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

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - DATACTIVE (Data activism: The politics of big data according to civil society)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-06-30

With the progressive datafication of many aspects of social life, citizens become increasingly aware of the critical role of information in society. While the industry and the state have long acknowledged the value of "big data" for their activities, the organized civil society has only slowly started to act upon the challenges and advantages of datafication. DATACTIVE explores the politics of datafication from the perspective of civil society adopting the notion of 'data activism' as a heuristic tool. Data activism indicates the grassroots mobilizations that take a critical stance towards datafication and seek to intervene in the datafied society by promoting alternative data epistemologies and data practices. It emerges from pre-existing technical subcultures (e.g. hacker, open source) to involve lay users, signalling a change in the understanding of datafication emerging within the citizenry at large. While some consider massive data collection as a challenge to civil liberties and human rights, others explore the opportunities for civic engagement and collective action that come along with the increased availability of data.

DATACTIVE explore the contentious politics of data by addressing three core research questions: How do citizens resist massive data collection by means of, e.g. technical fixes (“reactive data activism”)? How do social movements use big data to foster social change (“proactive data activism”)? How does data activism affect the dynamics of the transnational civil society? Proactive and reactive data activism represent two facets of the same phenomenon, namely citizens’ reaction to the fundamental paradigm shift brought about by datafication. The project relies on a multidisciplinary conceptual framework integrating the social sciences with the humanities, with incursions into critical informatics. Data collection combines qualitative methods (interviewing, field observations, infrastructure ethnography) and computational methods developed specifically for the purpose (e.g. mailing-list scraping).

With a focus on citizen practices and activism, DATACTIVE reflects on the future of digital democracy in an increasingly datafied society. 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; 2) by addressing a growing field of human action, it sets the basis for understanding the future of political participation; 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.
The team in RP3 included 4 PhD students, 3 postdoctoral fellows, and 3 research and/or student assistants, suppo4ted by the Advisory and Ethics Boards.

DATA COLLECTION & ANALYSIS. In RP3, the team finalised data collection, exceeding the target of 250 interviews with human rights defenders, software developers, policy advocates. Participant observation targeted activist events like the Internet Freedom Festival and data activism activities (e.g. trainings). Infrastructure ethnography investigated tools and interfaces supporting citizen resistance to surveillance (e.g. Qubes). Document analysis targeted commercial and activist material on, e.g. security strategies. The team developed software to analyze collaboration in online communities (BigBang), investigating internet governance mailing lists.

SECURE COMMUNICATION/RESEARCH INFRASTRUCTURE. The privacy-aware and self-managed infrastructure was completed, including secure cloud space, mailing lists, e-mail accounts, Etherpads for collaboratively writing and the data analysis stack.

DISSEMINATION activities include the project website, Twitter account, Working Papers Series, Speakers’ Series, blog, the Big Data from the South blog, and a number of events organized on “contentious data”, “everyday data”, “data for the social good", etc. Four Special Issues were published. Collectively the team delivered over 250 talks and lectures.
Focusing on political participation, digital activism and participatory governance, DATACTIVE explores the future of democracy as it evolves under the pressures and uncertainties of datafication and massive data collection. It goes beyond the state of the art in at least four ways:

1. By analyzing people's understanding of and engagement with datafication and technological innovation, including Artificial Intelligence, as well as the epistemological and ontological consequences of datafication on the organization of social life, DATACTIVE contributes to critically assess the risks and promises of datafication and technological innovation for contemporary societies, and liberal democracies in particular. It provides unique empirical material and ultimately contributes 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 and political participation as technology, data, and AI progressively move to the core of citizen participation.
3. By integrating adjacent disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities that seldom interact (e.g. sociology of social movements with science and technology studies), 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 has wider societal implications:

1. It contributes to the self-reflexivity of activists and civil society organizations engaged in data activism by involving them in the research cycle, by sharing data, and by providing open-source software that they can use to better understand their own activities and the society where they intervene.
2. Turning research data into points of intervention, DATACTIVE actively contributes to shape the public debate on digital rights and risks, by sharing research findings with the general public and delivering talks for a popular audience, interacting with the media, and collaborating with civil society groups on the ground.With the Big Data from. the South Initiative, DATACTIVE expands its geographical scope to specifically focus on disempowered groups in the South(s).
3. 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 and research institutions in society.
4. 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".
DATACTIVE - project logo (squared)
DATACTIVE - project logo (horizontal)