At this weekend’s Computational Social Science Summit at Northwestern University, scholars working at the intersection of computer science, social science, and information science converged to share their work. As someone who applies computational methods to answer sociological questions, the summit was like a reunion with people I never see at my usual conferences but whose papers I read enthusiastically. The summit began with workshops (computational basics like bash commands and version control with git, text analytics, R for social network analysis, and Python for natural language processing) and a Datathon (basically a hackathon for social science). The general sessions included panels and a series of five stellar keynotes.
The keynotes provided deep insights from leaders at the cutting edge of computational methods in social science research. David Ferrucci (led the team that built Watson – the computer that won Jeopardy) provided high-level insights into learning, meaning, and statistics, as well as the processes underlying computational approaches for stitching together processes into products. A sociologist by training, Sandra González-Bailón has been at the forefront of using social media data and sophisticated computational methods to understand social movements as they increasingly employ online platforms. Neuroscientist Moran Cerf discussed the brain and highlighted the social forces and processes that shape the brain on the most basic, physical level. Michael Macy made a strong argument for big data as the end, not of theory, but of statistics. Information science professor Katy Börner presented and discussed her film Humanexus, a collaboration with two artists illustrating how knowledge and communication have changed and are changing through the ages.
There is so much opportunity in this high-profile interdisciplinary field and this summit provides training, exposure to the most recent findings and methodological innovations in the field, and an opportunity to get to know the folks doing the work. The summit’s small size (it sold out!) and lots of integrated breaks and social events made it easy to get to know lots of potential collaborators. I hope that next year UT Austin can have a stronger contingent of sociologists at the Summit!
On September 12th, Amanda Stevenson was kind enough to discuss the work behind her recent paper in Contraception entitled, “Finding the Twitter users who stood with Wendy.” In the paper, Amanda examines Twitter chatter surrounding the Texas omnibus abortion restriction bill (Texas HB2) before, during and after Wendy Davis’ filibuster in summer 2013. The implications of Amanda’s results and conclusions are eloquently outlined both in the article published in Contraception, and her op-ed piece “Twitter analysis shows not all Texans want abortion rights limited,” which was published in the Houston Chronicle.
In this post I will only briefly go over some of the major takeaways from Amanda’s talk. I highly encourage you to read Amanda Stevenson’s articles for the full story.
1) “The Citizen’s Filibuster”
Amanda discussed one of the first major events in summer 2013, now referred to as the Citizen’s Filibuster. On June 20th, a special session of the Texas legislature was held. On the agenda was a pair of bills that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, restrict access to medication abortions and require abortion clinics to become ambulatory surgical care centers. In response to the special session abortion-rights groups such as: NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Planned Parenthood, and the Lilith Fund, quickly organized a “citizen’s filibuster.”
Approximately 700 people were organized in a flash, and the citizen’s filibuster was successful. Amanda showed that social media was important prior to Wendy Davis’ filibuster because it was instrumental in mobilizing people across the state of Texas.
2) Social media provided the primary coverage of Wendy Davis’ Filibuster
If it weren’t for the success of the Citizen’s Filibuster, Wendy Davis would have never had the opportunity to stage her filibuster. And if it were up to mainstream media outlets, the world would have never known what Wendy Davis had accomplished that day. Amanda discussed how mainstream media outlets failed to cover the filibuster. Therefore, social media became the primary source of coverage on Davis’ filibuster – with YouTube providing live streams for the world to see.
3) Social media data is generated through a selection process
Given the protocols that govern Twitter’s API, and the issues of access to technology, the kind of data a researcher pulls from social media is highly selective. Amanda was careful to point out that this does not mean social media data is useless, but that when you are interpreting your results you must be careful with what you think you are explaining. For Amanda, social media data is great at analyzing discussions that occur in social media, but falls short in accurately capturing public opinion. Interpreting social media data is like interpreting any kind of data a sociologist may collect; you have to take into consideration what and how much your data actually captures.
4) Hashtags can be a way to classify opinions
Trying to understand what people are attempting to convey through a tweet is a hard problem to resolve. One way this can be resolved, as illustrated by Amanda’s study, is to categorize tweets thematically using hashtags. For example, the hashtag “#standwithwendy” was a popular hashtag used through Davis’ filibuster. Users typically tag their tweets with hashtags to categorize them.
5) Social location estimates are inconclusive
In general, users do not GPS-enable their tweets. It’s been found that it is primarily younger males in urban areas who do. Therefore, to not further limit her sample, Amanda generated location estimates for users in her sample. Amanda writes, “For each account whose tweets had GPS data, I collected 100 tweets from the Twitter REST API v1.1. For all accounts, I collected location data from user profiles in the form of text strings.” By combining GPS data from GPS-enabled tweets and whatever location data she could garner from geocoded text string, Amanda was able to generate location estimates for more users than if she had solely relied on GPS data.
What impresses me the most about Amanda’s work is that she is careful (both in her talk and her paper) not to overreach in her conclusions. Moreover, her work is a great example of a project that elegantly employs qualitative and quantitative methodologies, something I aspire to achieve in my own work on social media. We all look forward to seeing more as Amanda’s dissertation develops.
Social media analysis challenges stereotype of conservative state By Amanda Jean Stevenson
The full text of the article is available at this link to the June 24th edition of The Houston Chronicle
One year ago this week, state Sen. Wendy Davis drew national attention with her filibuster of HB2, an omnibus abortion restriction bill that has since ushered in a 50 percent decline in the number of abortion clinics in our state. For 11 hours a year ago today, she stood on the floor of the Texas Senate in her pink running shoes as thousands of Texans rallied around her at the state Capitol and 180,000 people watched online. Her filibuster also sparked the wildly popular social media hashtag #StandWithWendy, instantly offering insight into a segment of the state that isn’t so red: Not all Texans agree that restricting abortion rights is a good idea.
Most discussion of Texas in the national media focuses on the state’s extremely conservative factions. But Texas is full of principled people across the political spectrum. Thousands of them marched on the state Capitol to oppose HB2. Before Davis filibustered, 700 people registered to testify in a “citizens filibuster” that lasted late into the night of June 20, and thousands filled Capitol buildings day after day dressed in orange T-shirts, the color chosen to symbolize the fight against HB2. After Davis’ filibuster, 19,000 filed comments against the bill and they continued to fill the Capitol for each hearing and vote. Throughout, they were joined by a digital chorus on Twitter that was hundreds of thousands strong.
I have analyzed the 1.66 million tweets that comprise the Twitter discussion associated with the bill. These tweets came from 399,000 users worldwide. Roughly 44 percent of the tweets were sent from Texans in support of abortion rights, and in all, about 115,500 Texans expressed their support for abortion rights as part of the Twitter discussion of the bill. These Texans are not all Austin liberals. They live throughout the state, in rural and urban areas. In fact, tweets in support of the filibuster were sent from 189 of Texas’ 254 counties, including the majority of rural counties and all urban ones. Only 1.8 percent of the Texas population lives in counties from which no identifiable tweets of support were sent.
Longhorn REU students with their adviser, sociology professor Dr. Nestor Rodriguez (center). To Dr. Rodriguez’s immediate right: Mario Guerra and Taylor Orth
Each year the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, hosts the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. This eight-week summer program, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, offers eight very selective upper-division undergraduate students from both UT-Austin and from around the country the opportunity to study social demography through course work and a mentored research experience with senior PRC graduate students. Student papers are then presented at the annual fall meeting of the Southern Demographic Association. This year three undergraduate sociology majors – Taylor Orth, Mario Guerra, and Sharron Wang – participated in the REU program and we invited them to share their experiences with the blog.
Taylor Orth: The REU program gave me the opportunity to conduct independent research and provided me with the ultimate pre-graduate school experience. Throughout the program, we were taught through a variety of different classes, seminars and experiences. While being trained in the technical side through working with Stata and GIS software, we were also given field experience by taking a field trip to Houston to explore different racial and ethnic enclaves. Dr. Nestor Rodriguez and Dr. Rebecca Torres provided us with a mix of perspectives, and gave us a sociological as well as a geographical understanding of our topics and the subjects we approached in the classroom. I feel like the program really helped me to fully explore my interests before I take the leap of applying to graduate school. With such a strong support group, it was an excellent time to really find out what I wanted to study and to take risks with using difficult data and new types of analyses.
In addition to the training we received, we were paired with graduate mentors who oversaw our research and guided us in making decisions regarding our own independent projects. My mentor David McClendon was especially helpful and assisted me in my project on fertility within interracial and interethnic marriages. After finishing our projects, we submitted them to the Southern Demographic Association conference. Attending the conference was a valuable experience, and we were each given the opportunity to present our research. For me, the most rewarding part was when I finished my presentation and one woman stayed around afterwards to speak with me. She informed me that she had come to the panel presentation because my topic was of particular interest to her, and she wanted to ask me additional questions and speak in detail after the presentation. It was exciting to think that someone was interested in something I had researched and it was nice to be able to share what I had learned.
After having such a positive experience working with a diverse cohort of students as well as interacting daily with a faculty mentor, I became confident in my decision to attend graduate school. The program gave me all the tools that I needed to work independently, but also provided me with resources to fall back on when I needed help. With many long hours working in the PRC computer lab on our projects, our cohort of students developed a special bond, and were very happy to be reunited at the meeting in Williamsburg. I don’t think there could have been a better way to spend my summer. The program provided me with a research experience unavailable to undergraduates anywhere else.
Mario Guerra: The REU program gave me a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of conducting research as well as presenting at a conference. In general, most students have written research papers for a class or two but conducting independent research takes this a step further as one tries to contribute to the work that may already be out there. After a summer of research focused workshops and seminars, we were then able to show off our work at the SDA conference.
The summer program was an interesting experience as it allowed for a more intensive focus on independent research than did any other undergraduate class I have taken. The focus here was to prepare the students for their own research projects no matter what their background in statistics and demography may be. Due to the mix of students, our workshops were focused on training in both STATA and GIS in order to conduct our analysis. The summer months also gave us the opportunity to get to know other students from around the country who had similar interests as we did and were also eager to explore Austin. The resources over the summer also made the daunting task of independent research a more manageable experience. The fearless REU leaders Dr. Nestor Rodriguez and Dr. Rebecca Torres were always available to answer any questions. Additionally, our mentors and grad students in charge of workshops gave great advice and went above and beyond to help us.
This October was our conference at SDA which was my first presentation at an actual conference. It was a great experience in not only presenting but simply being around that type of environment. Knowing that for two and a half days you could sit in on some pretty interesting presentations was great. As for the presentation, I feel that I was definitely a lot more nervous than I had to be. The many nights spent at local 24 hour coffee shops running data analysis and reading random articles on my topic had prepared me for the presentation. I found myself not needing to prepare as much as I thought seeing as I felt rather confident in the subject matter. This in turn made for a relatively smooth presentation. Seeing as my presentations was during the first student time slot, I was able to spend the rest of the time not worrying about the presentation. I was able to explore William and Marys right next door and hang out with the other REU students.
In all, it was a wonderful experience that led to some great stories (like that we randomly said hi to the Dalai Lama although that’s not really REU related). We also made some great connections with professors and other students who had similar research interests. Personally, the program really solidified the idea that as a sociology major applying to graduate schools, this type of research is something I enjoy doing.
Sharron Xuaren Wang: I would like to begin by thanking the Sociology Department and Population Research Center (PRC) for they giving me the opportunity to take part in the REU program this summer. I also want to thank Dr. Nestor Rodriguez, Dr. Rebecca Torres, Molly Dondero, Joseph Lariscy, our mentors, and the entire amazing faculty and staff who made this research program possible and guided us through our research
The REU program is very special to me because it gave me the confidence to do sociological research in the future. My first major was economics. After adding sociology as my second major, I was eager to find an opportunity to conduct sociological research. I enjoyed reading sociological literature; however, I was not sure if I would be able to do research or not. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to participate in the REU program.
All the classes and sessions I took in the REU program equipped me with the knowledge and skills to do independent research. I also got a taste of how joyful it can be after I ran data analyses successfully. The moment I saw results appear on my screen, I became sure that doing research is for me and that I want to pursue it. Even though I had some difficulties finding available data and supporting theories for my topic, our supervisor, Dr. Rodriguez, Molly, and Joseph were very supportive. They gave me helpful insight and lots of courage that help me persevere through all the difficulties.
The October SDA meeting was a unique opportunity for me to practice presenting my research and listen to outstanding research presentations. I was deeply impressed by the academic atmosphere in the conference. I also got much valuable feedback from other researchers for my research. I want to thank the REU very much for giving me this wonderful experience and the courage to pursue my interest in researching. The entire program was an unforgettable experience.