Digital and Computational Demography (Zagheni)
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Digital and computational demography is a growing interdisciplinary field that tackles fundamental questions across all domains of demographic research by combining the methods and perspectives of computational sciences, social and behavioral sciences, and statistical learning. The field has emerged in parallel with rapid technological improvements in computing, the spread of the Internet and mobile technologies, and the increased digitalization of people’s lives.
The digital and computing revolution has opened up new research opportunities. These are linked to: (i) the availability of unprecedented amounts of data (e.g., internet and social media data, mobile phone data, bibliometric data, crowd-sourced data, geo-spatial and remotely sensed data) to complement existing sources when addressing longstanding demographic questions; (ii) new questions related to how digital technologies have changed the way people access information and services, communicate and interact, and their implications for demographic outcomes and social inequalities; (iii) the use of computationally-intensive methods such as social simulation, machine learning, and modern statistical techniques for demographic applications.
The main goal of the Department of Digital and Computational Demography is to advance fundamental population science through digital and computational perspectives for the benefit of everyone. Thematically, a first primary focus addressed by the Laboratory of Migration and Mobility, is on measuring, understanding, and predicting the causes and consequences of migration. A second primary focus addressed by the Laboratory of Population Dynamics and Sustainable Well-Being, is on monitoring, understanding, and predicting the factors that shape people’s well-being across space, time, and demographic characteristics, and as they relate to mortality and health, fertility, social and economic processes, and sustainable development.
To achieve our objectives, the Department brings together an interdisciplinary group of researchers that include demographers, methodologists from statistics, data science and computational sciences, and social and behavioral scientists, all of them with deep knowledge in our core substantive research areas.
We approach the expanding field of digital and computational demography at various levels. First, we gather data from a large number of heterogeneous sources. These include more established systems of data collection, such as surveys or population registers, and emerging and less structured forms of data, such as internet and social media data, call detail records, large-scale bibliometric databases, marketing data, and online genealogies. We also develop our own innovative forms of primary data collection and experimentation.
Second, we develop methods to combine traditional and novel data sources within a solid statistical framework. As we often enter uncharted territories, we need to produce rigorous methodologies to correctly interpret all available data sources, extract useful demographic information, and assess uncertainty. We also leverage the increasingly available computational power to run simulation models that help us uncover the social dynamics underlying demographic change, and we exploit machine-learning techniques to evaluate and improve the predictability of demographic outcomes.
Third, we classify data sources and digital environments to assess, by comparison, what unique insights different types of data can offer or how population processes are affected by social and environmental change, broadly defined. We ask questions such as: What explains observed migration patterns? How do demographic forces affect family change and the system of intergenerational transfers of resources? What are the consequences of technological transformations for our health and well-being? What types of inequalities in health and mortality are driven by climate change? In addressing these and related questions, we also aim to contribute to the line of demographic theory that has studied population processes in connection with socioeconomic, technological, and environmental transformations, a line central for the discipline since Malthus.
As we pursue our aims, we (i) collaborate closely with international organizations and major professional associations devoted to the advancement of demographic research and computational social science; (ii) support our broader scientific communities; and (iii) favor interdisciplinary collaborations that sustain the cross-fertilization of ideas between demographers, computational scientists, and statisticians.