Core Concepts: Computational social science

Adam Mann at PNAS:Cell phone tower data predicts which parts of London can expect a spike in crime (1). Google searches for polling place information on the day of an election reveal the consequences of different voter registration laws (2). Mathematical models explain how interactions among financial investors produce better yields, and even how they generate economic bubbles (3).


Using cell-phone and taxi GPS data, researchers classified people in San Francisco into “tribal networks,” clustering them according to their behavioral patterns. Student’s, tourists, and businesspeople all travel through the city in various ways, congregating and socializing in different neighborhoods. Image courtesy of Alex Pentland (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA).


Where people hail from in the Mexico City area, here indicated by different colors, feeds into a crime-prediction model devised by Alex Pentland and colleagues (6). Image courtesy of Alex Pentland (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA).

 These are just a few examples of how a suite of technologies is helping bring sociology, political science, and economics into the digital age. Such social science fields have historically relied on interviews and survey data, as well as censuses and other government databases, to answer important questions about human behavior. These tools often produce results based on individuals—showing, for example, that a wealthy, well-educated, white person is statistically more likely to vote (4)—but struggle to deal with complex situations involving the interactions of many different people.


A growing field called “computational social science” is now using digital tools to analyze the rich and interactive lives we lead. The discipline uses powerful computer simulations of networks, data collected from cell phones and online social networks, and online experiments involving hundreds of thousands of individuals to answer questions that were previously impossible to investigate. Humans are fundamentally social creatures and these new tools and huge datasets are giving social scientists insights into exactly how connections among people create societal trends or heretofore undetected patterns, related to everything from crime to economic fortunes to political persuasions. Although the field provides powerful ways to study the world, it’s an ongoing challenge to ensure that researchers collect and store the requisite information safely, and that they and others use that information ethically….(More)”