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FASS launches social data analytics minor with panel discussion event

September 08, 2020
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By Rebecca Saloustros

Data underpins today’s world. Websites track our virtual movements and shopping habits and social interactions with friends and family. Even in the “real world”, street cameras track social distancing in public spaces. Simon Fraser University’s new minor in social data analytics (SDA) is the only degree program of its kind in Canada to provide the skills to effectively navigate, analyze and communicate “big data” in a social science context.

On August 12th, SFU students joined a Zoom panel event to hear about the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ (FASS’) new social data analytics (SDA) minor, jointly organized by the Departments of Economics, Linguistics, Philosophy and Political Science. They also listened to four SFU alumni from those departments who use social data analytics and social data science in their careers.

SDA Program Director, political science professor Steven Weldon, described how digital technologies and social data have rapidly grown in importance.

“Data science has long been thought of as an area for the disciplines of computer science and statistics,” he said. “We’ve seen it blow up with the big data revolution, where we have a massive amount of data that comes at us in real time. Some of the data is important for policy initiatives, sometimes for cultural goals, and sometimes for the social good.”

However, Weldon emphasizes that data alone is not knowledge. It is information, and that is one of the reasons the SDA minor program has been created.

“What we want to do with this program is give students the skills to help them understand and gain knowledge from this data,” he said. “The best way to do that is through theoretically driven and ethically sensitive research.”

The SDA minor program is the only program of its kind in Canada to communicate “big data” in a social science context.

“It’s open to all SFU students, and it’s specifically designed for students in the arts and social sciences,” said Weldon. “It emphasizes the application of data analytics and statistical techniques in real world situations.”

Courses will come from the four organizing departments with elective courses also offered by the Departments of Communication, English, Geography and Statistics.

Students will examine a wide range of topics in their courses, from ethics to economics to political science, and the minor can be tailored to fit students’ interests. Significantly, the promise of “big data” has brought to the forefront ethical concerns about individual privacy, the misuse of data, and risks to vulnerable groups. During the SDA minor, students will address ethical issues in the course SDA 270 – Data, Ethics and Society, offered by the Department of Philosophy.

Panel speaker and SFU linguistics and computer science alumnus Vasundhara Gautam addressed ethical concerns during the August 12th event.

“I particularly like the [SDA minor’s] focus on the ethics of the applications of data analytics,” Gautam said. “It’s something that we don’t really talk a lot about as an industry. Too often, we focus on the question of ‘how can we make this thing equal for different people?’ Not often enough are we asking the question, ‘Should this technology be built at all?’”

Students will also develop a broad range of skills through the SDA minor, including project management and communication skills that will aid them in their future careers.

Panel speaker and SFU economics and finance alumnus Jorge Vasquez spoke about the importance of strong communication skills.

“Be a good storyteller. Be a good communicator,” said Vasquez. “In my team, we spend fifty percent of the time doing the analysis, doing the modeling, doing the editing, and fifty percent of the time just refining how we are going to communicate; refining the information to help our stakeholders understand what we mean.”

As the only program of its kind in Canada focused on “big data” in a social science context, the SDA minor is a great opportunity for SFU students looking to prepare themselves for tomorrow’s job market. Applications for the program are now open. The deadline for the spring 2021 intake is September 30th, 2020. The first cohort will be limited to 30 students. All SFU undergraduates and those entering SFU for the first time may apply, but priority will be given to those in economics, linguistics, philosophy, and political science.

For more information, visit the SDA webpage or contact the SDA director or advisor with your questions.  

Watch the social data analytics minor launch event here.