Accessing and Using Big Data to Advance Social Science Knowledge

The project will follow 'big data' from its public and private origins through open and closed pathways into the social sciences, and document and shape the ways they are being accessed and used to create new knowledge about the social world.


Dr Eric Meyer

Tel: +44 (0)1865 287218




The recent excitement about what is being called 'big data' represents an opportunity for the social sciences to advance the understanding of human behaviour using massive amounts of data. There are major implications for the social sciences: for example, the social sciences which have traditionally relied on understanding relatively small samples using tools such as surveys can now make use of real-time transactional data on the level of whole populations, enabling them to become much more powerful in answering certain types of questions.

While there is clear attention being paid to the potential of big data, the applications of big data in the social sciences have, thus far, not been well documented: we know very little of how big data is actually being used in the social sciences beyond scattered accounts of the promises of big data, and even less about how access to big social science data is provisioned. Now that social science uses of big data are appearing at an increasing pace, the time is ripe to study what is happening to big social data, where it is being used and, most importantly, how big data is being accessed and where it is travelling. The project will follow 'big data' from its public and private origins through open and closed pathways into the social sciences, and document and shape the ways it is being accessed and used to create new knowledge about the social world and the behavior of human beings.


The central issue of this research is to arrive at robust insights with practical implications about how big data about people and their social interactions is accessed, and how big data enables the discovery of new knowledge about society and behaviour: in short, what are the social and scientific implications of large-scale 'big data' as it becomes more widely available to social scientists in academia, public institutions, and the private sector? The project will rely on in-depth studies of exemplar cases to understand how social scientists in academia, industry, and government are accessing and using big data to answer old questions at larger scales as well as asking and answering new questions about society and human behavior. The main objectives of the project are to:

  • Undertake case studies of social science uses of big data with a focus on means and modes of access.

  • Support the development and documentation of new methodologies for working with big social science data, such as access, data management, analysis, and visualization techniques.

  • Facilitate engagement with social scientists working with big data through workshops and other events.

  • Organize a conference on big data in the social sciences.

  • Produce findings that report the project's evidence and make policy recommendations.


This project is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Project Lead





  • Schroeder, R. (2014) Big Data: Towards a More Scientific Social Science and Humanities. In Mark Graham and William H Dutton (eds) Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information are Changing our Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Conference papers

  • Meyer, E.T., Schroeder, R., and Taylor, L. (2013) Big Data in the Study of Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia: On the Uses and Disadvantages of Scientificity for Social Research. Paper presented at the proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 10-13 2013, New York, NY.
  • Meyer, E.T., Schroeder, R., and Taylor, L. (2013) The Boundaries of Big Data. Paper presented at SIG-SI Symposium, ASIST 2013, November 1-6 2013, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
  • Schroeder, R. and Cowls, J. (2014) Big Data, Ethics, and the Social Implications of Knowledge Production. Paper presented at Data Ethics Workshop, KDD@Bloomberg, August 24 2014, New York, NY.


  • Cowls, J. (2014) Mapping the UK Webspace: the topology of a national web domain. Presentation to 'Web Archiving and Archived Web — a new Research Method, a new Object of Study?', Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark, June 2014.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2012) Big Data. Invited talk at 'NCRM Knowledge Exchange Seminar: Quantitative Methods in Social Media Research', National Centre for Research Methods workshop series, Oxford, UK, September 2012.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2012) The Internet is Big Data: How internet research has changed our understanding of the world. Invited talk at 'Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford', University of Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Saïd Business School, Oxford, UK, November 2012.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Digital Transformations of Research. Invited talk to the School of Information Management, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, April 2013.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Digital Transformations of Research. Invited talk to the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås, Sweden, April 2013.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Digital Transformations of Research. Invited talk to the Technology and Society Division, Chalmers University, Sweden, April 2013.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Long Live the Data. Opening keynote address at TDWG Annual Conference, Florence, Italy, October 2013.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2013) The Big Data Rush: Beyond the Buzz. Closing keynote speech at Digital Practices, InVisible Communities Conference, Leeds, UK, September 2013.
  • Meyer, E.T. (2014) Big Data: The Practice and Potential. External Examiner's Special Lecture Series, MPhil in International Development, University of Oxford, February 2014.
  • Meyer, E.T. and Schroeder, R. (2013) Big Data and the Uses and Communications Research. Joint invited talk at the International Communication Association, London, UK, June 2013.
  • Schroeder, R. (2013) Big Data and the Uses and Disadvantages of Scientificity for Social Research. Invited talk at the Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex, UK, May 2013.
  • Schroeder, R. (2013) Big Data in the Social Sciences and Its Discontents. Invited talk at the American Association of Geographers Conference, Los Angeles, CA, April 2013.
  • Schroeder, R. (2013) The Data Scientist: On the Origin - and the Evolution - of a Species. Invited talk at the Digital Social Research conference, Oxford, UK, September 2013.
  • Schroeder, R. (2014) Big Data, Big Brother, and Social Science. University of Luxembourg, February 2014.




  • Causation, Correlation, and Big Data in Social Science Research

    Josh Cowls on 21 Dec 2015 21:50PM

    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 [...]

  • Big Data – What’s New(s)?

    Josh Cowls on 26 Jun 2015 11:19AM

    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 [...]

  • The MPs whose Wikipedia pages have been edited from inside Parliament

    Josh Cowls on 21 Apr 2015 20:26PM

    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 [...]

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

    Josh Cowls on 2 Feb 2015 22:17PM

    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 [...]

  • Big Data: the New Water or the New Oil?

    Josh Cowls on 18 Dec 2014 07:37AM

    In definitional terms, big data is, as we are repeatedly told, a matter of volume, velocity, variety and sometimes veracity. But perhaps as a result of a fifth v, the vagueness of this definition, those discussing the present and future impact of big data [...]

  • Big Data in the Humanities: lessons from papyrus and Instagram

    Josh Cowls on 27 Oct 2014 21:08PM

    I’m currently in Washington DC to attend the IEEE International Conference on Big Data. The first day is set aside for workshops, and I’ve just attended a really insightful one on ‘Big Humanities Data’. The diversity of work [...]

  • The Crowd in the Cloud? Three challenges for gauging public opinion online

    Josh Cowls on 26 Sep 2014 22:39PM

    Cowls, Josh (2014) The Crowd in the Cloud? Three challenges for gauging public opinion online. IPP2014: Crowdsourcing for Politics and Policy, September 2014, Oxford, UK. Much excitement surrounds the use of social sources of big data – harvested from [...]

  • Social media and public opinion: what’s new?

    Josh Cowls on 23 Jul 2014 16:28PM

    I’m currently writing up a paper for submission to the Internet, Politics and Policy 2014 conference to be held by the OII in September. My paper – which draws substantially on interviews conducted as part of the Sloan Foundation-funded [...]

  • Streisandfreude: how the right to be forgotten may become an excuse to be remembered

    Josh Cowls on 14 Jul 2014 15:42PM

    The past fortnight saw the first ripples of reaction to the European Court of Justice’s assertion of a citizen’s ‘right to be forgotten’ online. Following the court’s ruling, Google began the implementation of a process [...]

  • Big Data in Bellagio: who counts, what counts, and how do we count?

    Josh Cowls on 13 May 2014 10:13AM

    One of the early discussions emerging at our ‘Big Data for Social Change’ at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio surrounds how the act of capturing of big data impinges on our understanding of it. There are three strands in particular which [...]

  • Piecing Together the Value of Big Data

    Josh Cowls on 31 Mar 2014 13:37PM

    During the construction of a jigsaw or model, there is invariably a moment in which one’s perception shifts from the level of ‘parts’ to the level of ‘whole’ – when, as it were, the bigger picture becomes clear. [...]

  • Why social data isn’t always a reliable indicator

    Josh Cowls on 19 Feb 2014 16:11PM

    “What social data can tell you: pretty much everything” proclaimed Azeem Azhar, founder of PeerIndex, in a popular post on LinkedIn earlier this week. We can perhaps forgive Azhar the hyperbolic lead-in, but hisarticle as a whole indulges in [...]

  • “Twitter says…” – Can big social data tell us about public opinion?

    Josh Cowls on 28 Jan 2014 16:51PM

    “Like Noah’s ark, (there was) every kind of creature in every walk of life. They included a town wit, a grave citizen, a worthy lawyer, a worship justice, a reverend nonconformist, and a voluble sailor.” The above description comes from [...]

  • Cyber-revisionism: Parties’ Attitudes to Web Archiving Are a Worrying Sign for Digital Democracy

    Josh Cowls on 11 Dec 2013 09:53AM

    Following an earlier, somewhat rantier post on this blog when the news originally broke, I’ve written a more academically-oriented piece on British political parties’ cyber-revisionism with Mor Rubenstein, a current MSc student here at the [...]

  • Big Data’s People Problem

    Josh Cowls on 28 Nov 2013 10:32AM

    To Google Campus in east London to hear what a number of practitioners thought were the most controversial questions surrounding the use and abuse of big data. After a couple of lightning pitches from big data startups (if you dream of using augmented [...]

  • The Challenge of Big Data: A Day at the British Library

    Josh Cowls on 28 Oct 2013 16:05PM

    On Friday I attended the British Sociological Association’s Presidential Event at the British Library, titled ‘The Challenge of Big Data’. The venue couldn’t have been more symbolically appropriate: the British Library collection holds more than 150 [...]

  • Big Data and Public Policy Workshop

    Eric Meyer on 15 Sep 2013 12:41PM

    On 13 September 2013, I attended a great workshop at the Harvard Faculty Club organized by my colleagues Vicki Nash and Helen Margetts of the Oxford Internet Institute and the journal Policy and Internet on the topic of “Responsible Research Agendas for [...]

  • CFP: Small data in a Big Data world

    Eric Meyer on 25 Oct 2012 13:21PM

    The following call for papers comes in from my friend Lois Scheidt. They will be taking a critical look at big data, and what it means for the practice of research. CFP “Small Data” in a “Big Data” World, Panel at International Congress of Qualitative [...]

  • AoIR Presentation

    Eric Meyer on 25 Oct 2012 12:12PM

    The slides here were ones we presented about the end(s) of eresearch and the beginings of big data at the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Internet Research 13 ( meeting in Salford. The End(s) of e-Research from Eric Meyer [...]