Linguistics alumnus uses big data for social good

July 20, 2020

Elisha Cooper is a Simon Fraser University (SFU) alumnus from Linguistics and Political Science. She has used her background in language and security to explore different, intersecting paths in big data. Cooper’s work on projects run through a Vancouver-based national security think-tank shows how important it is to look at the massive amounts of human-created and human-centred data from the perspective of the social sciences.

Elisha Cooper grew up surrounded by diverse cultures and languages through the international students hosted in her home. As a teenager, she started volunteering at a local international college and began tutoring a child of one of the college in English. She immediately fell in love with the bridging element of language instruction. Seeing the “aha-moments” of a young child figuring out how this new language worked inspired Cooper to consider a career in teaching.

Cooper took her first linguistics course at the University of Victoria without knowing much about the subject. After being introduced to topics like the International Phonetic Alphabet and the physiology of speech production, Cooper recognized the important role linguistic content can play in teaching. “I realized I was given this incredible tool to make language learning more accessible, which in my mind would make me a better instructor,” says Cooper, “so I became a linguistics major.”

On top of her linguistics education, Cooper became interested in political science after spending a few months in Uganda and Egypt at the tail end of the Arab Spring. She was meeting people who had lost friends in protests and were passionately involved in the relationship between the state and their communities. “They knew their country’s politics intimately because they felt the effects of it in their daily lives, and I couldn’t really relate to that,” says Cooper.

When she returned to Canada, Cooper took a deeper interest in international affairs and Canadian policy. She started taking courses in political science and ended up pursuing a political sciences minor. Through political science, Cooper was drawn to the SFU Model NATO Club where students practically apply theories relating to international relations and political science as a whole. Her participation in the club led her to apply for the NATO Field School and Simulation Training Program. Participation in this program was not only a highlight of Cooper’s time at SFU, but it was through this experience that she saw how her two fields of study could come together in a unique way.

“Visiting the Strategic Communications Centre in Latvia was a turning point for me because I was able to see how data is used in the context of countering misinformation and fake new,” says Cooper. “In that regard, working on the program opened an entirely new avenue of professional opportunity and helped refine my direction.”

Cooper has worked on several projects relating to national security after returning from the NATO Field School. One project in particular highlights the importance of the social sciences in big data. As lead researcher on a project that worked to identify online posters who may be at high-risk for escalation into offline kinetic violence, Cooper analyzed large amounts of open source data. Having a background in linguistics was a huge help in this role.

“We live in a world where people are posting entire manifestos publicly online before committing devastating acts of violence,” says Cooper. “As disturbing as this behaviour is, the fact is that this is linguistic data, and linguists have specialized training to interpret this data in a meaningful way.”

By using skills from her linguistic education like morphological analysis, corpus linguistics, and natural language processing (NLP), Cooper took common linguistic tools and used them to interpret linguistic material in the online context. At SFU, the International Cybercrime Research Centre is already showing how linguistic methodologies, computing science, and criminology can work together in promoting public safety.

“As linguists we are fortunate to be trained in a field that is incredibly multidisciplinary, which makes us assets on teams that have members from multiple backgrounds,” says Cooper. “We not only have an edge when it comes to understanding some of our applied science counterparts, but can translate their processes to our superiors and team members in an accessible way.”

Linguists can do more in the world of big data than simply predicting consumer trends or refining search engine results. By looking at the relationship between language and thought in the diverse contexts presented in big data, linguists can play a much larger role. A background in linguistics presents students with new ways of viewing and presenting data.

  1. Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism – linguistics students are taught to think about language as it is and not impose ideas of how it should be. If you take these ideas outside of language and use them to consider your interactions with the world around you, they ask you to reflect on your biases and think critically.

  2. Attention to detail – whether you are transcribing acoustic data or interpreting a complex syntactic structure, linguists are constantly looking for rules in data that can appear to be unnecessarily complicated. This is a skill that is useful in any field, but when presented with the massive amounts of data that we are creating on a daily basis, being able to find structure in the chaos is an incredibly useful skill.

  3. The value of accessibility – linguists study language, we are in a role where it is always necessary to communicate our theories and findings to people from diverse and unique linguistic and educational backgrounds. We all communicate through language in one way or another and studying language drives that idea home. 

If you are interested in how social scientists can be a part of the big data revolution, there is a new minor program in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for you. The Social Data Analytics Minor is the only degree program of its kind in Canada. It aims to provide students with skills to navigate, analyze, and communicate big data through the lens of social science. Applications for the Spring 2021 intake are due September 30, 2020.

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