Mining electronic footprints

A very interesting piece in Science by John Bohannon called "Tracking People's Electronic Footprints" describes how "Digital records, faster computers, and a growing tool kit of mathematical models are now giving social scientists a boost in analytical power" for social sciences:

The mobile phone data set was one of a variety of new collections on display at the meeting--many of them based on the captured digital signatures of human interactions such as communication, travel, voting, and shopping. (...) Having data for individuals in an entire society allows questions to be asked that "traditional social scientists simply could not address." (...) For example: Are suicides contagious? (...) Others, such as Onnela, are studying the architecture of social webs. (...) Whether laws governing social groups can be found is an open question. But many social scientists are optimistic that such sets of real-world data will lead the way, and they are hungrily eyeing new sources (see sidebar on p. 915). "Great science can potentially come out of these efforts," says James Moody, a sociologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But he and others agree that it will take more than "just mining the data" to learn what drives social phenomena. What's needed is an exponential boost in the power of social science theory and analysis. And this, says Granovetter, "is a very tall order."

Why do I blog this? because this IMO an important trend in social sciences, there is a lot to draw here but as I emphasized in bold, mining is only part of the job. And this reminds me, Marc Davis' discussion at Ubicomp, in which he was explaining how such quant methods could allow researchers to spot the right samples to study with qualitative studies. Besides, the article is full of pertinent examples ("evolving map of the flow of money", "Social scientists studying the collective behavior of terrorist").

Some would also be interested to know that "potential social science gold mine" Google will be more willing to allow scientific collaboration:

But although some computer-based companies such as Microsoft have eagerly embraced scientific collaboration, Google so far has not. "Google has a reputation … for being very negative to letting researchers in," says Richard Swedberg, a sociologist at Cornell University. This could soon change, a Google spokesperson has told Science.