Causation, Correlation, and Big Data in Social Science Research

Cowls, Josh and Schroeder, Ralph (2015) Causation, Correlation, and Big Data in Social Science Research. Policy & Internet 7 (4), 447-472.

The emergence of big data offers not only a potential boon for social scientific inquiry, but also raises distinct epistemological issues for this new area of research. Drawing on interviews conducted with researchers at the forefront of big data research, we offer insight into questions of causal versus correlational research, the use of inductive methods, and the utility of theory in the big data age. While our interviewees acknowledge challenges posed by the emergence of big data approaches, they reassert the importance of fundamental tenets of social science research such as establishing causality and drawing on existing theory. They also discussed more pragmatic issues, such as collaboration between researchers from different fields, and the utility of mixed methods. We conclude by putting the themes emerging from our interviews into the broader context of the role of data in social scientific inquiry, and draw lessons about the future role of big data in research.

What’s at the end of Facebook’s rainbow?

(c) Philippa Willitts on Flickr
(c) Philippa Willitts on Flickr

In a talk I gave at the Data Power conference in Sheffield a couple of weeks ago, I posed the following thought experiment: what if Mark Zuckerberg woke up feeling like Rupert Murdoch? For decades it’s been accepted – if seldom celebrated – that Murdoch’s red-tops command serious influence over the British electorate. Not for nothing, then, is it said that ‘it was the Sun wot won it‘ for John Major’s Conservatives in 1992; similar arguments could be made for each general election since, not least the most recent one. Continue reading “What’s at the end of Facebook’s rainbow?”

Big Data – What’s New(s)?

The following is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave at the Data Power conference in Sheffield this week, presenting work by myself and Ralph Schroeder.

The question of what drives news coverage far pre-dates the Internet and the rise of social media, and over the decades – or indeed the centuries – of mass media, myriad explanations have been offered in answer. Continue reading “Big Data – What’s New(s)?”

The MPs whose Wikipedia pages have been edited from inside Parliament

Grant Shapps is in the headlines after being accused of self-serving edits made to his own entry on Wikipedia, as well as unflattering changes made to rivals’ pages. But he may not be the only politician giving himself a virtual facelift. Analysis of the Twitter account @parliamentedits, which tracks edits to Wikipedia made from inside the Houses of Parliament, shows other attempts to edit the online encyclopedia, many of them controversial.
Continue reading “The MPs whose Wikipedia pages have been edited from inside Parliament”

The Ethics of Given-off versus Captured Data in Large-scale Social Research

Cowls, Josh and Schroeder, Ralph (2015) The Ethics of Given-off versus Captured Data in Digital Social Research. Workshop on Ethics for Studying Sociotechnical Systems in a Big Data World, CSCW 2015, March 2015, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

This paper proposes new terminology to enhance understanding of how big data can be used for research, in both commercial and academic contexts. We distinguish between data as given-off and data as captured, and draw on insights from interviews conducted with researchers using such data to elaborate on this distinction. We conclude with a series of recommendations for research design and conduct, based on this re-conceptualization of ‘data’ and ‘capta’.

Ad-hoc encounters with big data: Engaging citizens in conversations around tabletops

Fjeld, Morten, Woźniak, Paweł, Cowls, Josh and Nardi, Bonnie (2015). Ad-hoc encounters with big data: Engaging citizens in conversations around tabletops. First Monday 20 (2).

The increasing abundance of data creates new opportunities for communities of interest and communities of practice. We believe that interactive tabletops will allow users to explore data in familiar places such as living rooms, cafés, and public spaces. We propose informal, mobile possibilities for future generations of flexible and portable tabletops. In this paper, we build upon current advances in sensing and in organic user interfaces to propose how tabletops in the future could encourage collaboration and engage users in socially relevant data-oriented activities. Our work focuses on the socio-technical challenges of future democratic deliberation. As part of our vision, we suggest switching from fixed to mobile tabletops and provide two examples of hypothetical interface types: TableTiles and Moldable Displays. We consider how tabletops could foster future civic communities, expanding modes of participation originating in the Greek Agora and in European notions of cafés as locales of political deliberation.