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

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Big Data for big wins: A focus on civil society

It’s not just businesses and governments that stand to gain from Big Data. Beyond its fight to guarantee privacy and protect citizens from abusive surveillance, the DATACTIVE project depicts a civil society increasingly well versed in the use of data for social change.


If you think about it, Big Data is just a new, much more refined prism through which we can observe and decipher societal trends. Literature presenting ‘data as the new oil’ surely did an excellent job at highlighting Big Data’s potential for business intelligence and governmental use. But it also failed to focus on its value for civil society. Civil society made no mistake about it though. For the past 10 years or so, data journalism and human rights investigations using online data have been demonstrating the value of Big Data for non-governmental and non-market actors. Yet, from a research perspective, this connection between citizenship, political participation and Big Data remained unexplored. “The DATACTIVE (Data activism: The politics of big data according to civil society) proposal involved a much larger study than the very local, case-dependent research we had seen so far,” says Stefania Milan, associate professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. “We combine in-depth interviews with 250 activists, human right defenders and digital rights advocates with field observations in both real life and cyberspace, as well as data mining techniques. The idea is to capture what people think and say, what they do, and how algorithms mediate both.” The project focuses on three specific gaps. The first is the lack of understanding of civil society engagement with data. The second is the fact that resistance to and advocacy for Big Data had so far been treated as two isolated phenomena. “They may look poorly related at first sight, but in fact, massive data collection/processing and initiatives to orient data collection and analysis towards the common good constitute two sides of the same coin. What we offer is a holistic view of data activism able to grasp relations between the ‘re-active’ (resisting surveillance) and the ‘pro-active’ (using data for social change) approaches, and between the social and the technological dimensions,” Milan explains. The third gap addressed by the European Research Council-supported DATACTIVE project is the lack of engagement with the collective and software dimension of activism involving the use of data. Most existing research revolved around isolated case studies, failed to take into account the evolution of technology and software environments, and for the most part did not explore the dimension of collective action.

The growing field of data activism

The project team has exposed the role of data as a mediator in digital activism. It can either be a ‘stake’ – an object of political struggle – or can be mobilised as part of ‘repertoires’ or modular tools for political struggle. In this sense, several interesting trends have been identified. The team notably showcases how encryption technologies are becoming increasingly mainstream among social movements. “Answers from our respondents show how the field of digital rights and data activism is maturing,” says Milan. “The understanding of what Big Data technology is and what it does keeps growing. Its use is moving away from mere technological fixes and becoming increasingly embedded in complex configurations of political affairs.” There are other interesting trends emerging. One is closely related to the news: the project team noticed the resurgence of efforts to give voice – through data – to marginalised communities and their demands. One example is the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Another is the fact that even very different fields of data activism seem increasingly aware of the benefit of cross-feeding their data-powered tactics (data analysis, encrypted communication, etc.). By making contact tracing apps, data collection and visualisation a central part of government action, the COVID-19 pandemic has made Milan’s research even more topical than it already was. The project team has seized this opportunity to create a blog exploring the consequences of the pandemic, with a focus on how the virus is experienced by individuals and communities on the margins. “Eventually, we hope our project will encourage more people to ‘play with data’. We would like different data activist initiatives to explore complementarities and to spread awareness of the problems and opportunities of datafication. This might help leverage good civil society practices for knowledge and public policy agendas,” Milan concludes.


DATACTIVE, Big Data, human rights, civil society, digital activism

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