SSDA-related research has already had an impact across the social sciences. Just to name a few examples from 2014, the Journal of Economic Perspectives ran a special issue on Data Analytics. The journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences’ first issue in 2014 included a symposium on Social Science Data Analytics and Collective Behavior. The leading Political Science Methodology journal, “Political Analysis”, included two articles on Social Science Data Analytic approaches in its Spring 2014 issue. The Spring 2014 issue of the Journal of Quantitative Criminology included two SSDA articles. The international relations journal, the Journal of Peace Research, included an article on Social Science Data Analytics in its 2014 50th anniversary issue. The first issue of 2014 of the Journal of Organizational Design was a Special Issue dedicated to “Big Data and Organizational Design”. In addition, multi-million dollar grants in the social, behavioral and economic sciences have been awarded to SSDA projects at MSU and around the country from the NSF, DoD funding through the Minerva initiative, DARPA, the Office of Naval Research, as well as other funding bodies.
SSDA helps to connect researchers in social scince to the impressive computational infrastructure that MSU supports. For example, the library has access to the Hathitrust Corpora which includes machine readable text from the Google Books project that is of petabyte scale, and growing. This corpora is being used by faculty and graduate students in SSDA to investigate numerous social science questions, as they include hundreds of years of government documents including the Congressional Record and its progenitors. Using the significant resources at the High Performance Computer Center, the relevant texts are being parsed with natural language processing tools that are being innovated in the College of Engineering, and then the evolution of the underlying topics, positions, and attention in the texts can be analyzed with algorithms being developed and used in the College of Social Science, as well as in other units, to answer fundamental social science questions. Other examples of projects with similar workflows include the analysis of rich fMRI data, geographic and climate information, and large-scale health databases, web-scraped information, social network analysis, campaign finance records, and many others.
Across these exciting SSDA topics, it is apparent both that there are opportunities to improve social science research by more thoroughly utilizing the significant infrastructure the University community already provides (eg HPCC and iCER) and that there are several gaps in expertise that are common across research teams. For example, faculty members working on these topics across the college have articulated a common need for social scientists trained in applying Bayesian computation, machine learning approaches to prediction and model criticism to social science, causal inference for experiments and observational data, and interactive data visualization, areas where the college is lacking in expertise currently. The initiative does not aim to duplicate any of the existing strengths at MSU, but to extend them into new areas, while simultaneously connecting scholars around the college and university to effectively collaborate and produce high impact research.
The initiative has organized its efforts into three specific investments that are necessary to move MSU forward to be a leader in SSDA training and research. The first investment is in personnel that will both organize and add to existing University strengths. We seek individuals that can work in and lead research teams comprised of both social scientstis and computer scientists, for example. The second investment is a continuing series of speakers, workshops and incentives to help faculty and graduate students accelerate work on SSDA projects. Our list of recent workshops and speakers can be found on ssda.msu.edu and include command line programming, git, python, and R. The third set of investments are in curricular developments that culminate in an undergraduate minor in SSDA and a graduate certificate program that will improve the tools training to our students. Together these steps have the potential to enhance undergraduate and graduate education, attract external funding to MSU and most importantly solve social science puzzles today and the in future. They will allow the college and university to meet the goals of the SSDA initiative, to enable and inspire breakthroughs in social science research.