Fact file

  • Senior Research Fellow in computational social science, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
  • Taha is a TEDx Thessaloniki 2019 speaker
  • He has co-written Political Turbulence; How Social Media Shape Collective Action which was selected among the best politics books of 2016 by The Guardian and was awarded the Political Studies Association book of the year award

Describe your work in a nutshell?

I am interested in understanding the social behaviour of humans. My approach is different to that used in more established social sciences that rely on self-reported data such as those produced by surveys or interviews.

In my work, we take advantage of the digital transformation of society which generates large-scale transactional data about almost every aspect of our digital lives today. This is the core material of my work. In other words, instead of studying what people say they have done, or they would do under certain conditions, I study what people 'are doing'. To cope with the complexity and noise in transactional data (in contrast to clean and 'tamed' surveys), I use data science techniques, even though I’m not actually a data scientist myself!

What aspect of your work is most exciting to you right now (and why)?

I have been lucky enough to establish collaborations with the public and private sector. One of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on was a collaboration with the British Museum (which also allowed me access to some rooms in the Museum that not everyone can go to!). In that project, I learnt so much through talking and working with the curators there - I’d also like to think that our work help to support their job and future projects, including how they are planning to re-open post lockdown.

What’s the most surprising thing to come out of your research?

I have spent many years studying edit wars and conflicts among Wikipedia editors and other crowd-sourcing platforms where people of differing opinions need to work together. Studying Wikipedia editors spend hours and days arguing over controversial and sometimes even not conventionally controversial topics was a great fun! But I was very surprised when in a recent project we found similar patterns of conflict among Wikipedia “bots” that are supposed to help human editors. We did not expect these bots, that are emotion-less pieces of Python code, to fight! They all have the same goal and have very little agency. However, we saw again that the emergent system behaviour can be very different from what you predict based on the behaviour of an isolated single entity, and even “good bots fight”, when they are controlled by humans!

What three words would you use to describe your work, currently?

Social Contagion, Online Dating, Collective Human-Machine Intelligence

What blog, podcast or book does everyone need to be aware of?

I don’t know about everyone, but I would have been a different person if I hadn’t come across “Duncan Watts (2011). Everything is obvious: Why common sense is nonsense. Atlantic Books.”

And finally… What would have been the most interesting question I could have asked you for the purposes of this Q&A, and what is the answer to that question?

You should have started by asking me about my hobbies (it’s always a good ice breaker!), to which I would have answered: Tango, Comedy, Football, and daydreaming about imaginary interviews and the questions that interviewers never ask!