Edinburgh – Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS)

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I recently participated in my first summer school as a PhD student, held at Edinburgh University. It was an amazing experience and I would like to share some of it with you, enjoy!

What is SICSS?

Summer Institute in Computational Social Science (SICSS) is an initiative that started in 2017 but since then it grew to more locations and it is now running across nearly all continues (not in Antarctica yet!).  The main goal of the institutes is to provide a bridge between social and data science. This will allow the researchers to work with large amounts of digital data. Together with the information delivered by advanced researchers, the institutes create an excellent learning environment.

The Format

Participants

During this 2-week summer school, a group of 24 people were selected. We all came from different backgrounds and the only common thing was our interest in computational social science (CSS), although, most of us were PhDs.

Schedule

During the first week, we attempted a series of lectures/workshops on various data analysis methods including:

  • Reproducible workflows, data carpentry
  • APIs, Web scraping, digital research methods
  • Networks and network analysis
  • Social networks and simulations
  • Computational text analysis and natural language processing
  • Machine learning and prediction

Because lectures were delivered by experienced academics, we were able to discuss the application of such techniques in their research. This offered a chance to understand the given concept beyond its theoretical description. Furthermore, by utilizing them on the actual data, we could explore the limitations and strengths of learned methods.

Guest Speakers

Each day of learning was preceded by a guest lecture, from speakers who work or are associated related to the CSS field. I particularly enjoyed the talk delivered by Anita Gohdes on her research paper entitled: Distract and divert: How world leaders use social media during contentious politics. In her study, she explored the digital communication strategies of world leaders, using their social media interactions. It was interesting to see the differences in practices among various political ideologies.

Another great talk was delivered by Benjamin Bach who talked about the various visualisation techniques and tools available for the researchers. We learned how to appropriately choose the visualisation technique so that it would achieve the desired outcome. Benjamin is responsible for running a VisHub, where he works toward more understandable visualisation solutions for all.

Group Work

The second week consisted of group work on any topic related to CSS. Our group decided to explore the position of US Twitter users on gun control from an analysis of tweet text and mentions and retweets network. During this 4-day project, we were able to use some of the methods learned during week 1 but also improve our team-working skills. The time constraints prevented us from performing a detailed investigation into the topic. However, we managed to gather a collection of 1000 tweets related to gun control and based on our annotations (pro-/against-gun control) we performed our analysis. With some of the insightful findings regarding the retweet networks (very clustered) and promising results from trained classifiers (f1 score of 80% in the best case), I believe we utilized the given time well.

Furthermore, this task showed me that working in a group of talented and motivated researchers is not an easy task. Don’t get me wrong, I worked on a number of group projects before but never at the doctoral level. The experience was both amazing and challenging at the same time, we spend some time working out the dynamics of our group, however, in the end, we were able to fulfil most of our initial goals and were happy with how things went. Special thanks to my amazing group members: Alisha Kelkar, Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd, François t’Serstevens, Alessio Scopelliti and awesome teaching assistant Aybuke Atalay for guiding us in the right direction. 

Social Aspect

Apart from the high standard of teaching provided by the SICSS, another great thing about this summer school was the social aspect of it. The organizers did an amazing job at not only planning the summer school but also at ensuring that we would connect as a group by organizing social events. While during the day everyone stayed focused on the learning part after the classes ended we were able to get to know each other a little bit more, which made the whole experience more fulfilling. Here I would like to thank Christopher Barrie, for organizing the whole event and being a great teacher!

SICSS- Edinburgh 2022 cohort in their natural habitat

To Sum up

The SICSS- Edinburgh 2022 exceeded my expectations. Beginning with the fact that it it fully funded by external sponsors, this summer school offers a great opportunity for researchers from all different backgrounds to learn about how digital data can be effectively used in various domains. It was the best experience, as a PhD student, so far and it allowed me to develop as a researcher and also grow as a person. Through the mix of classes and various situations, I have gained a fresh perspective on my own research and was able to improve my teamwork abilities, which I believe are crucial in both life and work. SISCA runs every year in various locations, I strongly recommend to anyone to apply and see for themselves how awesome it is! However, make sure you do that early in the year as the institutes are very popular.

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