ASU professor wins 'Digging Into Data' challenge

C. Michael Barton

ASU professor C. Michael Barton has been named a “Digging Into Data” challenge winner. He is among a cohort of research teams representing Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States that were named by 10 international research agencies, including the National Science Foundation in the United States.

The Digging into Data program encourages research teams to develop new insights, tools and skills in innovative social science and humanities research using large-scale data analysis. Fourteen teams will receive grants to investigate how computational techniques can be applied to “big data” in social sciences and the humanities. Each team represents collaborations among scholars, scientists and information professionals from leading universities and libraries in Europe and North America.

The 10 sponsoring agencies are providing approximately $5.1 million to fund the 14 winning projects.

Barton, School of Human Evolution and Social Change professor and director of the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, is part of a team that is developing MIning Relationships Among variables in large datasets from CompLEx systems (MIRACLE). The project is specifically for social and environmental scientists using models whose outputs are difficult to analyze using traditional statistical methods. The project will develop interconnected, web-based analysis and visualization tools that provide automated ways to discern complex relationships among societies and their environments.. These tools will be developed and made available through a partnership with the Network for Computational Modeling in Social and Ecological Systems (CoMSES Net), a National Science Foundation research network directed by Barton, ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change Associate Professor Marco Janssen, and Lillian Alessa, University of Idaho.

“Computational modeling is becoming an important tool for scientific research on complex socio-ecological systems. The modern world is dominated by these systems in which societies interact and influence the natural world in many ways – and are themselves affected by this humanized natural environment,” Barton said.

Utilizing research tools that enable modelers to easily manage, analyze, visualize and compare output data will also allow for the formation of web-based tools that can be used by the general public, policymakers and stakeholders. Researchers will be able to explore, interact with and provide feedback on what were once difficult-to-understand models.

“This kind of modeling creates large and complex data sets that are not easily dealt with by commonly used analysis methods. This new grant will develop special computer-based tools for making sense out of this complex data. The fact that this grant is part of an international research consortium, funded by the Digging Into Data Challenge, is a mark of growing importance of this new kind of science,” he said.

Researchers on the project have already created virtual worlds with varied environments through computer code, including agent-based models to explore interactions such as: land use and landscape; social dimensions of climate change; agricultural land use and management; and biodiversity, among others. The tools and platform that they will develop will offer an opportunity to uncover new theories about how social systems work. Researchers will also be able to test how realistic a simulation is and propose new areas to explore.

The project is lead by Dawn Cassandra Parker, University of Waterloo, Canada. Other members of the research team are: Barton; Tatiana Filatova, University of Twente, Netherlands; and Terence P. Dawson, University of Dundee, the United Kingdom.

The Digging into Data Challenge is administered by the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities.