Science XXL: digital data and social science

I attended last week (unfortunately only part of) an interesting workshop on the effects of today’s abundance and diversity of digital data on social science practices, aptly called “Science XXL“. A variety of topics were discussed and different research experiences were shared, but I’ll just summarize here a few lessons learned that I find interesting.

  • Digital data are archive data. Data retrieved automatically from the digital traces of individual actions, such as those mined from the APIs of platforms such as Twitter, are unlike survey data in that they were not originally recorded for research purposes. The researcher must select relevant records on the basis of some understanding of the conditions under which these data were produced. Perhaps ironically, digital data share these characteristic with data from historical or literary archives.
  • Digital data are not necessarily “big”, in the sense that their volume is often small (at least in social science research so far!), even though they may share other characteristics of big data such as velocity (being generated on the fly as people use digital platforms) or variety (being little or not structured).
  • Digital data can help fill gaps in survey data, for example when survey sampling is not statistically representative: detail and volume can provide extra information that supports general conclusions.
  • Non-clean data, outliers and aberrant observations may be very informative, revealing details that would escape attention if researchers focused only on the average or center of the distribution (the normal law cherished in classical statistical approaches). Special cases are no longer a prerogative of qualitative research.
  • Data analysis is a key ingredient of “computational social science” a field that is growing in importance after an initial phase in which it was largely confined to agent-based simulation and complexity theory.
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