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Python and Social Media Data for the Social Sciences

In July I gave two short workshops at the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme and also at the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School. I had two great groups of bright PhD students and postdocs to teach to. The sessions were only two hours long, and its a big challenge to teach some meaningful programming skills in such a period to complete beginners (in the end, I decided to walk them through a small example project of getting news articles from an RSS feed and checking how many times they have been shared on Facebook, providing most of the code myself). I also rely on lots of technology which I can’t fully control, which is a risk (I want to teach people to connect to things like the Facebook API, which means I need to rely on getting python working on their machine, on their machine connecting to the internet through the visitor wifi, and on the FB API being up and running during class). But the tech worked, mostly, and overall experience was really positive.


In the future however I strongly believe that social science needs a better way of integrating computer programming skills into undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, so that these doctoral level workshops can be more about mastering skills and less about training beginners. So I suppose the hope is that in a few years I won’t need to teach such courses any more, even if I do enjoy them.

Why do MOOC users meet face to face?

Last week Monica Bulger, Cristobal Cobo and I presented a paper at the ICA’s pre-conference on higher education innovation. Monica and Cris are the experts in this area and did most of the heavy lifting, but I was pleased to take part, mainly out of a professional curiosity about how Massively Open Online Courses may or may not be changing the face of higher education. In the paper we looked in particular at patterns of offline meetups amongst the users of these online courses, using data from the Meetup API (my role being to facilitate data gathering and manipulation). Meetup have an open and generous stance to API data, and after a bit of coding I was able to extract information on several thousand face to face meetings of students taking part in Coursera courses in over 100 countries around the world.

Meetup - Map

More clicks on Wordle produced a word cloud of the titles of each meetup, which I can’t resist because it looks so nice even if it probably isn’t a good way of doing science.Word Cloud - Titles

What does it all mean? Beyond showing the impressive worldwide reach of Coursera, and the fact that people like face to face interaction when they are learning, we are still deciding to be honest with you. Suggestions welcome.

Teaching Inferential Statistics with Netlogo

Last term I decided to try using a Netlogo simulation in stats class to help explain some basic principles of inferential statistics. The advantage of having a simulation package is that students can see for themselves that things like that standard error really do “work” (i.e. they offer a good estimate of what they are supposed to, in this case the standard deviation of the sampling distribution). This is something you can’t see if you’re working with just one real world sample, and the maths which allows us to derive these concepts is too complex for such a class.


I was really impressed with Netlogo in particular as the package of choice – easy to install and get running, handles packages smartly, clean and simple programming language behind it. The tidy graphical interface is also a major plus. Overall I think the students found it useful – something to engage in and play around with. A few of them noticed straight away that the interface could be reprogrammed which I think is also quite stimulating. I also made use of the stats module developed by Charles Staelin.

If you are interested in trying out my model you can download it here. No guarantees about accuracy – indeed I’m sure there’s a mistake in there somewhere! All feedback is appreciated.


By |2016-07-04T12:02:43+01:00February 12th, 2014|Social Science Computing, Teaching|0 Comments

New Post at the Oxford Internet Institute

I started a new position as a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute this month, which is a department of the University of Oxford. I will be working largely on ‘big data’ approaches to political science, looking especially at political communication and parliamentary behaviour.

The OII is a fantastic institute with a really interesting mix of researchers. In my opinion it is at the cutting edge of thinking about how to bring the opportunities offered by new technology into social science research, and I am really excited to be there.

By |2013-06-06T12:36:36+01:00June 6th, 2013|Research, Teaching|0 Comments

Guest lecture: The eurozone’s triple crisis




I was invited to give a guest lecture at Spring Hill College’s Italy Centre on the current crisis affecting the eurozone, which was a pleasure. The student body was impressively engaged and motivated…lots of comments about the way they had seen the crisis affecting things around them in Italy. I argued that current attempts to ‘solve’ the eurozone crisis (even those relating to political union / fiscal transfers) aren’t really tackling the underlying problems of Europe’s overall decline in competitiveness and the weakening of the European Social Model.

By |2012-11-01T10:42:53+00:00November 1st, 2012|Teaching|0 Comments

Computer Programming for Social Scientists

Just finished teaching a two day course on computer programming skills for social scientists at the EUI here in Florence. We looked at practical social science computing skills such as web scraping and text analysis and manipulation. It was very intense but a really enjoyable experience, the feedback was also very positive (avg 8.8 out of 10). I hope to teach it again in the next academic year.

By |2012-06-05T14:13:36+01:00June 5th, 2012|Teaching|1 Comment

Guest Lecture at James Madison University Florence

Just gave a guest lecture on the subject of Cyberterrorism as part of Dr. Helen Carrapiço’s course on EU internal security at James Madison University’s Florence campus. JMU has a really interesting programme for US master’s students here in Florence and it was a pleasure to play a part in it and learn a bit more about it.

By |2012-03-20T16:11:19+00:00March 20th, 2012|Teaching|0 Comments