of the new IU Network Science Institute's infrastructure.

Intimate data

At present, sex remains a difficult research topic to fund, admits Fillippo Menczer, CNetS director. Faced with this reality, the Kinsey Reporter app is one innovative way to bypass this fiscal constriction and continue the important research. But to use this method of collection, the creators of the Kinsey Reporter cannot compromise the privacy and anonymity of app users. They have created a data collection tool that is secure enough to disallow people from using it for nefarious purposes — such as the blackmail at play under the current Ashley Madison scandal — while at the same time leaving the dataset completely open to allow for meaningful analyses.

<strong>Strange bedfellows?</strong> Data visualization of co-occurring topics extracted from the Kinsey Reporter app. Edges are weighted based on the likelihood of these two tags appearing in a report together. Courtesy Clayton Davis; Kinsey Institute; CNetS; IU SOIC.

“It’s a trade off that we are explicitly designing for,” says Davis. “The anonymity of the study hampers some types of analyses that one might like to do but at the same time, we feel like  anonymity is a critical feature when collecting very sensitive data — for instance, information about sexual harassment in some countries or sexual violence anywhere.”

Clayton is quick to emphasize the broader lesson in data privacy and anonymity. "Our project illustrates the spectrum of privacy and highlights a data point that didn’t really exist before. You’ve got platforms that are closed and not anonymous like Facebook, others that are more open and allow some level of anonymity like Twitter. Kinsey Reporter is at the extreme of the spectrum where data is completely open and completely anonymous."

Greater access to sex researchers makes a big difference in, for instance, studies about the effects of hormonal contraception in regions where these drugs were never tested. Likewise, being able to get more geographic data about sexual violence and about social norms around risky sexual behavior can help researchers create effective interventions to reduce harm.

In essence, the Kinsey Reporter app allows sex scientists and policymakers to develop new access opportunities for data input for people in poorer or more culturally restrictive nations. Going where researchers can’t, the Kinsey Reporter is exploring ways to help mitigate some of the risks associated with sex.

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