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ERC

DATACTIVE Report Summary

Project ID: 639379
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DATACTIVE (Data activism: The politics of big data according to civil society)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-02-28

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

With the diffusion of ‘big data’ and the progressive datafication of many aspects of social life, citizens become increasingly aware of the critical role of information in modern societies. While the business community and public administrations have long acknowledged the value of big data for their deeds, the organized civil society—that is to say the domain of human activity outside the realms of the state and the market—has only recently started to reflect on the challenges and advantages of datafication for its own activities and goals.

DATACTIVE explores the politics of datafication and big data from the perspective of the organized civil society, adopting the notion of 'data activism' as a heuristic tool. Data activism embraces the broad spectrum of novel socio-technical practices and nascent grassroots mobilizations that take a critical stance towards datafication. It emerges from the hacker and open software movement, but gradually involve ordinary users, signalling a change in perspective and attitude towards datafication emerging within the citizenry at large. While some people consider massive data collection by governments and the industry as a challenge to civil liberties and human rights (‘re-active data activism’), others avidly explore and exploit the new opportunities for collective action that come along with the increased availability of data (‘pro-active data activism’). Re-active and pro-active data activism represents two facets of the same coin, namely citizens’ reaction to the fundamental paradigm shift brought about by datafication and its consequences for the organization of social life.

In order to investigate citizens' engagement with datafication and massive data collection, DATACTIVE addresses three broad research questions: How do citizens resist massive data collection by means of technical fixes (‘re-active data activism’)? How do social movements use big data to foster social change (‘pro-active data activism’)? How does data activism affect the dynamics of transnational civil society and transnational advocacy networks in particular? Among others, DATACTIVE takes a critical look at forms of institutional resistance to open data policies, civic tech networks, security practices within civil society organizations, the governance of data flows in relation to internet infrastructure and human rights, open source intelligence practices, and the evolution of digital activism.

DATACTIVE relies on a multidisciplinary conceptual framework integrating media studies and science and technology studies with the social sciences (in particular social movement studies, digital and urban sociology, governance studies, and critical security studies). Empirical data are collected combining qualitative and computational methods (namely in-depth interviews, field observations, infrastructure ethnography, social media analysis and data mining in online repositories).

‪This research contributes to reflect on the future of digital democracy, especially activism and civic engagement, vis-à-vis datafication and massive data collection, analyzing the epistemological and ontological consequences these embody for the organization of democratic societies. It is ground-breaking in four ways: 1) by analyzing civil society’s engagement with massive data collection, it evaluates risks and promises of datafication and big data; 2) by addressing an uncharted but rapidly growing field of human action, it sets the basis for understanding the future of civic engagement; 3) by integrating adjacent disciplines that seldom interact, it magnifies their ability to understand the interplay between society, information, technology and power; 4) by developing dedicated data collection tools, it adds to methodological innovation in big-data analytics. ‬‬‬‬‬‬

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

*The groundwork*. In Year 1 the team laid the conceptual and methodological groundwork foreseen in Work Package 1 ""Understanding data activism"". The interdisciplinary literature review and conceptual framework have been at the core of the weekly DATACTIVE Reading Group. Bi-weekly research sessions resulted in the modular interview questionnaire, designed through a participatory process aimed at embodying different disciplinary perspectives, and in a detailed ethical guide to in-depth interviewing and qualitative data gathering, describing, e.g. how to approach and interact with interviewees in a privacy-aware manner and how to securely store data.

*Code development*. The DATACTIVE team is developing Big Bang, an open-source toolkit for the analysis of online collaborative communities and their communication practices (https://github.com/datactive/bigbang). The toolkit was originally designed by its Core Developer Sebastian Benthall (University of California, Berkeley); it was placed under the DATACTIVE stewardship in October 2016.

*Data collection*. The DATACTIVE team participated in the Digital Methods Winter School and Summer School 2016, engaging in a critical analysis and visualization of the Transparency Toolkit Scraping/data mining intelligence project (a case of pro-active data activism); an investigation of the evolution and sustainability of digital security tools, particularly open-source encrypted chat apps (re-active data activism); the mapping of the ""civic tech"" community's presence on digital media (pro-active data activism). In addition, DATACTIVE team members tested and developed further BigBang, applying it to the analysis of publicly archived mailing lists of the internet governance community. Participant observation targeted the Chaos Communication Congress 2016 (Hamburg, Germany, December 27-30), the largest hacker gathering in Europe. Over thirty in-depth interviews have been conducted with data activists. Document analysis has targeted both commercial and activist material on security strategies and threat modelling.

*Communications*. A secure, privacy-aware infrastructure has been set up for DATACTIVE in collaboration with the small enterprise Greenhost. Said infrastructure includes secure cloud and data storage space; five mailing lists and individual e-mail for team members on data-activism.net; a password-protected Etherpad for producing and editing documents collaboratively in real-time; and a dedicated Mattermost workplace, an open-source, self-hosted team communication and coordination service.

*Dissemination*. The project website (https://data-activism.net) was launched on October 8, 2015. The Twitter account (@data_ctive), set up in April 2015, counts over 700 followers. Two Working Papers have been published on the DATACTIVE website, namely “Data Politics at the Grassroots: Defining Data Activism” (DATACTIVE Working Paper 01/2017) and “Researching Data Activism: Epistemology and Methods” (DATACTIVE Working Paper 02/2017). DATACTIVE organized the kick-off workshop ""Contentious Data and the Politics of Big Data for Activism"" (September 15-16, 2016): it included a public day that gathered an audience of about 150 and a by-invitation-only workshop on day 2, involving sixteen invited experts. The peer-reviewed article ""The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism"" appeared in Digital Culture & Society (Volume 2/2, 2016). In addition, DATACTIVE team members have a) published over a dozen items, between academic and popular outlets; b) gave over sixty conference or workshop talks on data-activim or data-activism related themes; c) appeared in the media over a dozen times.

Furthermore, the DATACTIVE team has i) launched the DATACTIVE blog, gathering insights from the field and targeting a generalist audience https://data-activism.net/blog/; ii) established a quarterly DATACTIVE Speakers’ Series offered to the Department of Media Studies and the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis; iii) organized the annual DATACTIVE PhD Colloquium, open to the Department and with the participation of invited experts; iv) co-organized the Digital Methods Summer School 2016, whose second week was dedicated to data activism; iv) co-established, with Dr. Thomas Poell, the Amsterdam Network for the Study of Online Contention, which gathers Amsterdam-based scholars interested in the relation between technology, data and activism.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

DATACTIVE explores the future of digital democracy (with a focus on activism, civic engagement and participatory governance) as it evolves under the pressures of datafication and massive data collection. It goes beyond the state of the art in at least four instances:

1. By analyzing people's reaction to datafication as well as the epistemological and ontological consequences of datafication, DATACTIVE contributes to critically assess the risks and promises of datafication and big data for contemporary societies, specifically for the organization of representative democracies. It adds to the body of empirical data available to the research community and ultimately to theory development.
2. By addressing an underexplored but rapidly growing field of human activity at the crossroads of the social, the informational and the technological, DATACTIVE sets the basis for the understanding of the future of civic engagement as technology, data, and data analysis and visualization techniques progressively move to the core of citizen participation.
3. By integrating adjacent disciplines that seldom interact (the social sciences with the humanities, e.g. sociology of social movements with critical data studies and human computer interaction), DATACTIVE magnifies their ability to understand the interplay between society, information, technology and power.
4. By developing dedicated data collection and analysis tools and sharing the resulting open-source software with the broader research and activist communities, it adds to methodological innovation in big-data analytics.

In addition, DATACTIVE's wider societal implications include the following:

a. DATACTIVE contributes to the self-reflexivity of activists and civil society organizations engaged in data activism by sharing data with them, as well as by providing open-source software that said organizations can also use to better understand their own doings.
b. Turning research data into points of intervention, DATACTIVE actively contributes to shape the public debate on digital rights and risks in the Netherlands and beyond, by writing and delivering talks for a popular audience, interacting with the media sector, and collaborating with civil society groups on the ground.
c. By explicitly bringing the team and the research in dialogue with society at large and governance institutions, and by practicing ""engaged research"" (an approach to social inquiry that, without departing from evidence-based social science research, aims at making a difference for disempowered communities beyond academia), DATACTIVE contributes to rethink the role of research in society.
d. By implementing horizontal, participatory and collaborative working dynamics in its day-to-day activities and in its interaction with both academia and the research subjects, DATACTIVE contributes to transform the hierarchical dynamics of contemporary academia, engaging in a prefigurative exercise that reforms research institutions ""by doing"".

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