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Sociology on the Internet

On 8th — 11th June the International Conference on Computational Social Science, organised by the University of Aalto took place in Helsinki, attended by many of the leading lights in this new area of academic research where the meeting between sociology and computer science has the potential to design better societies.

On 8th — 11th June the International Conference on Computational Social Science, organised by the University of Aalto took place in Helsinki, attended by many of the leading lights in this new area of academic research where the meeting between sociology and computer science has the potential to design better societies.

In computational social science, researchers use computer technology to study social systems and changes on the basis of vast amounts of data, collected through data mining, or creating mass scale experiments. It brings together sociologists, economists, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists and computer programmers.

As the first of its kind, the conference attracted a large number of international stars in the field of contemporary digital society research.

Six colleagues from HSE St Petersburg presented their research. Olessia and Sergei Koltsov from the Internet Studies Lab (LINIS) gave a paper in the section on contemporary methods of computer analysis of texts, while Daniel Alexandrov, Vadim Voskresensky, Alexei Gorgadze and Ilya Musabirov (Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science) presented two pieces of analysis about groups on the Russian social networking site VKontakte at a poster session. 

Their presentations went down well with the audience, and Alexandrov and Gorgadze’s research on social network relationships among ethnic groups on VKontatkte was mentioned by Andreas Flakh (Groningen) in his plenary speech on polarisation in social networks. It’s important to point out that two participants and co-authors of the research were HSE students - Alexei is a first year Master’s student and Vadim is a fourth year sociology undergraduate. 

Two participants and co-authors of the research were HSE students

Daniil Alexandrov, Deputy Director and Dean of the School of Social and Human Sciences said, ‘We know how hard it is to predict the weather and the vast amount of data we have to process constantly in order to do so. Social sciences are currently undergoing revolutionary changes similar to those meteorology and climatology experienced a while ago and biology and genetics have just gone through. For some time we have had algorithmic biology, and now we’ve got algorithmic economics. The inhabitants of Earth leave numerous digital trails, their movements are tracked by mobile network control towers and by flows of Twitter messages. Searches on the internet for medicines or the nearest chemist leave traces on search engines. Computational social science will soon be playing a leading role in analysis of the real economy and socio-political processes. You only have to see the stream of articles on it in Science and Nature and the level of interest they arouse. We heard editors of journals talking about the field’s bright future at the conference.’

‘We were extremely lucky to have been accepted to this conference, said Sergei Koltsov, deputy director of  LINIS. ‘We were there with such stars as Duncan Watts (Microsoft Research), Lada Adamic (Facebook), Jure Lescovec (Stanford), Laszlo Barabasi (Northeastern university), Nicholas Christakis (Yale), Robin Dunbar (Oxford) and many others. These scholars are known far beyond the academic community. It was an honor for us to present a paper at such a gathering.’

We still has to learn to apply sophisticated mathematical models to real-life social tasks and to real social data which are often incomplete

Computational social science still has a long way to go to design better societies, or even their separate sub-systems, thinks Sergei Koltsov. We still has to learn to apply sophisticated mathematical models to real-life social tasks and to real social data which are often incomplete , noisy and present difficulties for defining ground truth. One of such problem that Sergei investigates is related to LDA, a popular algorithm for automated extraction of topics from large text collections. In principle, it can be a powerful tool for social scientists by providing them with a quick way to grasp the topical structure of millions of blogs, newspaper articles, medical records or other meaningful texts. But there’s a hitch: LDA gives you completely different results every time you run it on the same data. That is, you cannot say anything reliable on their topical composition. All social scientists could do was observe the algorithm’s flaws as they were unable to offer solutions. The situation began to change when physicists came into the game uniting the efforts between mathematicians and social scientists. “That’s what computational social science is about, says Sergei, it is about interdisciplinary collaboration and synergetic results”.  His method of stabilization the algorithm developed in the Laboratory for Internet Studies was well received at the conference. “We got useful feedback from colleagues from the UK, Finland, Qatar and Singapore. We hope that some of these new contacts will grow into collaboration”.

Vadim Voskresenky, the fourth year sociology undergraduate said, ‘I was amazed by the range of different specialists at the conference. I could never imagine a conference where sociologists could discuss their work on equal terms with physicists and programmers before. But that’s what happened. Their different educations didn’t divide people but brought them together and enabled them to advise one another on how to refine their research. The atmosphere was extremely friendly, and helped us all to find colleagues for further joint research work or just to have interesting conversations in the coffee breaks and over dinner. I was delighted by how many people were curious about our research. They came over and asked questions. It gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people and discuss our project. We got useful advice about what to do with it next.’

 

 

 

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