Demography in the Information Age

Do you know what your digital footprints are telling us about the online world? How can we measure human population over the Web?

Demography may be the answer.

 During the ‘Information Age’ Demography is a fundamental basis for understanding the new dynamics and reflections of an online world [1]. The discipline is the study and measurement of human populous, including mortality and fertility rates, human behaviors, and cultural trends [1]. With the rise of the Web, and by extension new Web phenomena such as privacy issues, social media, and new tools, Demography has a huge new range of online resources at its disposal [2].

Ultimately, everything that you share with the Web is telling us how and why the Human race is changing [2].

 Social media in particular has become a treasure trove of statistics and demographics, but what’s the point of analysing digital footprints if they have no real-life impact? This thought intrigued me as the only online demographics I had seen were either governmental statistics, eccentric academics predicting the decline of the human race, or the occasional opinionated Politics student stickin’ it to the man on Facebook.

Web-based tools, online business strategy and online privacy issues all go beyond traditional Demography, and as such reflect the impact that the Web has had on the discipline.

 

  1. Google Analytics

With the establishment of the Web, human behavior has changed and with it so has technology [3].

As traditional demographics exist to make sense of behavioral changes in population, the Web is a perfect example of cultural change that has shifted behavioral norms [2]. The socio-technical nature of the Web has been built on top of heterogeneous networks, as such actors and networks are continually developed upon by surround social aspects such as behavioral norms and business connections [2]. Building on new business enhancements, the Web has seen the rise of technologies designed to provide tailored individual demographics – this is basically now allows anyone to step into a demographer’s shoes [3].

Demography isn’t reserved for academic and scientific research anymore [2] [3].

Google Analytics consists of a series of reports regarding a website’s visitor information such as:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Personal Interests
  • Location
  • Re-marketing value
  • Home-ownership status
  • Previous purchasing history
  • Marital status

Google Analytics is a fantastic example of modern Demography on the Web, as not only does it churn out tonnes of data, but it also shows that businesses are placing much higher importance on understanding their website visitors, and thus the heterogeneous networks the Web operates on [3]. I suppose it’s easier to take that as a compliment rather than considering yourself as a series of stats on a company computer.

Web tools such as Google analytics have opened up the game for companies to exploit the online market, and represent how new technological artefacts are shaped by social forces both online and offline  [3]. Business enhancement strategies are now littered across multiple platforms as advertising to Web users is one of the most profitable frameworks on the Web [4].

 

  1. Business enhancement

The Web is a huge business opportunity where companies can market directly into your home, and even your hand [3] [4].

 Spanning hundreds of years, traditional business enhancement techniques used to focus primarily on resource management and marketing [1]. Although this is still the case, the emergence of the Web changed business structure radically by opening up a whole new online market that did not depend on location (unlike traditional Demography) [1].

There is a now a wealth of articles, blogs and free advice journals that are encouraging companies to utilise online demographics, especially from social media, in order to tailor their businesses strategies. For example:

  • 189 million people use Facebook only on their phone
  • The fastest growing demographic on Twitter is the 55-64 year age bracket
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn
  • Social media has overtaken porn as the top activity on the Web
  • Even though 62% of marketers blog, only 9% of companies employ a blogger [4]

Based on the examples above, new demographics suggest embracing the changes and opportunities much in the same way traditional demographics highlighted new areas of expansion [4].  This also reflects the areas in which social aspects are shaping future technologies through the Web. Such a positive expansion for a business however may result in negative consequences for Web users [5]. I’m sure none of us are exempt from the use of AdBlock, or outrageous news articles declaring that our online identities have probably been stolen and re-named to generate perfect feedback. I hear mine is probably called Alan, and is looking for a lovely semi-detached house near Exeter.

  1. Privacy Issues Online

Thanks to online business enhancement, companies are now using selling more and more data to third parties [5].

 Building on the success of online demographics which companies have used for business enhancement strategies, there are some key limitations that have arisen concerning data protection on the Web [5]. These include:

  • The emergence of Banners (clickable parts of a Web page used to show adverts for products. Often these are tailored to an individual based on cookies)
  • Companies paying increasing amounts for advertising space
  • The subsequent dominance of advertising as the top profit generator on the Web
  • Higher value placed on personal information (As certain user demographics are more likely to buy certain products)
  • The subsequent selling of personal information to third parties interested in increasing advertising to certain demographics
  • A general lack of enforcement of the Online Data Protection Act [5]

The levels of data harvesting are incomparable in scale to traditional Demography projects, and are now used for a much wider range of applications, with many more parties handling and analysing the data [5]. Despite a range of online actors, only one or two will be dominant within a network, subsequently making data handling an important consideration for issues such as privacy.

Closing thoughts

Online Demography, although having roots in traditional demographic measures and assessments of population, has become an entirely different branch of the discipline.  The complex economics of the Web and certain technologies that it features are therefore dependent on this new branch of Web demographics and statistics [3].

If online demographics are used by businesses to market products, tailor adverts, and sell information on, should there be some form of regulatory framework in place to restrict the publication of statistics and demographics?

 Certainly, in traditional Demography this used to be the case. However with the growing realisation that making figures freely available had valuable impacts on community, Demography began to change during the UK Governmental reforms in the 1980s [1]. The benefits of making governmental study results available include allowing multiple people to cross-check results, easier identification of anomalies, using figures to perform further analysis on a subject that wasn’t taken into consideration in the original study and corroborating conclusions that studies claimed [1] [5].

The publishing of demographics and statistics, whether on the Web or not, marks a new era of open sourced data and accessibility [2]. Ultimately this will be one of the aspects that helps to shape the science of the future, and so individuals like you and me should be rallying for it [2]. Instead of questioning the morality of providing statistics, we should be directing our attention to the online business and marketing campaigns: after all the Online Data Protection Act rarely comes into play [5].

I suggest a ‘transactional’ privacy mechanism. This can be applied to personal information of users, allowing them to decide what personal information about themselves is put on sale, while being able to get compensation for it [5]. As a result your digital footprint, while still being able to provide vital demographic information that can explain how and why we are changing throughout the Information Age will also limit the effects of advertising of the online world. This will provide us with the power to have control over our own image on the Web [3] [5].

 

References

[1] E. Boserup, Population and technological change: A study of long-term trends, popline.org, 1981.
[2] T. Correa, A. Hinsley and H. Gil de Zuniga, Who interacts on the Web?: The intersection of users’ personality and social media use, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol 26, Issue 2, Pp. 247-253, 2010.
[3] B. Clifton, Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
[4] B. Cooper, 10 SURPRISING SOCIAL MEDIA STATISTICS THAT WILL MAKE YOU RETHINK YOUR SOCIAL STRATEGY, [Online] Available at http://www.fastcompany.com/3021749/work-smart/10-surprising-social-media-statistics-that-will-make-you-rethink-your-social-stra, 2013.
[5] C. Riederer, A. Chaintreau and B. Krishnamurthy, For sale: your data: by: you, In Proceedings of the 10th ACM WORKSHOP on Hot Topics in Networks (p. 13). ACM, 2011.
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UoS Web Science MOOC

As part of one of my iPhD modules Ive been encouraged to join and take part in a MOOC that is run by my department (Web and Internet Sciences, and also Electronics and Computer Science).

For those of you who are unaware, MOOC’s are massive online open courses that focus in a singular subject area or aspect of a discipline, and are free to join. They offer teaching, further reading, discussions and assessment of the knowledge learnt: which once completed may provide you with a certificate of completion.

MOOC’s have become massively popular throughout the past 5 years, and are continuing to grow both in number available, and also in the number of participants. They can be completed at any time, from any location, and usually feature 2 – 6 hours of teaching material per week. The Web Science MOOC run by the University of Southampton was released in 2013, and quickly became one of the most popular on the Futurelearn site.

The Web Science iPhD course run at the University has experienced similar expansions of interest, which has resulted in numerous changes to the 2014 course: these range from a new Web Science Institute, increased DTC funding, to a higher global ranking of the top course for Web Science in the UK.

Whilst completing the MOOC myself I’ll be writing some blog posts as I go along which will compare the online course to the face-to-face one I will be experiencing at the University. I will also go into a bit more detail about why MOOC’s are a revolutionary educational change to the web and to the many Universities and institutions globally.

A great example of the changes MOOC’s bring is questioning why current education costs so much in the UK. If MOOC’s are free, why cant higher education be switched to online courses? In what ways would this affect academia?

Firstly, here are a few things Ive noticed now that Ive completed week 1 of the MOOC:

– The introductory videos are presented and summarised in much the same way as the face-to-face lectures. Although shorter, they succinctly address the key issues, and give the participant the option of further reading to expand on this knowledge. The only difference with these is that the interaction between lecturer and student is not the same: in the face-to-face introductory lectures there was much more audience participation, humour, general interaction and group discussion. Obviously this is a lot hard to do over the web, but I was surprised at the amount of encouragement people receive to comment and discuss on posts, but also the willingness and number of people who complied with it. It certainly made me feel like part of a community rather than taking part in a solitary pursuit of knowledge.

– Much like in the face-to-face lectures there are clear avenues of support which are discussed well. Having completed several MOOC’s prior to this one I feel that it is better structured, with clear areas and people designated for support, rather than one and two sole host lecturers coping on their own with all kinds of issues.

– The first few hours of video material and text explanations really encourage the participant to play around with some of the ideas that they have been told about. I was pleased to see areas of week 1 dedicated to discussion already. I feel that it gets the ball rolling straight away, but also is a great way to learn about other people’s views of the web before the have gotten really stuck into learning about the course. Comparisons of opinion taking into account human factors such as age, gender and citizenship are certainly intriguing and is a large area of discussion in Web Science academia.

– Some of the participants may not fully take on board that the people in the video lecturers are actually senior staff. Very senior staff in Dame Wendy Hall’s case. In fact, during face-to-face lectures I will rarely encounter some of these staff as they are too busy with being an important person. These are literally the people the set up a new institute, are leading academics in this area globally, and are the faces of Web Science nationally. It was nice to see that they have invested the time to talk about their subject and interests, and I look forward to hearing from them again in future weeks.

– So far the only general issue I have with the course is that the navigation could be improved upon. It would be handy to have an option to go back to the home page at the bottom of each page, and a bar that states how far and how many pages you had left complete for that week when on individual pages.

That’s about it for my initial thoughts of the course. The posts regarding the MOOC will hopefully be once every two weeks and are really only for me to track my thoughts and to form some discussions and arguments I can mould into coursework later on. Youre all more than welcome to discuss things with me as well, Id be interested to hear anyone’s opinion on the course.

I advice you all to sign up for the MOOC as well – it can be found on the Futurelearn site here https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/web-science-2014 and is free. Increase your knowledge!

Virtual Queenscliff (Virtual Reality Environments)

An innovative new product in the blurred area of virtual geography and games is currently in the works. This project is entitled Virtual Queenscliff, and is being developed by the school of mathematical and spatial science at RMIT University.

Queenscliff is a coastal town located in the urban outskirts of Sydney, Australia. This is the site for an innovative geospatial virtual environment, or geoVE. Previous examples of geoVE’s generally focus on hypermedia/multimedia approaches, which have a tendency to lack meaningful interactions and realism, especially when compared to games.

Hypermedia and multimedia approaches generally rely on programmes such as GeoVRML, Flash, Director3D etc.,Computer Aided Design (CAD) or Geographic Information System (GIS) applications. These are difficult to use and require some sort of background knowledge. Pipe dreams to those normal folk who don’t have a degree in geography.

Step in, Virtual Queenscliff.

No more ‘just enough’ data or flat mapping for you, no sir. Virtual Queenscliff is a geoVE project specifically designed to be a crossover point between virtual geography, spatial data storage and game-based multimedia. Spawned by a new age of 3D geographical data, it takes the ideal aspects of mapping urban areas and applies classic game-based aspects such as unlocking achievements and badges.

Initially the project sought to provide new ways of mapping and representing data over the web. Since it’s start it has developed further by providing a new way of looking at reality, allowing analysis of user-specific perception of place and space, and by utilising a platform which does not limit the availability of geographical knowledge in a way that journal articles or paper maps do.

Essentially, it’s way more interesting than that map your GCSE geography teach told you to colour in.

So on to the game engine side of the design we go. It was decided that Epic’s Unreal Editor 2 was the most appropriate 3D game engine in satisfying the research requirements.

Obviously this took into account a number of alternatives, such as Criterion’s RenderWare, id Software’s Quake III, 3D GameStudio, and String Collaborative Virtual Environment (CVE) (an altered version of GarageGames’ Torque Game Engine which was used for the initial prototypes before further analysis forced a switch to Editor 2).

By using a game engine the geoVE of Queenscliff encourages non-expert usage from the general public, and aims to generate more informed and visual learning about the town. Eventually, the virtual reality, or VR, of the area will be available for individuals to add their own data about an area within the town. This will create one of the few functioning live data storage systems using a game engine.

In a nutshell using a game engine and basic game traits in a geoVE makes data simple to interpret, easy to use, and most importantly engaging to the public. As soon as the real thing is available I’m sure I’ll post a review, where more importantly you guys will be able to check it out too.

For now, have some pretty pictures and imagine what they will be like virtually, so you can imagine what it would be like in real life. Ah, geoVE’s, you crazy.

 

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Civilization 5 – Mods and Virtual Geography

Civilization, Sid Meyer’s first born son birthed on a hill with rainbow and gods present, has become one of the most renowned and highest grossing turn based strategy games of the past decade. Civilization 5 especially has elapsed all of its predecessors in terms of popularity, expansions, mods and profits.

Naturally, there are a plethora of mods available for the game. In fact, more than 1500 on Steam alone. These range in usefulness and practicality. For example, after a couple of hours the novelty of being able to play as races of Middle Earth, Avatar, or Westeros wears pretty thin. You are after all, running around and doing the same old clicky thing.

However, what makes some of the Civ 5 mods interesting, is their ability to change a game by modifying the game mechanics to suit both the map development, layout, and the geographical area. Using the same example of the popular books/TV mods, the detailing in the respective maps not only replicate their originals, but are geographically tweaked to represent physical geography more so than the original set of  Civ 5 maps.

By this I mean, where you see different biomes or geographical features on the map, they are designed to reflect the natural formation based on the earth environment. Marshlands must be adjacent to bodies of water, grasslands transition to shrubbery and eventually forest etc. This is simple environmental formation, which is lending to the development of thinking geographically when playing a tactical strategy game.

Obviously, the original untampered Civ 5 represents geography exceptionally well. The subsequent expansions, such as Gods and Kings, or Brave New World certainly build on this very effectively. But this is where the finer detailed mods come in – those including ‘Perfect World’, ‘Reforestation’, and the ‘Enahanced World Map’ saga.

A great example of this can be seen when playing in the ‘Perfect World’ mod. It uses map elevation to create landforms, then uses a simplified model of geostrophic and monsoon wind patterns to generate climate. In simple terms the map represents real meteorological patterns, real geographical formations, and tailors the chance of resources to occur more often in areas where that resource is found in the natural world.

So, geographical knowledge can be applied to much greater affect than simply ‘there is a large body of water here, therefore I can infer there will be some sort of water-type resource such as pearls or fish in that area’.

Instead, using this mod, combined with a working knowledge of geography one can infer much greater detail, and consequently utilise the map in a much more tactical way. Civ 5 takes this to the level that few other games can dream of.

For example, in desert biomes, knowing the algorithms behind dune formation, and being able to recognise the difference between dune type allows the player to realise that ‘this type of dune is formed as a result of high winds and the availability of particles, so it wont boarder a coast any time soon. I should probably utilise my units by only sending scouts into that area, and leaving settlers for more sustainable biomes’.

Or one may recognise ‘the path of this river is meandering, meaning that it’s in middle to lower stages of its course. There wont be mountains nearby, and the availability of farming luxuries, such as cotton and dyes, are statistically higher’. The new map takes into account the correct probability of where a resource should be, rather than randomly attributing them throughout the map.

In the next few posts Ill go into more detail regarding how I personally have applied geographical knowledge during games of Civ 5, and how that has worked out for me. This will include discussing the merits of other mods also, and the general differences between them and the original game.

Eventually Ill look at some other virtual geography in other games, and why its becoming more available in game design.

Looks like its time to put my shades back on and play some Civ.