Since October 2009 the e‑Social Science programme has been co-ordinated by the National Strategic Director for e‑Social Science and the directorate team, which was put in place to develop a coherent inter-agency approach to maximise the uptake, use and impact of new digital technologies across the social science community. Building on the earlier work of the National Centre for e‑Social Science, the team has successfully created a set of community projects, activities and events, under the banner of Digital Social Research (DSR).
The Digital Social Research programme currently comprises two projects (“nodes”) which are developing and exploiting e‑Science technologies, methodologies and infrastructure in the context of substantive social and economic research problems, and advancing our understanding of the sociology of research technologies. The project is currently funding an additional three “demonstrator” projects who are using digital tools techniques and practices to raise awareness of new digital research tools and methods, and establish translatable practice, and three “sustainability” projects whose purpose is to enhance the sustainability of proven software, services and practices, so that they may further support economic and social science research using digital methods. In addition to these two small grants, the DSR programme is funding over 20 small, community-based projects to support ideas exchanges, training in digital social research tools and methods, outreach events and partnerships.
Consultation with members of the National Expert Panel, our International Advisors and the node teams has identified three focus areas for immediate impact and to support important future capability: Engaging with Data; Engaging with Social Spaces (online digital practice); and, linking these together, Engaging with Communities:
- Engaging with Data – taking advantage of computational capacity of new e- infrastructure investment, qualitative issues with big data, data resource discovery, working with data intermediaries, ethical issues around automation and disclosure, data use agreements.
- Engaging with Social Spaces – Digital practice using social media tools and data, new forms of scholarly communication, web observatories.
- Engaging with Communities – Training for new and experiences researchers, responsible innovation and ethics, human infrastructure, cross-council DTC engagement, outreach activities.
The research landscape of Digital Social Research is perpetually in flux; Tennyson’s arch through which the margins of the untraveled world fade forever and forever as we move. Social media applications that did not exist a few short years ago now dominate research in parts of the social sciences. New relationships between digital and physical realms are being formed which require us to approach materiality in new ways. And as the technology rapidly develops, researchers must adapt methods and practices to match the pace of change. ‘Born-digital’ students begin their research careers with knowledge of technologies unmatched by their supervisors, their everyday environment pervaded by a choice of technologies. And more and more questions are being asked within academia, the government, the media, and society in general about what this rapid pace means for our understanding of personal privacy, ethics, and the changing values of technology to different communities.
As the strands of the World Wide Web draw more tightly together and the spaces shrink between people, social media, applications and hardware, a national coordinating body for Digital Social Research is vital to ensure a community of practitioners working across multiple disciplines and institutions remain engaged with, and ahead of, the changing digital environment whilst remaining sensitive to the implications of this rapid change.
To ensure that that the technological advances are aligned to, and address the disciplinary concerns in the social sciences, as well as the strategic priorities of the ESRC, the DSR Directorate presents a vision for e-Social Science which addresses needs of our stakeholder communities as well as establishing resources which benefit the whole of the social science community.
The strategic vision of Digital Social Research which defined the first stage of the programme, “Future world-class social research which harnesses advances in digital technology and practice for maximum impact”, will continue to be the driving force behind future activities. The vision is one where technology continues to enhance the fundamental quantitative and qualitative methods for social science research and underlies transformation in practice
Increasing change in social science research capability, practice, tools and resources is anticipated over the next year and beyond. Three broad areas have emerged from meeting with the Digital Social Research community where additional resources would be of the most benefit. The three particular areas which have emerged through discussion with the DSR community are:
- Engaging with Data.
- Engaging with Social Spaces (online digital practice).
- Engaging with Communities.
Each of these three dimensions will be discussed in detail below with specifics regarding their context within the ESRC strategic priorities, their potential impact, and specific activities relating to each. Though discussed separately, we believe that all three of these dimensions are inter-dependent, feeding back into one another in a virtuous cycle that increases the impact of individual activities. The strategic priorities identified by ESRC for the years to 2015 are heavily dependent in many ways on the use of technology and also an understanding of how technology interfaces with society.
I. Engaging with Data
Exploiting computational opportunities for transformative research. Typically researchers in the digital social research community are scaling problem size to the immediately available computing resources, rather than taking advantages of the new capabilities that are available e.g. through government e-Infrastructure investment and Cloud computing. However, the new problems and challenges being tackled (exemplified by “big data”) are more demanding computationally (e.g. increasingly we are working with data flows as well as datasets) and triaging the problem into desktop-sized chunks can cause results to be missed. We are exploring this in a forthcoming DSR workshop but it needs to be an ongoing initiative.
Intermediaries for new forms of data. Currently researchers are obtaining data from companies (e.g. retail) through bilateral agreements, and there are signs of monetization of these data sources. The availability of new forms of data though the UKDS or other intermediaries would facilitate its use by the social science community, also allowing due attention to disclosure risk. Coupled with this we certainly need research on automation of assessment of disclosure risk. As well as centralized data resources, we are seeing community creation of new data repositories, and the DSR programme has engaged with coordination of this decentralized approach through chairing the World Wide Web Consortium’s “Web Observatories” community group.
Web Science. Analysis of the co-evolving Web as a socio-technical system has established itself as a new discipline with courses, summer schools, a DTC (Digital Economies) and an annual conference. In a sense this is a beacon of digital social research practice due to its close computer and social science partnership and successful embedding as a new discipline. However there (a) hasn’t been a focused funding call in this area in order to generate research projects, and (b) the methods established in Web Science could be fruitfully communicated more broadly in training and capacity building.
Qualitative considerations in Big Data. The infrastructure needed to analyze the new forms of data, and big data, does not only encapsulate the machines needed to crunch the numbers. Rather, the human infrastructure underpinning all of the computational innovations provided by big data/new data is of continuing vital importance. The location of projects can influence the information infrastructure needed to address research questions, thus more ethnographic and qualitative studies will be necessary to contextualize computation within communities and to understand how to make data mobile. The evolution of the socio-technical information infrastructure will also necessitate addressing the complex web of ethical issues surrounding the use of personal data.
II. Engaging with Social Spaces (online digital practice)
Social Media as a research tool. Through social media a researcher can access information and engage rapidly with numbers of subjects with unprecedented ease – for example, online surveys, or a psychology application on Facebook. Within the DSR programme this has been exemplified by the online behavioral intervention project LifeGuide and its successor Ubhave, which demonstrates also the ability to move social science onto everyday devices.
Practice is emerging and the community is gaining a better understanding of trust and quality of studies conducted in this way. This is clearly a method for the future.
Twitter Analytics. In fact an exemplar of social media analysis, there are twitter analytics presentations in every workshop and conference (one might say it is trending!) but best practice is yet to be established and the studies are not well calibrated against other methods. For all its problems, the energy and creativity that is being generated by the availability of twitter data has made this a significant driver in the embrace of new forms of data. There is a demand for proper studies to establish and calibrate twitter analysis methods, probably under the more inclusive banner of social media analysis.
New forms of publication. Our national experts meeting observed that papers will be increasingly published with digital enhancements, and meanwhile the e-Stat node has produced support for executable documents which contain statistical scripts. Social media also has an increasing role in scholarly communication. This is against a backdrop of debate about the Future of Research Communication (see http://force11.org/) and about reproducible research. The ESRC community stands to benefit from the new techniques that are being established, especially with respect to data analysis. The evolution of digital scholarship is of course also a subject of study.
III. Engaging with Communities
Networking and Outreach. Linking the two areas above is a broad community engagement piece which brings together all the above activities into alignment with the ESRC Strategic priorities. Coordination in the Digital Social Research community has an important and continuing role to play in order to increase the impact in the field significantly by acting as a resource discovery, training, and observational organisation; connecting the community and reaching out to those who may be doing significant work in digital social science within different discipline domains.
Training. Training for researchers, old and new alike, in the methods and tools of e-Social Science, ensuring that they have the skills necessary not only to harness the power of digital technologies, but also understand the relationship between digital technologies and the fundamental research methods of social science. Training in ethics and responsible innovation is as important as training in statistical packages or Twitter Analytics because the implications of the new kinds of research enabled by technology need to be understood and articulated – the emphasis not solely on ethical practice but on the purpose and product of research. We also note that technology enhanced learning is a topic that should fall under Digital Social Research and although we have links with the Technology Enhanced Learning programme there is further potential.
Technology and Data Watch. The DSR strategy anticipated a “technology watch” function but this has clearly evolved into a need to observe data and indeed the emergence of new methods. This is not so much about what new technologies are emerging but rather about what technologies are being harnessed and how, and also due attention to transformative potential as well as incremental evolution. We believe this requires a proactive activity with a focus on the transformative, exemplified by our forthcoming workshop which is designed to stand as the first in a series. Similarly our Web Observatory activity could be regarded as the inauguration of a data watch programme.
Cross-disciplinary Opportunities. The DSR programme sits alongside emerging capabilities and practice in digital science and digital humanities. For example “big data” is being tackled across most of the research ecosystem, and geospatial data is exploited across multiple communities, Indeed the disciplinary divides are blurred and sometimes accidents of institutional history, and some areas (like health informatics) clearly have a footprint in multiple communities and agencies. Not only does Digital Social Research have much to offer – especially perhaps in the mature approach to data discovery, re-use and linkage – but much to gain. At this time the Digital Economies programme is providing an important catalyst in cross-disciplinary working but plans need to be made to realise the opportunities here in the future.
The three dimensions of e-Social Science mentioned above will also be supported by a number of RCUK and EU projects which promote similar agendas. We hope that the strategic engagement with these programmes will be the key to embedding e-Social Science tools and methods deeper within the community as well as maintaining a valuable cross-discipline network. Projects currently networking with DSR:
FRRIICT – EPSRC Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT
SOCIAM – EPSRC Social Machines
NCRM – ESRC National Centre for Research Methods
DE – RCUK Digital Economy