Big Data in a Small(er) Crowd

Person on cellphone - Big Data August 2 -4 2019 St Louis Missouri

Big data – it’s everywhere, permeating and influencing so many aspects of our professional and personal lives. Its influence can be felt in social and personality psychology, too, as the field incorporates new tools for how it collects and processes data to better understand people.

The changes, though, have prompted some reflection:  What does it mean to be a social and personality psychologist in the age of big data?

“I'm biased because this is an area that I've been involved in for a few years,” says SPSP member Jason Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge and co-chair of the 2019 Summer Psychology Forum (SPF). “But I think it's fair to say that it represents a vibrant and important area for the development of social personality psychology.”

Taking place August 2 -4 in St. Louis and smaller in size than the annual convention (registration is capped at 300), SPF attendees can expect a more intimate experience with more focused discussions, hands-on learning experiences and opportunities for collaboration.

“A small conference can often provide a superior experience than a large convention by giving the attendees the space to engage in more meaningful interactions with people,” says Jason. He adds that a smaller event has the potential to inspire new collaborations, even multi-institution ones, where resources can be shared among larger groups with shared interests.

Rentfrow, along with John Jost of New York University and Sandra Matz of Columbia University, are serving as co-chairs for the meeting, helping to fine-tune the programming, select the keynote speakers, and develop a unique workshop curriculum.

“Anyone who is interested in the various applications of big data analytics or research methods to address questions related to social and personality processes, regardless of how much experience they may have in this area,” should attend SPF, says Jason.

His fellow co-chair John Jost has a similar view: “Whether you are interested in the structure or function of online social networks, processes of social influence and communication, the role of technology in people's lives, or the use of language and processing of speech, text, or images, we will have something for you.”

Highlighting the event will be keynote addresses from four psychologists working on the front lines in both academia and industry:

  • Gabriella Harari, assistant professor at Stanford University, will explore the emergence of mobile-sensing technology in smart phones and devices as a viable platform for gathering social/behavioral data and how it is transforming our understanding of these processes.
  • Research Scientist Maarten Bos, who has had extensive experience as part of the Research teams at Disney and now Snap Inc, (maker of popular products SnapChat and Bitmoji), will tell us about some of the innovative work being carried out by corporate research teams.
  • Jeff Hancock, also from Stanford and well versed in natural language processing and text, will explore ethical questions around the use of big data, including privacy issues as they relate to the use of social media data in addressing questions related to psychology.
  • And Jamie Pennebaker of the University of Texas-Austin. He and his students have developed and refined LIWC -- Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count -- software used to infer psychological characteristics from the verbal behavior of users on social platforms like Reddit.

“We tried to include speakers and contributors with academic as well as industry links, covering a variety of different methodological as well as conceptual issues within this area,” says Jason.

Programming also includes a poster session and data blitz, along with four methodological workshops focusing on the quantitative analysis of text and speech, the use of machine-learning algorithms, and techniques for geographical and spatial modeling.

“We are lucky to have Kate Blackburn, Tobias Ebert, Friedrich Götz, Poruz Khambatta, and Christopher Lucas leading these workshops,” says Jost.

In addition to being a fun and intellectually stimulating experience, Jason hopes it will inspire some of the younger, and perhaps less- experienced researchers, to see value in this approach. He believes these skills and tools can be extremely useful as they pursue their Ph.Ds and develop new lines of research.

And many of the big names in tech and social media – Microsoft, Facebook, Spotify, Google, Uber – are actively recruiting social scientists with strong data analysis and research experience.

“There's an increasing number of opportunities for young academics with the computational skills that one can develop by working with these large datasets,” says Jason. “Having these skills can significantly increase the number of good professional opportunities.”

“Even if you've never worked with Big Data before, but you think you'd love to explore the possibility of using large-scale real world data in your future research, we'd love to see you at the Forum!” says co-chair Sandra Matz.

It might be an opportunity to develop a new skill in social network analysis, or arrive at an interesting or innovative idea on something to do with natural language processing. Or maybe it's just forming a relationship with someone that evolves into a very meaningful collaboration.

The new Summer Forum theme will change each year with solicitations for 2020 taking place this fall. Anyone with an idea for the theme that they may want to suggest (and serve as program chair) can reach out to Chad Rummel to get the ball rolling. SPSP will take care of the logistics and the program chairs get to design and select the format and content.

Stay tuned!