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.