OtaSizzle - Ubiquitous Social Media Research Environment

OtaSizzle is a new mobile social media test environment project founded in Otaniemi, Espoo (home of Helsinki University of Technology TKK). OtaSizzle will include an open experimentation environment for testing mobile social media services. The purpose is to create prototype mobile social media service platforms and study them with extensive field tests, coupled with quantitative measurements and qualitative analysis.

The aim is to build a living lab environment of thousands of users in Otaniemi, with extensions in greater Helsinki. The users will be able to try out and develop own new social media services. The Otasizzle environment is also open to different research institutes and firms that want to develop and test their services. The OtaSizzle consortium is coordinated by Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT. One target is also to create a "packaged" experimentation environment, "SizzleLab" concept, which can also be extended elsewhere.

The first service created is called Ossi, which is targeted to students of TKK. The students will get free mobile broadband service to connect and contact each other. The purpose is to study what kind of ways of keeping in contact the students will favor. (See also video (in Finnish) describing the new service.)

The OtaSizzle project is part of TKK's MIDE (Multidisciplinary Institute of Digitalisation and Energy) program, which purpose is bringing together the expertise of various fields of engineering to generate new thinking in all fields of technology. Apparently different corporations and associations fund MIDE with over 20M euros.

The reasoning behind the new initiative is that social media services on mobile phones have the potential to become as popular as text messages if designed and implemented correctly. Thus prolonged empirical tests with large user bases are necessary according to the researchers.

I certainly agree research's needed in the area, and it all sounds quite good (not least for the participating students who get the free mobile broadband). But I wonder if there's really a need for a new separate test environment? There are already quite a big bunch of real mobile social networks (e.g. mig33, Zyb and countless others), which could be researched as well. You may be able to get more quantitative data from the test environment easier, but how real will that be? Will users use the service actively so that you can draw generalizations out of it? Considering at least the first users will be entirely students of technology, I'd expect the results to be "slightly skewed" compared to the population as a whole. Also I'd imagine the students would rather like to use a service which their outside friends can log into as well (then again the joke goes the technology students aren't really in contact with the outside world...).
If the service platform enables the normal users do quick mockups and mashups using some simple tools, then there might be some really good value in there. I'd love to get some additional insight on this.

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