Department of Computational Social Science Seminar-MATTER

Friday, May 17 - 3:00 p.m.
Center for Social Complexity Suite
Research Hall, 3rd Floor

Open Source Interfaces to Public Data: New Opportunities for Social Science Research

Ulrich Matter
Ph.D. Student
Faculty of Business and Economics
University of Basel

ABSTRACT: Digital data on the public and political sphere is abundant, omnipresent and often directly accessible through the Internet. Technically, access is often facilitated via an application programming interface (API) that allows the registered user to send defined queries to receive the data of interest. However, even if an API is provided, the compilation of such semi-structured data set entries for scientific analysis can be complicated and time consuming as the data format is usually not designed for scientific research. We propose open source interfaces (OSI) as add- ons to open source software that allow social scientists to transfer at low cost data from online data bases via APIs into formats that allow systematic econometric analyses. The free and transparent code is expected to substantially reduce the cost of research with new big public data. In addition, OSIs facilitate the reproducibility of research including the pre-processing of data. They might also supersede the duplication of big data in journal archives by building datasets on demand.

In my talk I will present an example of such an OSI (‘pvsR’, an R interface to Project Vote Smart’s API) and how we apply it in our politico-economic research on lawyers in US legislatures. In our research on lawyer-legislators we find an empirical regularity that is consistent with the hypothesis that lawyer-legislators, at least in part, pursue their business interests when voting on tort issues. These results highlight the relevance of legislators’ identities and individual professional interests for economic policy making.