MZES Big Data Conference

The continuously growing use of digital services has provided social scientists with an expanding reservoir of data, potentially holding valuable insights into human behavior and social systems. The potentials of the use of digital trace data in social science research has famously given rise to the terms “big data” and “computational social science”. Using such data, social scientists have argued, will enable us to better understand social, political and economic life through the generation of large datasets that are composed not of questions asked of citizens concerning their attitudes and behaviours, but of the digital traces of their actual behaviour as they navigate the online world.

While the potentials of the use of digital trace data have been a continuous focus in public debate, scientific contributions using such trace data in political science usually come in the form of research-manifestos or isolated proofs-of-concept, only marginally contributing to current debates in the social sciences. Examples abound of descriptive analyses, maps and visualizations of citizens’ or candidates’ social media use during electoral campaigns, or of activists during social movement mobilisations. Indeed, at present, most work using digital trace data in the analysis of political phenomena falls into two categories: (1) Using digital trace data to illustrate online-components of political events, such as protests, televised debates or election campaigns; or (2) Demonstrating that in specific cases, specific selections of digital-trace-data collected on specific services somewhat resembles routinely used metrics in political science such as opinion polls, election results and ideological placement of MPs based on roll-call-data.

Even though there are many interesting and valuable contributions among these studies, for moving into the main stream of political research the field has to mature. This includes: developing standards for data collection, preparation, analysis and reporting; establishing more systematic links between the established body of research in the social sciences; and a move away from proofs-of-concepts towards the systematic development and testing of hypotheses.

The aim of this conference is to contribute to this development. We aim to create a forum where leading practitioners, challengers and up-and-coming social scientists who work in the area of digital trace data meet and engage in debate. Any such endeavor needs to take interdisciplinary considerations into account.

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