Ziyad Marar: Building Bridges Between Big Data and Social Research

Ziyad Marar
Ziyad Marar

Clay Shirky, well known for his ruminations on the intersection of social networks and emerging technology, once wrote that, “Publishing is going away … That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button.” He wrote that, notes Ziyad Marar, president of global publishing for SAGE Publishing (Social Science Space’s parent), in a book – yes, a book – that came out from a well known traditional publisher, Penguin.

Marar made that observation last December as he delivered the keynote address for the London Info International, a conference which aims to connect “those who produce the world’s leading scholarly, research and professional information” with the organizations that consume that output.” And given the nature of that audience, Marar came to dispute Shirky’s claim, arguing that it was a mistake to see the changing role of the publisher as somehow obsolete.

While the focus of Marar’s speech addressed the burgeoning linkages between big data and social science that SAGE has wholeheartedly embraced, he began by discussing the ethos at SAGE, “where our job is building bridges to knowledge … from creation to understanding.” The origin of that knowledge, or the way it is collected, curated and distributed, may change – and that change does matter, as we will see – but the need for an engineered solution between creator and user remains in place.

The volume of information doesn’t change the underlying need, but it certainly affects the underlying speed in which answers are sought (and with hope, delivered). This “big data” has created a vacuum for new methods to answer important sociological questions and uncover previously unknown societal truths.

This engineering challenge is made more complex by the current condition of discourse. For example, Marar notes, the Oxford Dictionaries named ‘post-truth’ the word of the year in 2016, leading him to add that it’s “almost quaint” to recall the words of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a U.S. political scientist and senator: “You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

The big data revolution that infuses the physical and medical sciences, however, has not yet fully turned to the social and behavioral sciences. There has been “a much slower uptake in the social sciences,” Marar admits, even as much of the data being generated is essentially “social scientific … [providing ] a window onto the nature of human society and the nature of human behavior, which is unprecedented.” Ethical issues such as privacy concerns have slowed that uptake, as have lagging methodological innovation and expertise.

Returning to that bridge metaphor, Marar completes the thought by noting the pioneering work of computational social scientists and the role SAGE is carving out for itself in this space.

In the 35-minute video of Marar’s speech below, he provides great examples of computational social scientists such as Nick Adams and Raj Chetty, and details initiatives such as the online data science courses known as SAGE Campus, discussing how SAGE will continue this effort whether through building, buying, partnering or investing with outside thinkers, scholars and developers.

Marar stresses the need for interdisciplinarity in building these bridges, such as between social scientists and data scientists in this case. A key example he discusses toward the end of the speech is the first ever Social Science Foo Camp to be held at Facebook next month, co-hosted with O’Reilly Media (‘foo’ in this instance stands for ‘friends of O’Reilly’) and Facebook. At Foo, invited guests including technologists, policy makers and researchers will gather together with social scientists and spend the weekend exploring the future of social and behavioral research. One of the aims for the weekend will be to tackle the knotty questions posed above and how can we make the most of this opportunity while avoiding pitfalls?

Bridging this gap between big data and social science, Marar concludes, “will be good for creating healthy minds and healthy cultures more generally.”