14 April 2016

The Faculty of Social Sciences is investing heavily in social big data


The Faculty of Social Sciences is opening a new research centre called the Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science, which will gather a range of ambitious researchers across the Faculty’s five departments to collaborate on data research. The initiative has come about because the ability to harvest and analyse large amounts of data on people’s choices and preferences opens doors for new collaborations and produces results of a whole new calibre in social science research.

Social big data graphics

The new research centre Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science (SODAS) at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Social Sciences will be dedicated to researching social big data. At the centre, researchers from the fields of economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology and political science will establish collaborations across UCPH’s departments and with other universities. They will use new types of data and develop new methods to explore important issues in social science. The centre will use data from local authorities, social media, government institutions, traffic services, commercial companies and more.

'The phrase big data refers to huge amounts of data that it has only become possible to collect and process in recent years. For Denmark, big data represents a special opportunity. Researchers can link Denmark’s unique 50-year-old public registration data – which makes the Danes one of the most registered populations in the world – with data from new sources of social big data such as the Danes’ use of social media, e-commerce, internet searches, communication and contacts with public authorities. Not many other countries in the world have this opportunity,' says Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Troels Østergaard Sørensen.

'We have a number of researchers in the Faculty who are already leaders in social big data research. They have started some really exciting projects and have shown that social science data research can achieve new and unique findings which can create value for society, for example by helping to propose solutions in the transport and social sectors,' he says.

Copenhagen on the world map

The Director of the new Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science, Professor of Economics and leading researcher David Dreyer Lassen, and Associate Director, Associate Professor Sune Lehmann Jørgensen from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science in the Technical University of Denmark, are among the most experienced Danish researchers in social big data. They have several years of experience of harvesting and analysing human-generated big data, partly in the Copenhagen Network Study (which today has one of the largest and most detailed large network data sets in the world), and in an offshoot of another major data-research project, UCPH’s and the Technical University of Denmark’s joint project 'Social Fabric', in which 1,000 young people’s smartphones have supplied data to the researchers for several years.

This data has given the academics new knowledge and opportunities that will be further developed in the Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science. The new centre will also focus on developing new methods for working with these extremely large data sets. The field of social science has long since developed its own methods for working with statistics. Similarly, the new centre’s researchers will need to develop their own methods for obtaining and analysing the new social big data instead of just using the methods for processing big data that are used in the technical sciences.

'Based on the results we have seen in our first projects, we have high expectations for this new field of research,' says Dean Troels Østergaard Sørensen. 'It will put the University of Copenhagen on the world map of research in social big data and will create opportunities for entirely new collaborations between researchers and businesses – both nationally and internationally.'

The researchers in the Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science will also examine how researchers and citizens understand and handle these new forms of data, as well as the ethical and privacy issues that arise in connection with researching this type of data.

'Today a lot of our activities leave digital tracks, which means that people often share very private or sensitive data – sometimes unintentionally,' says David Dreyer Lassen. 'We’re examining how people navigate in a world full of digital tracks and how the authorities and we researchers handle access to all this data. We are also linking up our research, which takes advantage of new data types, with research into privacy and ethics issues. For example, in one of our projects anthropologists are studying how we other researchers manage the private data of trial subjects.'

Students love data

The students in the Faculty of Social Sciences will also benefit from the new research centre, which will offer courses in which the researchers teach the students to handle the massive data sets. Last autumn, more than 100 students took a new course in social data science, which enables participants to collect, process and analyse large amounts of digital data. Students learn about computing, 'scraping' from the web, and visualisation and analysis of big data from a social-science perspective. The course also involves reflecting on privacy and ethical issues.

And these are skills that are much sought-after in the business world. According to an analysis by the Danish financial newspaper Børsen, two out of every three private and public companies lack employees with the skills in mathematics, computing and visualisation that are necessary for analysing and using the companies’ own big data.

'The Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science will enable us to produce graduates with the skills businesses demand, who can solve tasks in both public and private organisations because they have up-to-date knowledge that can improve public and corporate services for the benefit of a great many people in society,' says Troels Østergaard Sørensen.


Dean Troels Østergaard Sørensen
Faculty of Social Sciences
Mail: dekan@samf.ku.dk

Professor David Dreyer Lassen
Department of Economics
Mail: david.dreyer.lassen@econ.ku.dk

Associate professor Sune Lehmann Jørgensen
DTU Compute
Mail: sljo@dtu.dk

Journalist Janni Brixen
Faculty of Social Sciences
Mail: jab@samf.ku.dk