Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age


Pic by Jim Kaskade (flickr creative commons)

Matthew Salganik, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, has recently put his forthcoming book on social research and big data online for an open review. Matthew is the author of many of my favorite academic works, including this experiment in which he and Duncan Watts test social influence by artificially inverting the popularity of songs in an online music market. He is also the brains behind All Our Ideas, an amazing tool that I have used in much of the work that I have been doing, including “The Governor Asks” in Brazil.

As in the words of Matthew, this is a book “for social scientists that want to do more data science, and it is for data scientists that want to do more social science.” Even though I have not read the entire book, one of the things that has already impressed me is the simplicity with which Matthew explains complex topics, such as human computation, distributed data collection and digital experiments. For each topic, he highlights opportunities and provides experienced advice for those working with big data and social sciences. His stance on social research in the digital age is brilliant and refreshing, and is a wake-up call for lots of people working in that domain. Below is an excerpt from his preface:

From data scientists, I’ve seen two common misunderstandings. The first is thinking that more data automatically solves problems. But, for social research that has not been my experience. In fact, for social research new types of data, as opposed to more of the same data, seems to be most helpful. The second misunderstanding that I’ve seen from data scientists is thinking that social science is just a bunch of fancy-talk wrapped around common sense. Of course, as a social scientist—more specifically as a sociologist—I don’t agree with that; I think that social science has a lot of to offer. Smart people have been working hard to understand human behavior for a long time, and it seems unwise to ignore the wisdom that has accumulated from this effort. My hope is that this book will offer you some of that wisdom in a way that is easy to understand.

From social scientists, I’ve also seen two common misunderstandings. First, I’ve seen some people write-off the entire idea of social research using the tools of the digital age based on a few bad papers. If you are reading this book, you have probably already read a bunch of papers that uses social media data in ways that are banal or wrong (or both). I have too. However, it would be a serious mistake to conclude from these examples that all digital age social research is bad. In fact, you’ve probably also read a bunch of papers that use survey data in ways that are banal or wrong, but you don’t write-off all research using surveys. That’s because you know that there is great research done with survey data, and in this book, I’m going to show you that there is also great research done with the tools of the digital age.

The second common misunderstanding that I’ve seen from social scientists is to confuse the present with the future. When assessing social research in the digital age—the research that I’m going to describe in this book—it is important to ask two distinction questions:

How well does this style of research work now?

How well will this style of research work in the future as the data landscape changes and as researchers devote more attention to these problems?

I have only gone through parts of the book (and yes, I did go beyond the preface). But from what I can see, it is a must read for those who are interested in digital technologies and the new frontiers of social research. And while reading it, why not respond to Matthew’s generous act by providing some comments? You can access the book here.


World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends

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The World Development Report 2016, the main annual publication of the World Bank, is out. This year’s theme is Digital Dividends, examining the role of digital technologies in the promotion of development outcomes. The findings of the WDR are simultaneously encouraging and sobering. Those skeptical of the role of digital technologies in development might be surprised by some of the results presented in the report. Technology advocates from across the spectrum (civic tech, open data, ICT4D) will inevitably come across some facts that should temper their enthusiasm.

While some may disagree with the findings, this Report is an impressive piece of work, spread across six chapters covering different aspects of digital technologies in development: 1) accelerating growth, 2) expanding opportunities, 3) delivering services, 4) sectoral policies, 5) national priorities, 6) global cooperation. My opinion may be biased, as somebody who made some modest contributions to the Report, but I believe that, to date, this is the most thorough effort to examine the effects of digital technologies on development outcomes. The full report can be downloaded here.

The report draws, among other things, from 14 background papers that were prepared by international experts and World Bank staff. These background papers serve as additional reading for those who would like to examine certain issues more closely, such as social media, net neutrality, and the cybersecurity agenda.

For those interested in citizen participation and civic tech, one of the papers written by Prof. Jonathan Fox and myself – When Does ICT-Enabled Citizen Voice Lead to Government Responsiveness? – might be of particular interest. Below is the abstract:

This paper reviews evidence on the use of 23 information and communication technology (ICT) platforms to project citizen voice to improve public service delivery. This meta-analysis focuses on empirical studies of initiatives in the global South, highlighting both citizen uptake (‘yelp’) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (‘teeth’). The conceptual framework further distinguishes between two trajectories for ICT-enabled citizen voice: Upwards accountability occurs when users provide feedback directly to decision-makers in real time, allowing policy-makers and program managers to identify and address service delivery problems – but at their discretion. Downwards accountability, in contrast, occurs either through real time user feedback or less immediate forms of collective civic action that publicly call on service providers to become more accountable and depends less exclusively on decision-makers’ discretion about whether or not to act on the information provided. This distinction between the ways in which ICT platforms mediate the relationship between citizens and service providers allows for a precise analytical focus on how different dimensions of such platforms contribute to public sector responsiveness. These cases suggest that while ICT platforms have been relevant in increasing policymakers’ and senior managers’ capacity to respond, most of them have yet to influence their willingness to do so.

You can download the paper here.

Any feedback on our paper or models proposed (see below, for instance) would be extremely welcome.


unpacking user feedback and civic action: difference and overlap

I also list below the links to all the background papers and their titles

Enjoy the reading.

Tiny post on Big Data

Behind much of the excitement with the data revolution is an assumption that decision-making follows a rational actor model. And that’s a huge problem.


Three New Papers (and a presentation) on Civic Tech


This blog has been slow lately, but as I mentioned before, it is for a good cause. With some great colleagues I’ve been working on a series of papers (and a book) on civic technology. The first three of these papers are out. There is much more to come, but in the meantime, you can find below the abstracts and link to each of the papers. I also add the link to a presentation which highlights some other issues that we are looking at.

  • Effects of the Internet on Participation: Study of a Public Policy Referendum in Brazil.

Does online voting mobilize citizens who otherwise would not participate? During the annual participatory budgeting vote in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil – the world’s largest – Internet voters were asked whether they would have participated had there not been an online voting option (i-voting). The study documents an 8.2 percent increase in total turnout with the introduction of i-voting. In support of the mobilization hypothesis, unique survey data show that i-voting is mainly used by new participants rather than just for convenience by those who were already mobilized. The study also finds that age, gender, income, education, and social media usage are significant predictors of being online-only voters. Technology appears more likely to engage people who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users.

Read more here.

  • The Effect of Government Responsiveness on Future Political Participation.

What effect does government responsiveness have on political participation? Since the 1940s political scientists have used attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy to explain participation. More recent work has focused on underlying genetic factors that condition citizen engagement. We develop a ‘Calculus of Participation’ that incorporates objective efficacy – the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact – and test the model against behavioral data from (n=399,364). We find that a successful first experience using (e.g. reporting a pothole and having it fixed) is associated with a 54 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report. We also show that the experience of government responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of government responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry, while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

Read more here.

  • Do Mobile Phone Surveys Work in Poor Countries? 

In this project, we analyzed whether mobile phone-based surveys are a feasible and cost-effective approach for gathering statistically representative information in four low-income countries (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe). Specifically, we focused on three primary research questions. First, can the mobile phone survey platform reach a nationally representative sample? Second, to what extent does linguistic fractionalization affect the ability to produce a representative sample? Third, how effectively does monetary compensation impact survey completion patterns? We find that samples from countries with higher mobile penetration rates more closely resembled the actual population. After weighting on demographic variables, sample imprecision was a challenge in the two lower feasibility countries (Ethiopia and Mozambique) with a sampling error of /- 5 to 7 percent, while Zimbabwe’s estimates were more precise (sampling error of /- 2.8 percent). Surveys performed reasonably well in reaching poor demographics, especially in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Rural women were consistently under-represented in the country samples, especially in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Countries’ linguistic fractionalization may influence the ability to obtain nationally representative samples, although a material effect was difficult to discern through penetration rates and market composition. Although the experimentation design of the incentive compensation plan was compromised in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, it seems that offering compensation for survey completion mitigated attrition rates in several of the pilot countries while not reducing overall costs. These effects varied across countries and cultural settings.

Read more here.

  • The haves and the have nots: is civic tech impacting the people who need it most? (presentation) 

Read more here.