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Data activism: The politics of big data according to civil society


Stefania Milan


Richard Rogers, Lonneke van der Velden, Davide Beraldo, Jonathan Gray, Kersti Wissenbach, Guillen Torres, Becky Kazansky, Niels ten Oever, Mahsa Alimardani, Corinne Cath, Jeroen de Vos, Frederike Kaltheuner.

Description of the Project:

We live in a time of data abundance, one in which data is not merely a commodity or a tool for surveillance, but also a metaphor of power. With the diffusion of ‘big data’, citizens increasingly engage in new social practices rooted in technology and data, which we term data activism. With data activism we indicate the broad range of socio-technical practices that take a critical approach to massive data collection. It emerges out of existing activism sub-cultures, such as the hacker and the open-source movements, but overcomes their elitist character to involve also ordinary users. It concerns both individuals and groups, and operates at different territorial levels, from local to transnational. It takes two forms. First, citizens increasingly resist by means of technical fixes the threats to civil and human rights that derive from corporate privacy intrusion and government surveillance (re-active data activism). Second, people take advantage of the possibilities for civic engagement, advocacy, and campaigning that big data offer (pro-active data activism). ‘Re-active’ and ‘pro-active’ identify two facets of the same phenomenon: both take information as a constitutive force in society capable to shape social reality (Braman, 2009), and are enabled (and constrained) by software. By increasingly involving average users, they are a signal of a change in perspective and attitude towards massive data collection emerging within the civil society realm.

Report 2018

2018 has been a good year for us. Here we summarise what we accomplished and what remains to do.

We advanced with data collection, and are almost done. Just to mention one, we are close to 200 interviews, and the material is extremely rich. 

We organized two exciting events, the July workshop and the Big Data from the South, and a hackaton.

Collectively we delivered over 40 talks

We published a dozen between papers and book chapters, including an article for Policy & Internet, two for the International Journal of Communication (here and here), three contributions in a special issue of XRDS on anonymity. We released a special issue on data activism of the peer-reviewed journal Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy. Many more contributions are in print. In January alone, an article on the consequences of engaging with data will appear on First Monday; a collective book chapter will be released in the context of the collection on Good Data; the special issue of the journal Policy & Internet on internet architecture & human rights will see the light of day.

The DATACTIVE blog, the critical communities debate and the Big data from the South blog are thriving; our work was mentioned in several media outlets in a variety of idioms.

In July we were awarded a Proof of Concept grant of the ERC to work on the Algorithms Exposed project (ALEX); we will soon hire a couple of developers who will join our team (working from remote, though). 
With less than two years to the end of the grant, we will now dedicate ourselves primarily to data analysis and writing. ALEX will keep some of us busy. To start with, next week we will seize the opportunity of the forthcoming of the Digital Methods Winter School to advance with software development. 

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This Research Group is active in the following constellations: