Building a Community of Social Scientists with Big Data Skills: The ICOS Big Data Summer Camp

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As the use of data science techniques continues to grow across disciplines, a group of University of Michigan researchers are working to build a community of social scientists with skills in Big Data through a week-long summer camp for faculty and graduate students.

Having recently completed its fourth annual session, the Big Data Summer Camp held by the Interdisciplinary Committee for Organizational Studies (ICOS) trains approximately 50 people each spring in skills and methods such as Python, SQL, and social media APIs. The camp splits up into several groups to try to answer a research question using these newly acquired skills.

Working with researchers from other fields is a key component of the camp, and of creating a Big Data social science community, said co-coordinator Todd Schifeling, a Research Fellow at the Erb Institute in the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Students meet from across social science disciplines who wouldn’t meet otherwise,” said Schifeling. “And every year we bring back more and more past campers to present on what they’ve been doing.”

Schifeling himself participated in the camp as a student before taking on the role of coordinator this year.

Teddy DeWitt, the other co-coordinator of the camp and a doctoral student at the Ross School of Business, added the camp presents the curriculum in a unique way relative to the rest of campus.

“This set of material does not seem to be available in other parts of the university, at least … with an applied perspective in mind,” he said. “So we’re glad we have this set of resources that is both accessible and well-received by students.”

Participants range in skill from beginning to advanced, but even a relatively advanced student like Jeff Lockhart, a doctoral student in sociology and population studies who describes himself as “super-committed to computational social science,” said that it’s hard to find classes in computational methods in social science departments.

“[The ICOS camp] doesn’t expect a lot of prior knowledge, which I think is critical,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart, DeWitt, and Dylan Nelson, also a sociology doctoral student, are working on setting up a series of workshops in Computational Social Science for fall 2016 (contact Lockhart at jwlock@umich.edu for more information). Lockhart said it’s critical that social scientists learn Big Data skills.

“If we don’t have skills like this, there’s no way for us to enter into these fields of research that are going to be more and more important,” he said.

“A lot of the skills we’ve learned are sort of the on-ramp for doing data science,” DeWitt added.

The camp is co-sponsored by Advanced Research Computing (ARC).

New on-campus data-science and computational research services available

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Researchers across campus now have access to several new services to help them navigate the new tools and methodologies emerging for data-intensive and computational research.

As part of the U-M Data Science Initiative announced in fall 2015, Consulting for Statistics, Computing and Analytics Research (CSCAR) is offering new and expanded services, including guidance on:

  • Research methodology for data science.
  • Large scale data processing using high performance computing systems.
  • Optimization of code and use of Flux and other advanced computing systems.
  • Advanced data management.
  • Geospatial data analyses.
  • Exploratory analysis and data visualization.
  • Obtaining licensed data from commercial sources.
  • Scraping, aggregating and integrating data from public sources.
  • Analysis of restricted data.

“With Big Data and computational simulations playing an ever-larger role in research in a variety of fields, it’s increasingly important to provide researchers with a comprehensive ecosystem of support and services that address those methodologies,” said CSCAR Director Kerby Shedden.

As part of this significant expansion of its scope, the campuswide statistical consulting service CSCAR has been renamed Consulting for Statistics, Computing and Analytics Research. It was formerly known as the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research.

For more information, see the University Record article.