SICSS-Seattle participants in a group photo

eScience Institute co-hosts computational social science conference

By SICSS-Seattle partner location organizers Connor Gilroy and Bernease Herman

SICSS-Seattle participants in a group photo
SICSS-Seattle participants (click to enlarge)

A satellite location of the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science (SICSS) was held June 18 – 22 at the eScience Institute in the WRF Data Science Studio. The purpose of the Summer Institute is to bring together graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and beginning faculty interested in computational social science.

The curriculum consisted of a combination of live-streamed lectures and guest speakers, local speakers and tutorials, and group activities and exercises. Topics covered included text as data, website scraping, digital field experiments, non-probability sampling, mass collaboration, and ethics.This was the first year that that SICSS had partner locations; the University of Washington (UW) was fortunate to be one of seven partner locations chosen, and the primary conference was held at Duke University.

The participants

The core of the SICSS-Seattle partner location, and the key to its success this year, was our 23 participants. These participants came from all stages in their academic careers: two masters students (9%), 14 PhD students (61%), two postdocs (9%), and five faculty (22%).

Our participants spanned a diverse range of disciplines, including sociology, political science, economics, communication, geography, archaeology, education, public health, transportation engineering, and linguistics. Throughout the week, participants expanded each other’s views of research through interdisciplinary conversations. Of the participants, 17 came from the UW, while six came from other universities, primarily in the Pacific Northwest.

SICSS-Seattle participants brought a heterogeneous set of skills to the program as well. Some came with extensive coding experience in R and Python, some brought familiarity with novel data sources and other resources, and some drew on knowledge of critical theory and digital media studies. Participants shared their various skills through tutorials and discussion.

Finally, we had a great teaching assistant in Chuck Lanfear. He’s a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the UW, who teaches a popular Introduction to R for Social Scientists course. His R expertise came in handy for our group exercises.

The facilities

A speaker presents at SICSS-Seattle
A speaker presents at SICSS-Seattle

The main week of SICSS-Seattle was hosted at the eScience Institute, where we took over nearly half of the Institute’s WRF Data Science Studio. We are grateful to have had their support; in addition to providing space, they handled the logistics of ordering and setting up food and coffee, managed our funding from the Sloan Foundation, and provided the supplies needed.

For the optional second week, SICSS-Seattle participants interested in collaborating on projects were provided space at the UW Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology (CSDE).

A special thank you to Rachael Murray, Sarah Stone, Micaela Parker, and Robin Brooks from the eScience Institute, Sara Curran, Matt Dunbar, and Kristian Haapa-Aho from the CSDE, and our faculty sponsor Tyler McCormick for all of the help in making SICSS-Seattle a success.

Content shared with the main site

A large part of the content for the SICSS-Seattle partner site was shared with the main Duke University site. In particular, we tuned in via livestream for lectures and guest speakers, and followed the main site’s group activities from the first week. However, these had to be compressed into a shorter amount of time all Seattle activities and content were between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pacific time.

The group activities appeared to be a big hit at the Seattle site despite compressed activity time on some days. The participants were engaged, talkative, and eager to show their results at the end of each day. On one day, we had a hard time convincing any groups to even break for lunch! Many of our participants had prior programming experience, so most groups were autonomous and made great progress.

SICSS-Seattle participants engage in a presentation
SICSS-Seattle participants engage in a presentation

Seattle-specific lectures and activities

In addition to exclusive lectures on ethics and digital trace data, the Seattle site also held lightning talks from local participants and a networking opportunity with data scientists working on social good issues.

On Monday and Tuesday, we allocated time for in-person lectures to complement the main SICSS content. The first such lecture was on ethics and data violence from Anna Lauren Hoffmann, assistant professor at the UW iSchool; the second was on the demographics of digital trace data from Nina Cesare, researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at UW. The local speakers were a hit!

Friday was the final day of lecture content for our site, where we saved time to schedule six 15-minute lightning talks for SICSS-Seattle participants. This was a great opportunity to hear a little about the research and open-source software that participants have worked on.

As luck would have it, the other half of the eScience Institute’s space hosted summer participants in the Institute’s annual Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) program, modeled after the larger program at the University of Chicago. All three projects in this program have strong computational social science components and the shared space provided opportunities for SICSS-Seattle participants to network and discuss with the DSSG fellows.

Second week projects

The official program for the Seattle partner location ran for one week, but encouraged participants to collaborate on projects during the following week. Participants shared their project ideas on a Google spreadsheet, allowing others to read them and choose to participate. This lead to at least two collaborations, both spearheaded by participants from the Summer Institute.

Overall, the SICSS-Seattle conference was a success this summer! In addition to our local support, we want to thank the Russell Sage Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Duke University, as well as remote support providers Matt Salganik and Chris Bail, and the main SICSS organizers and teaching assistants on the East Coast.