Digital Methods Summer School 2016: Data Activism

The second week of the Digital Methods Summer School 2016 (from 4-8th July) is dedicated to the study of 'data activism'. It is coordinated by the DATACTIVE project.

What is data activism?

With the diffusion of big data, citizens become increasingly aware of the critical role of information in modern societies. Today’s world is awash with data. Never before have we created such a quantity of data by and about people, things, and their interactions. While this data has captured the imagination of governments and corporations alike, people are also increasingly responding to this new technological landscape.

From open data initiatives to privacy enhancing technologies, a growing number of people are developing new tools and practices in response to massive data collection and availability. People take advantage of the possibilities of data for civic engagement, advocacy, and campaigning (pro-active data activism). At the same time, people resist its harms through the development and use of encryption and free and open source alternatives to centralised software and online services (re-active data activism).

We believe that data activism is a signal of a more general change in perspectives and attitudes towards massive data collection.

Experiments with methods

Data activism emerges at the intersection of the social and technological dimensions of human action. This raises the question: How are we to understand and study this phenomenon?

We think that it is important to experiment with methods. We want to investigate how people make use of data and interact with the socio-technical infrastructures that enable their circulation. This is especially relevant, since these are often complex, proprietary and opaque. For this purpose, we want to test and refine research approaches that enable the study of technological practices and infrastructures. This can involve configurations of digital methods and ethnographically informed traditions bridging media studies, science and technology studies (STS), informatics, and anthropology.

  • Can we develop an approach to 'software ethnography’, which traces and explores assemblages of data, infrastructures, technology designers and technology users?

  • How can we learn how (big) data infrastructures actually function and are used in practice?

  • Technology is always changing. How can we trace changes to the socio-technical infrastructures of tools over time?

  • How can new software tools help us understand the workings of different kinds of data infrastructures? Can we develop tools to reverse-engineer algorithms, analytic techniques, or surveillance infrastructures?


Participants will work 4 days in self-organised groups on a project to explore these questions, together with several invited subject matter experts.


Outputs can include short research reports (wiki’s) describing process and results, tool prototypes, or creative interventions.

Topic revision: r2 - 19 May 2016, JonathanGray
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