The DIME-Web instrument is a team of one to three engineers which supports Social Science research projects in the development and use of digital methods to exploit the web as a survey medium. In particular, it is used to collect, enhance, clean up, visualise and analyse data from digital traces accessible online.
The purpose of DIME-Web is to equip the Social Science world to exploit digital traces left on the web. The instrument addresses different research populations with different types of approaches and timeframes: advice in the choice and use of digital methods, identification of sources available on the web, end-to-end development of reusable, free and open source generic tools, pedagogical or academic training, methodological support, one-off support in an afternoon workshop, support throughout a multi-year research project.
To these ends, the instrument develops and supplies a whole battery of tools in the form of free open source software, which can be used to collect data from across the web with crawlers such as Hyphe, or from targeted platforms such as Twitter using the Gazouilloire software, for cleaning, enhancement or classification, or else for visualisation, exploration and study, notably from the perspective of network analysis.
Free and open source, these tools can not only be freely downloaded, installed and re-engineered by third parties, but many of them can be run directly online, for example utilities like Table2Net, ScienceScape, CatWalk or SeeAlsology.
The most ambitious of these tools is the Hyphe web crawler, which can establish simple qualitative web corpora of hypertext links between entities grouped quantitatively on the web. Both highly technical and user friendly, Hyphe offers students and researchers in the social sciences an exploratory and quali-quantitative method of studying communities of interest relating to their research fields. It is currently used by researchers in several European countries and in the Americas.
The DIME-Web team stands at the intersection of the fields of methodological research and digital methods in the social sciences. As well as supporting researchers in their methodology, it can offer them its skills in network analysis and web archiving, as well as in controversy analysis inspired by Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT). The members of the operational team have authored or co-authored some fifteen academic publications, including an article on PlosOne in 2015 about the ForceAtlas2 network spatialisation algorithm implemented in the Gephi software, as well as a number of papers introducing Hyphe, notably at the ICWSM 2016 and FOSDEM 2018 conferences.
The link with the local research and innovation environment comes essentially through technology exchange. The free and open source technologies used and/or developed by DIME-Web and more broadly by the medialab, are also being developed by an ecosystem of specialists united by questions relating to networks and data visualisation. Private sector entities are also sometimes interested in training courses on these technologies.
The fields that have historically been most receptive to such work are web studies, social network analysis and controversy mapping. Naturally disseminated in the Paris region, since it is hosted at Sciences Po, the instrument attracts a wide range of academic and university users in France, but also abroad, especially in a number of European countries where the medialab has formed ties in the digital methods community: Richard Rogers’ Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam, the Tantlab in Copenhagen, King’s College in London… Since 2011, therefore, numerous training courses and papers, notably on Hyphe, have been delivered in different countries in Europe and beyond, and DIME-Web tools have been implemented internally in different universities in England, Denmark, the United States.
Supporting research projects encompasses different realities, which demand different levels of input. One-off requests for help, which are also often requests for guidance, are dealt with at Sciences Po’s monthly open-doors workshop at the medialab. This is often the occasion for initial contacts, which may then develop into a paying service. DIME-Web also gives courses to groups of researchers and PhD candidates, either in a project support role, or independently, for example at summer schools. Since 2014, both members and nonmembers of the Equipex consortium have been charged a fee for access to the facility for support, training or joint research development, which therefore helps to finance the development of the generic tools.
A specific DIME-Web Scientific and Technical Committee (STC) monitors the project selection process and the orientation of the programme, through one annual face-to-face meeting and ongoing digital interchanges. Since 2014, selection and support for small projects that require rapid response without costly developments (by contrast with the bigger projects) have been delegated to the operational team and the STC’s role is confined to annual oversight.
Since 2011, the Web instrument has been responsible for the creation of several dedicated digital social science tools, has provided direct assistance and training in some 20 projects, and indirect support for a wide range of users of its tools in France and internationally, not only in the academic and teaching worlds, but also in those of journalism and civil society action. The instrument’s activities have also contributed to theoretical research on network visualisation and spatialisation algorithms.
The use of DIME-Web tools, in particular Hyphe, is also taught on Masters courses by academics and in lycées through the IDEFI FORCCAST teaching programme run by Sciences Po, which has funded the development of an additional, more pedagogical, Hyphe user interface, which enables students to use Hyphe in a dedicated web browser, Hyphe-Browser.
Since most of the tools are free and open source, they are regularly used, downloaded and installed, as they have been at UCLA (USA), King’s College (UK), Aalborg University and ITU (Denmark), UNIL (Switzerland), FMSH, EHESS, and the Universities of Lille 3, Rennes 2, Paris Nanterre, Paris Descartes and Paris-Est Marne La Vallée (France). There are also several cases of Hyphe being used by isolated researchers or even people outside the academic world: for example, a German researcher published in a conference paper an analysis of the extreme right in his country using Hyphe, activists at Utopies Concrètes have produced a map of civil society organisations, an analysis of fake news carried out by an American journalist with Hyphe was published on Medium.
The success of Hyphe in both the academic and teaching worlds suggests the possibility of developing the tool as a source of revenue in the form of Software As A Service (SAAS): although open source, the Hyphe software is nevertheless difficult to install without certain IT skills, which often puts users off, and it can also quickly become very greedy in processing time and storage space. We therefore plan to adapt Hyphe for scaling up, by automating its deployment in the Cloud. This change should permit the development of a different business model, based on wider dissemination and more opportunities for revenue from training.
In addition, the DIME-Web team will work on the maintenance, consolidation and documentation of the catalogue of open source tools and methods, to ensure that they outlive the Equipex programme. For example, by adding qualitative selection and categorisation tools to the Gazouilloire application, or quantitative tools for visual exploration.
And finally, the production of free, open source tools for the implementation of digital methods in the Humanities and Social Sciences will continue beyond the DIME-Web programme within Sciences Po’s medialab and its community of users and partners.