Faces of UMSI: Danaja Maldeniya


PhD student Danaja Maldeniya came to UMSI to ask the interesting questions about social network dynamics and cities.

Math was Danaja’s first love. This love grew into a focus on computer science. “The computer science domain is where I fit in because I could essentially create whole worlds inside a computer,” Danaja said.

After graduating from the University of Moratuwa with a BS in Computer Science & Engineering, Danaja worked as a Software Engineer for CodeGen International, a company that creates software for the travel industry. From there, he made the switch to research, and worked for LIRNEasia, a think tank in Colombo, Sri Lanka. 

At LIRNEasia Danaja used Call Detail Records data, or logs about who people call, when they call them, and where they are, to discover the relationship between the geographic communities of people who call each other and formal boundaries. He also used this data to ask questions about traffic and population density across time and space. This research introduced Danaja to computational social sciences.

Danaja’s work at LIRNEasia sparked his interest in working on problems that had a direct human impact. This interest led Danaja to information science.

Danaja decided to get his PhD in the United States, where he felt he could take advantage of more research opportunities than were available to him in his home country of Sri Lanka.

A UMSI Coursera course introduced Danaja to the University of Michigan School of Information, and ultimately led to him choosing to come to school here. “[The course] got me interested in UMSI as a place,” Danaja said. He looked more into the School and found that there were many people at UMSI working on network analysis, the topic he wanted to study.

Danaja moved to Michigan with his wife, Nirmala. In Sri Lanka, she was a financial analyst. Now, she reviews books online. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it emotionally without her,” Danaja said. “She’s been very supportive.”

At UMSI, Danaja researches how people respond to natural disasters. He uses a massive set of tweets, all sent from the location of natural disasters, to identify the sentiments of survivors during the aftermath.

About one week after the disaster people seem to have bounced back or recovered from the immediate impact. Danaja and his team think that this is because communities come together at times like these. Communities also receive external assistance in the form of relief from the government or relief organizations. When this initial honeymoon period, which lasts may be two weeks and dies down around the same time as media attention dies down, the language people use on Twitter suggests a resurgence of strife.

Danaja’s research makes a case for focusing on the long-term when it comes to disaster relief. “You need to pay attention, beyond fixing up the houses, to ensure that disaster survivors have the psychological support they need,” Danaja said.

Though Danaja did not anticipate studying natural disasters at UMSI, he has a personal stake in the topic. In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami changed the landscape of life in Sri Lanka, Danaja’s home country. “Natural disasters were really salient in my mind,“ Danaja said.

Danaja also researches how people collaborate to achieve a common goal online. For example, he’s looking into how Wikipedia editors behave when a conflict arises. Danaja examines the protocols Wikipedia provides and the “talk pages” behind the articles, pages where editors have the opportunity to discuss the reasons for their edits. When editors use the talk pages, they are cooperating, even if they disagree with other editors, because they are explaining themselves and fostering collaboration.

Danaja uses Wikipedia to see if the cooperative model that Wikipedia suggests improves the quality of an article. “Primarily, I think of my research as enabling people to more successfully collaborate,” Danaja said. 

When he’s not researching, Danaja likes to read both  fiction and nonfiction, and to pick up trivia. Learning about a variety of topics helps Danaja come up with his best ideas.