World Social Science Forum

Social Transformations and the Digital Age, Montreal, 13-15 October 2013

Several members of the eHumanities Group attended the World Social Science Forum in Montreal in October. This was only the second such event, and addressed the theme of ‘social transformations and the digital age’. Over 800 people, from 60 countries, and from many disciplinary backgrounds participated. The Forum is organized under the auspices of the International Social Science Council. The next Forum will be held in September 2015 in South Africa, on the theme of inequality.


Sally was the chair of the programme committee, 13 scholars from around the world, representing psychology, sociology, political science, media and communication studies, economics, science and technology studies. The committee did a great job in reviewing papers from around the world, and putting together over 100 panels. Many panels addressed the huge diversity of ways that digital technologies are affecting how people live, work, do politics and play. But the call for papers had explicitly asked for contributions exploring what digital technologies mean for the ways in which social scientists conduct their research. The response was overwhelming, and thus there were also many panels about big and open data, about new forms of collaboration, about the role of models and simulations.


Wordle of the Call for Papers

Together with Caroline Nevejan, Sally organized the opening plenary session, called ‘participatory dynamics for change’. The aim of the plenary was to bring together a diverse range of experiences, from social science, industry, artistic practice and political activism to address key societal transformations. Digital technologies are enormously powerful, for connecting people and information to one another and for effecting social change. The very same technologies have been used to orchestrate social transformations in different spheres of experience throughout the world, and at the same time have enabled states and corporations to keep track of people’s online actions and interactions. What can social science offer not only to understanding these changes but also to facilitating collaboration and change between different social actors? Can collaboration emerge when configurations of hardware and software largely determine what happens next?

Can technologies of communication be designed to foster participation and other societal benefits? What happens to solidarity and communalism when people rely on technologies that promise anonymity, though often reveal all sorts of details to third parties? Why is it that media and politicians in the West enthusiastically support far-away ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ revolutions, but react with fear and self-censorship when others use the very same technologies to blow the whistle on abuses of state and corporate power? The contributors to the opening plenary addressed these questions, drawing on the rich variety of experiences of people who have all been involved in understanding what digital technologies mean for understanding and acting upon different facets of social, economic and political life. The other speakers were David Rokeby, a digital media artist; Rebecca Gomperts, from Women on Waves; Sara Diamond, President of OCAD University; Nalini Kotamraju, from Microsoft; and  Aalam Wassef, an artist and open access advocate, involved in the Arab Spring.

Sally panel WSSF

Sally also chaired a session with SoniaLivingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics talked about her recent work with young people and their use of digital media. Three pupils from Trafalgar School for Girls in Montreal acted as the discussants, and were invited to reflect on the potentials and hazards of growing up in a digital age. This provided the audience and Sonia with the opportunity to get reactions from the same age group, more or less, as Sonia’s own research participants. Katelyn, one of the pupils, wrote the following afterwards:
On Tuesday, October 15th, I had the incredible opportunity to speak at and participate in a panel at the Palais des Congrès for the World Social Science Forum. Not only did we get to hear from Sonia Livingstone about her fascinating research to do with teens and their use of the internet, but we also got to share and discuss our own opinions on the subject. What I found the most interesting was that after we had spoken, we got to answer and elaborate on questions from members of the audience. I found this especially neat since the members of the audience were from all over the world. There were people from New Zealand, Italy, the Netherlands and many other places. All in all, this was an extremely rare and exciting opportunity and I feel very lucky to have had this great experience.

World Social Science Forum

By Merel Noorman


The venue for the World Social Science Forum was the Palais des congrès, right in the middle of Montreal.
Merel Noorman attended the Forum for the first time to present a paper on unmanned military technologies and responsibility in a session on War and Peace. The session was an interesting mix of talks about various issues involving digital technologies and international politics, with an emphasis on digital diplomacy. Merel’s presentation drew primarily on her previous research on autonomous artificial agents and responsibility, but she was also at the conference for the RECODE project that she is currently working on at the eHumanities group. The RECODE project is a European project that addresses drivers and barriers in developing open access to research data in Europe.

There were quite a few interesting sessions about open access at the Forum. Bridgette Wessels from the University of Sheffield, one of the project partners,  presented the RECODE project in the session called ‘Big and Open Data’. The other participants in the session addressed the topic from different perspectives. One discussed Open Data in South America; another addressed the ethical issues of data sharing in social science.
Merel also chaired the session called Virtual Knowledge and Worlds. In this session, Richard Smiraglia, associate researcher of the eHumanities group, presented his work on Cultural Synergy, Virtual Knowledge and Information Institutions. The participants in this session presented their particular methodological approaches to doing research online. Richard also chaired the panel  in the session “Electronic Governance in the Digital Age”.

Linked Data for Development (LD4D) at World Social Science Forum (WSSF)

By Christophe Guéret and Victor de Boer

It is commonly acknowledged that knowledge and data sharing are means to social and economic development. Over the past 20 years, the Web has imposed itself as a primary support tool for World Wide information sharing. Unfortunately, the majority of the World population is still deprived from access to this tool.
The following question then arise: is it possible to bring data sharing technology to those without the Web? and how would they benefit from it ?
These questions were the central topic of the LD4D (“Linked Data for Development”) series of panels that took place on 14 October 2013 during the World Social Science Forum.


The first panel, chaired by Tim Davies, tackled the issue of using connected (open) data sources for development. In his introductory talk, Tim presented a framework for Linked and Open Data while also providing a number of examples of succesful (Linked) Open Data cases. Susan Halford from the University of Southampton, highlighted the sociological aspects of data sharing and raised a number of interesting questions around the benefits and pitfalls of Open Data. The third speaker, Michael Roberts highlighted the specific benefits of Open Data for Aid by presenting the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The second and third panel, organized by Victor de Boer and Christophe Guéret, were focused on introducing an adapted “downscaled” stack to deploy Linked Data in under-privileged context. Parts of this 3-layered approach include the work done on voice interfaces and the decentralised entity registry system (ERS) developed at DANS. When combined, adapted infrastructures, multi-modal interfaces and relevant contextualised data provide the basis for efficient and effective data sharing in any part of the world (see also the column published in eData last month).

Martin Murillo of IEEE presented his work on improving connectivity allowing health clinics to share information in the Peruvian forests. The last panel also included an interactive session where participants were invited to think around the content of the previous two panels in light of their specific datasets and use-cases. This was a successful event which will be followed by other editions of the LD4D tutorial and DownScale workshop. Both series of events are organised by the people behind the “World Wide Semantic Web” community working on the common goal of bridging the digital divide and bringing data sharing technology to everyone.