Graduating Student Spotlight: Billy Spann

Billy Spann

Billy Spann will graduate May 14 with a Ph.D. in Computer and Information Science and an impressive research resume from his time as a researcher with the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies at UA Little Rock.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in the Little Rock area and went to K-12 schools here. My wife, Christy, and I have three boys, Josh, Sammy, and John. I’ve earned several advanced degrees while working full time and raising a family. I’ve been somewhat of a non-traditional student who has been fortunate enough to be able to work through each of my degrees.

I’ve also been a lifelong learner, where I have always been a student of my industry and also a student of whatever discipline I have been in at that time. On April 2, 2022, I finally achieved one of the highest goals I set for myself by successfully completing my Ph.D. in Computer and Information Science.

What do you do for a living?

My work experience includes over 20 years in the wireless technology industry where I’ve been part of the research, design, and optimization of wireless networks. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in new technology research and planning as the industry has evolved from 3G to 4G and now 5G.

I began my career at Alltel Communications, which became Verizon Wireless, and am now employed at Windstream. At Windstream, my team is complementing our next generation fiber-to-the-home buildout strategy by building high performing wireless networks to reach unserved and underserved people in rural areas that don’t have access to high-speed internet.

Your educational background is impressive. Please tell us about that.

I have a degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I also have two master’s degrees from UA Little Rock. One is in business administration (M.B.A), and the other is in computer and information science. I recently defended my doctoral dissertation and will graduate with my Ph.D. in Computer and Information Science on May 14.

Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. at UA Little Rock?

As I mentioned earlier, I have always enjoyed learning and part of my career path has involved the research and deployment of new technologies. I got my MBA when my career was a little more business focused and involved strategic planning and looking at merger and acquisition opportunities.

As my career progressed with Verizon, I transitioned back into a more technical role and we started looking at how we could use big data solutions with AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) to perform tasks done by humans, such as network monitoring and decision making.

UA Little Rock was local and the Computer Science department has produced some really great programs and research such as the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS). After doing some research, I knew UA Little Rock’s program competed with other top universities, so I knew it would be a good fit for my Ph.D.

Who were some of your mentors?

Dr. Nitin Agarwal is my advisor and provided major guidance for my research. He leads the COSMOS research center, which stands for Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies. I am one of the “Cosmographers” in this program. Dr. Agarwal leads our group as we develop big data analytical tools to understand online behavior such as information operations, how radical and extremist groups coordinate online, propaganda dissemination, misinformation, fake news, influence operations and other interesting projects. Our research sheds light on these types of digital and cyber behaviors.

My dad also influenced me by always pushing me to do my best.

Tell us about your dissertation?

My research looks at how people use social media to organize and coordinate online collective action for events like protests, demonstrations or social movements. Protests, social justice movements, and other types of information operations (e.g., misinformation, disinformation campaigns) have become pretty popular the last several years due to the ease of using social media to instantly capture and broadcast perceived injustices, or to engage in political discourse.

My dissertation provides a computational framework to measure the psychological and social processes that serve as catalysts for these types of events. The techniques from my work provides a new computational approach to measuring these psycho-social behaviors, and ultimately identifies features for predictive modeling of when a protest or demonstration is emerging. Understanding the root behaviors of protest participants will help policymakers develop appropriate interventions or countermeasures if needed. With all of the online deviant behavior, platform manipulation, and influence operations going on discreetly (or sometimes not so discreetly) it’s a really interesting interdisciplinary research area that bridges the social sciences with computer science, into a field known as computational social science.

I’m excited to see how our computer science models can help solve some of the most pressing issues on social media. Another exciting aspect of my research is that, because it’s highly interdisciplinary, there is a lot of knowledge transfer between social networks and other information networks like wireless networks (which is my industry background), so a lot of the same advanced techniques can be used.

What is your fondest memory?

I was fortunate enough to work with several accomplished teams to publish 16 publications (two are forthcoming). However, getting my first primary authored paper published gave me a sense of pride. The paper shows how users in social networks tend to adopt information campaigns similar to how people adopt new technologies.

For example, you have people that are early adopters of new technologies like the latest iPhone, and similarly, there are initiators and amplifiers of new social media campaigns. The stages of adoption are part of a well known theory known as the Diffusion of Innovations. My work takes inspiration from this theory, and I applied new stages of adoption for the information environment.

What do you think about Elon Musk buying Twitter?

I think his goal of having transparency is good since everything we do online is publicly available. He’ll likely introduce innovative ideas and be less restrictive, while making the platform more open-sourced. He’s mentioned he hopes the platform will become less polarized, which would provide for some interesting behavior analysis by our COSMOS group. It will be interesting to see what happens.

How are you going to celebrate your graduation?

We’ll probably keep it simple and go out for a nice dinner with the family. My middle son is also graduating high school in a few weeks, so we might have a combined celebration, but I don’t want to take away from his big accomplishment during this time too. It will be exciting for everyone!

This story was compiled by Toni Boyer.

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