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Big Data and China: How information technology is opening new windows into the future of social science

Charles Chang

Charles Chang

Mar 20 2017

Posted In:

50th Anniversary, Faculty

By Kelley Cortright, Events & Communications Coordinator, Center for East Asian Studies, Stanford University


In September 2016, Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) welcomed Charles Chang as its Chinese Studies Postdoctoral Fellow for 2016-17. Chang, who is originally from a small city called Yibin in China’s Sichuan Province, studies two topics that have been making waves in recent years: “big data,” and technology in China. I sat down with Chang in his office amid a small army of desktop and laptop computers, to discuss his groundbreaking research and how it will affect our future understanding of global, technological societies.

What is your current research focus?

With the rise of the internet, smartphones, and social media, social science is becoming increasingly computational and often involves the collection and analysis of massive amounts of data. For me, one purpose of such an approach is to understand how Chinese netizens, who number more than 700 million, respond to an unprecedented political event, namely, the most recent anticorruption campaign. My analysis follows two paths. One path makes possible the identification of urban land use at a community level. Mapping the distribution of netizens onto different communities allows me to gain more precise knowledge of their social status, means of communication, and social behavior. A second analytical path complements the first and takes us further into precise knowledge by graphing, following each official news announcement, human interaction at a micro-spatial granularity as well as temporally, from day to day and even moment to moment. My novel approach uses massive social-media data, and I intend to apply this to other socio-political issues in my dissertation. Its merit lies in that it offers a departure from, and a check on, the more common "snapshot" sampling approach used in the social sciences.

What are the main ways you conduct your research?  Why do you have so many computers here?

The first thing that people notice [in my office] is that I have four computers. I actually have more than four—I have three additional computers that I don’t have space for. But the idea of having more computers is for doing this sort of “NSA work,” like Edward Snowden, but in a transparent way, to study contemporary China in my case. It is truly a digital era [now], and it’s hard to imagine that Chinese people could be so similar to the residents of Silicon Valley, but they are truly technically savvy: they read, they shop, pay bills, chat, date, learn, play games—they do everything online. Fortunately their digital traces provide us with a better way to understand social science questions.  If we could look at those traces, we could know how the Chinese people make decisions. We have these records, so that’s why I make use of these computational methods, to try to reach resources and data, and understand the data in the realm of politics.

Image of GSI data maps

The images above are how Chang studies land use change in Kunming, China. Specifically in this figure, he is comparing the result of land cover change from different classification algorithms in three typical urban areas. Panel A is the urban core area where most land cover remain as built-up areas during our study period. Panel B is the suburban area where each year a considerable amount of land next to the existing urban area has been converted to built-up areas. Panel C is a new town where new constructions shore up following urban planning.  The firgure is part of Chang's broader project  collecting social media posts sent from smartphone users across China, wherein he tries to understand their opinions and behavior in the context of their sociopolitical background.


And you use tools like Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

Yes, in terms of this massive amount of data, we want to understand them in a form that we can read in a glance. There are just two ways: one would be an abstract graph, and the other is a cartographic form, which is a map.  So I use GIS a lot. It’s one way to systematically look at data that is spatially dispersed.  That matters a lot when it comes to the smart phone users, where they move a lot, and their movement is one of the considerations that we use to understand Chinese economies, or Chinese politics.

What are your most important findings so far? Was there anything that surprised you?

Yes, my findings are pretty surprising, actually. I’ve done two research projects within my dissertation project. One half is to understand how smart phone and social media users react to an intrusive event, like a terrorist attack. Intuitively, we would understand, well, the Chinese government would pay a lot of attention to an attack immediately, and would try to convince the Chinese public to come back to the place [of an attack] immediately after [the attack]. And to do so, the government will use tremendous amounts of resources, like the media, police, and other law enforcement to make sure that everyone feels safe enough to go back to the terrorist attack site and its neighborhood. My findings show that the Chinese people vocally express confidence in the government, but after a few days, they do the opposite of what the government asks of them by distancing themselves from the terrorist attack site and its neighborhood. In other words, what the people say is one thing, what they do for their own safety is quite another.  This is very interesting, because findings of this kind cannot be done with other traditional approaches, like surveys and interviews. It’s great that social scientists can use surveys and interviews to answer questions, but in terms of contemporary China, where there are a lot of physical events that happen all of a sudden, I think it’s important to consider digital means to answer these questions.

For your work at Stanford, are you going to continue to look at “intrusive events” (IE) and how people react to them?

In my one year at Stanford, I hope I can actually expand my research a little bit, by trying to talk to researchers who are in emerging fields, such as computational social science and digital humanities. The research done by other scholars has been a great inspiration to my research so far. I mean, researchers in the fields of say, literature and history, have very different perspectives from what I’ve done in the past. I’m very much open to new research, and I would love to use new research methods that they use to look at my research questions and see if I can discover something that I have not yet. On the other hand, I would also be very much interested in expanding my research into more traditional fields, like political science and sociology. For example, surveys and interviews are great tools to understand social science questions, but they also have limitations. Can they be improved with digital methods, like social media, or other digital traces left by people? I think so, and I hope so. I’d love to work with researchers that are specializing in traditional approaches, and try to collaborate with them to answer big questions, and enduring questions, in social science and humanities.

What are you hoping to accomplish through your research?

I think my research has broad implications. On the academic side, I’d very much hope that my research could give other researchers a better understanding of Chinese society in this smart phone/social media era. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how China can be so advanced in technology, when it comes to an understanding of Chinese cyberspace. All we can think of are things like “Chinese autocrats tend to censor information” or “they use different kinds of cyber controls like the Great Fire Wall”. But what is often overlooked is that Chinese society is also very technically savvy—they are very good at using electronic gadgets, and also the technology that goes with them, like programming, designing new applications on smart phones, etc. I also want to raise larger questions such as: Could the choice and freedom that technology gives Chinese society possibly be substitutes for its lack of political choice and freedom?  

What are your plans for future research, 5-10 years from now? Do you think you will conduct research outside of China?

I have not thought about my future in 5-10 years—I can barely think of my future next year!  Really what I think about is trying to do better research and answer important questions and see where the future will take us. But I do kind of have a bigger image of how my research is going to impact our understanding of countries beyond China—Japan, South Korea, or other countries. I think our understanding of information technology is somehow obstructed by our sort of default view from the perspective of Europe or America. We think of information technology as starting in Silicon Valley and spreading from there. I think this is partly true in China, but it’s not always true. As I said, people in China are very interested in technology, and I do think that countries beyond China are interested in technology as well, and their understanding of technology could be very different from what people understand [in America]. To give an easy example, 90% of Chinese people use smart phones to access the internet. Here, that number is very different—people still tend to use computers and laptops more, not as much as smart phones. If we think about that, the Chinese tend to live in a compact city, which enables them to travel easily and commute and meet with others easily, and that is one of the reasons that they tend to use technology more, like smart phones. And it is the same for other Asian cities and countries, like Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and potentially other countries in the area. So it is important for us to understand how Chinese citizens tend to use information technology first, then we can probably begin to understand how we should look into other countries in Asia.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I’m very enthusiastic about new avenues in the research of Chinese studies—how Big Data could bring insights to older subjects, such as one thousand years of Chinese history. I also want to share my passion of working with everyone in this field. I forgot to mention the librarians!  I’m also very grateful that we have a great East Asia Library, where I could spend months studying there—I truly feel that if I could read all the books [there] in my life, I would be very happy. I am excited to work with librarians as well, to help them better archive and organize books and digital records and maps, so that other scholars can make use of them.