June 17, 2014
Just as fluency in statistics is considered a fundamental skill in many academic fields, organizers of the interdisciplinary Big Data Summer Camp think the ability to extract and analyze data from the Web soon will be indispensable to researchers across the social sciences.
This was the second summer in which graduate students from several different disciplines spent a week learning some of the programming and database tools necessary to do research using this source of big data.
“Five years from now, every social science discipline is going to have these tools built into their training,” said Gerald Davis, professor of management and organizations, Stephen M. Ross School of Business; and director of the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS).
“You will need to know this stuff because the data is out there. We think there will be required big data classes, and we’re piloting what that might look like.”
The camp, which took place in May, was sponsored by ICOS, Advanced Research Computing at U-M, and LSA IT Advocacy and Research Support.
Davis said attendance was up to 60 from about 35 last year, and there was also a waiting list. Participants were graduate students from economics, public health, education, information, business, sociology, psychology, urban planning and political science.
“We want to create communities among students that cross boundaries of disciplines and schools,” Davis said. “This is a concrete way to do that.”
Students were split up into interdisciplinary teams and given the assignment to find “one plausibly true thing” from the oceans of data on the Internet.
Some of the resulting projects examined the factors that influence online beer reviews, the differences between wealthy people in China and the U.S., the characteristics and behavior of Democratic vs. Republican senators on Twitter, and how crime patterns in Ann Arbor are affected by U-M football games.
Denise Lillvis, a graduate student in public health and political science, said the skills she learned in the camp would help improve her research, which focuses on the relationship between the professionalism of state health department employees and the health outcomes of their clients.
“Now I feel more confident in thinking about what I can do, and being hooked up with a hub of resources will definitely help,” she said.
Matt Burton, a graduate student in the School of Information who was hired to facilitate the summer camp this year, said there is growing demand for big data skills in the social sciences.
“I think there is a need in humanities as well, although it’s lagging a little behind,” he said. “Over the long term, what’s going to happen is the same thing that happened as statistics moved into the disciplines. We’re going to have programming courses taught in the disciplines, but right now there’s a massive shortage of teachers.”
The organizing committee consisted of Davis; Jason Owen-Smith, professor of organizational studies and sociology; Brian Noble, associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Cliff Lampe, associate professor of information.
Davis said the organizers hope to keep growing the program, and to develop a template for workshops or courses that can be taught independently.
“We want to create a recipe for anyone to use,” he said.