Tue, 3 January 2017
For Alex “Sandy” Pentland, one of the best-known and widely cited computational social scientists in the world, these are halcyon days for his field. One of the creators of the MIT Media Lab and currently the director of the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs, Pentland studies ‘social physics,’ which takes a data-centric view of culture and society.
In this Social Science Bites podcast, he tells interviewer Dave Edmonds about the origins of social physics in the barren days before the advent of widespread good data and solid statistical methods and how it blossomed as both a field and for Pentland’s own research. Now, with both plentiful data and very sophisticated statistics, “we can revisit this vision of understanding society, understanding culture, as an alive, evolving animal using these modern techniques.”
The key change, he explains, has been in the amount and the diversity of data -- even if that’s a scary thought from a privacy point of view, “But from a social science point of view it’s Nirvana. For the very first time you can look at complicated, real-time continuous interaction of many different groups carrying out real activities.”
Pentland’s own experimental trajectory reflects those advances, with his early work mediated as much by what was lacking (a good way to deal statistically with language) as what was at hand. This led him to study how much of an individual’s behavior was due to older, pre-language signaling and how much due to more modern linguistic structure. But with time and computational advances, his work ramped up to study how groups of people interact, even up to the scale of a city. That in turn created some fascinating and widely cited insights, such as the more diverse a city’s social ties the more successful, i.e. rich, e city will be.
Some of the methodology involved in doing computational social science is also explored in the podcast, as Pentland describes giving an entire community new mobile phones as one part of the data-gathering process (with privacy protecting institutional controls, he notes) even as “we pestered them with a million questionnaires of standard social science things” during the same study period.
Pentland is well-known in both the public and private spheres as a leading big data researcher, with Forbes recently dubbing him one of the "seven most powerful data scientists in the world." In addition to his work at MIT, he chairs the World Economic Forum’s Data Driven Development council and has co-founded more than a dozen data-centered companies such as the Data Transparency Lab, the Harvard-ODI-MIT DataPop Alliance and the Institute for Data Driven Design. Among his disparate honors are as a 2012 best-article award from the Harvard Business Review, winning the DARPA Network Challenge run as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the internet, and being honored for his work on privacy by the group Patient Privacy Rights.