Student working at computer, CEU. Credit: Daniel Vegel

Spotlight on CIVICA’s focus area "Data-Driven Technologies for the Social Sciences"


Professor of Network and Data Science Janos Kertesz (CEU) and fellow CIVICA researchers explain what's behind the focus area dedicated to learning about society through data science.

Divided into four thematic groups, CIVICA’s Work Package 6 (WP6) focuses on joint research activities. With key topics for our time, the themes—Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century; Societies in Transition and Crises of Earth; Europe Revisited; and Data-Driven Technologies for the Social Sciences—will be implemented by a design team consisting of scholars from across the alliance.

To close the series illuminating each focus area, we spoke with Professor of Network and Data Science, Janos Kertesz from Central European University (CEU), who leads the Data-Driven Technologies theme.

“There is no social science of the future without data science,” remarks Kertesz, noting how the enormous data production of the digital age significantly shapes possibilities for research. As new technologies have changed our lives, social Big Data provides unprecedented opportunities to track the evolution of large real-world systems, positioning researchers to detect the emergence of collective social behaviour and make related predictions.

The Data-Driven Technologies theme group aims to apply quantitative disciplines to a range of social challenges, with methodologies including those drawn from social sciences, cognitive and behavioural sciences, statistics, complexity science, data science, computer science and network science. While the advancements in acquiring new knowledge have evidently contributed already to the emergence of a new digital industry, they have yet to find their ways more broadly into policy, governance and legislation design related to artificial intelligence.

Kertesz says that among the facets of the theme, “We want to learn about society through data science. With the unprecedented amount of data collected via digital footprints of our activities and tasks, and with the variation of the data set, we can better learn how society functions, how socioeconomic inequality is structured, why such structures are so persistent and other related questions.” As optimal case analysis and modeling leads to concrete policy scenarios, Kertesz believes the group will be able to provide research-backed advice to governing bodies.

The Data-Driven Technologies theme currently has a research call open for projects addressing Artificial Intelligence in Society. The call is part of CIVICA Research, which aims to enrich and deepen CIVICA’s research activities planned under WP6. “If you use online social networks or a recommendation site in order to purchase something, you are talking to an artificial intelligence platform. This is just the beginning and we don't see yet the extent to how artificial intelligence is going to influence our lives,” comments Kertesz. He adds that one of the directions of CIVICA Research is to understand such communication through inquiries such as: How can we prepare for the new era when humans and algorithm-governed entities form an ecosystem? What are the societal changes due to the transition? And how can the new technologies be used for the social good? The group is also considering other digital issues, including the decentralization of data storage and AI, as well as participatory techniques for people to be more included in decisions and public actions related to data.

“I think that the process of debating and discussing research interests and finding common activities and interactions is an exciting and fruitful one - even more so in this complicated and isolated period,” comments theme group member and National University of Political Studies and Public Administration Professor Bogdan Florian (Romania), whose primary research interests are in the field of public policy. He maintains that it is impossible to approach policy topics without access to and analysis of increasingly sophisticated data. “Framing data and analysis are even more important in this informational context. Aggregating and facilitating access to meaningful information, based on this data is, I believe, an important aim for social sciences.”

As this spotlight on Data-Driven Technologies completes the theme group series, we turn to Carsten Schneider, CEU Professor and lead of WP6, tasked with coordinating and developing CIVICA’s research strategy across theme groups. Schneider notes that the first months of work were dedicated to introductions and creating viable structures and networks, and that now the groups are starting to harvest the fruits of such groundwork with collaborations emerging across the alliance and in all thematic fields on which CIVICA focuses.

“In a way, we are ‘doing’ European integration at the micro level, or as the European Commission put it: creating the ‘single market of higher education’. We are building institutional structures but also connections that last through traditional academic activities: teaching, doing research, and discussing ideas together,” comments Schneider. While each theme group runs slightly different activities, he notes what has become popular across all of them are lecture series and public talks. As the research powerhouse, WP6 also helps to shape the CIVICA Public Lecture Series Tours d'Europe, as well as courses jointly offered across CIVICA to PhD and, later, to MA and BA students, and several other activities that constitute what CIVICA aspires to be.

“The fact that CEU has been tasked to lead the coordination of CIVICA Research – not only via the Erasmus+ funded WP6, but also the new addition to CIVICA, the H2020 research grant - is both an honor and an important responsibility. In no small measure, the success of CIVICA depends on the success of joint research, broadly understood. From all I can see now, we are on a very good trajectory,” says Schneider.

Data-Driven Technologies for the Social Sciences has just launched the 'CIVICA Data Science Seminar Series’, a bottom-up initiative connecting social data science researchers across the alliance. Other recent activities are the ‘Snowball Seminars’ which center around broadly-defined themes, with each seminar followed by different speakers at different locations, picking up the thread of previous talks. Additionally, until 23 March, CIVICA partners are able to submit projects to be considered in the alliance’s first call for research proposals.

To engage further with CIVICA data researchers, register by 17 March to join the next CIVICA Public Lecture,Data Analytics and the Battle Against the Pandemic this Thursday, 18 March at 5pm.

Written by Julie Potter (CEU)

Photo credit: Daniel Vegel, CEU