Students Staff

29 September 2016

Big Data: a social science revolution

Photo of Professor Nick Allum

Professor Nick Allum

The rapidly increasing availability of ‘big data’ is offering social scientists unprecedented insight into the world around us. But analysing vast amounts of data comes with its own unique challenges, according to a new report co-authored by Professor Nick Allum from our Department of Sociology.

The report, commissioned by SAGE Publishing and designed to gain a better understanding of those unique challenges, features the responses of over 9,000 social scientists from around the world on their experience of working with huge data sets.

It found that efficient use of ‘big data’ requires new skills, cross-disciplinary collaboration, new research methods, and new computational tools and training needed to tackle the vast amounts of digital information available.

It also found that many social scientists are already rising to some of these challenges and a large number are looking to engage in this kind of research in the future.

Speaking of the study, Professor Allum said, "Social scientists are used to designing studies to solve problems and generate new knowledge. Typically our methods of data collection and analysis are rooted in methodologies developed over many years where incremental change was the norm.

“In the past decade though, the data landscape has changed dramatically and heralds an era where collaboration between social scientists and computer scientists is needed to make the most of new forms of data and analytical tools.

“The results from our survey show that alongside the opportunities offered by big data, there are multiple barriers that currently constrain progress. I’m excited to work with SAGE in mapping out these constraints and opportunities in order that the social science community can meet the challenges and exploit the great potential of big data to advance our social understanding in new and much needed ways."

Ziyad Marar, Global Publishing Director at SAGE Publishing, commented, ““Today’s social scientists are addressing the same ‘wicked’ social issues that their predecessors have explored for decades – educational development, health reform, inequality, the growth of democracy, to name just a few – but now with now the benefits of vast amounts of data waiting to be analysed.

“The findings from this survey reveal that there is an appetite to engage with data at an accelerated rate among social scientists, but that unique challenges persist related to such issues as interdisciplinary connections, research design training, and access. As a social science publisher that has been innovating in social science methods for more than four decades, SAGE is dedicated to creating new ways to help these researchers and their successors in this journey.”

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