The awkwardness of data debates, or how social scientists & policymakers don’t talk

I feel prompted to write something I’ve been puzzling over for a while because of a tweet and post on medium [The commodification of data, by Ade Adewunmi] I saw recently:

It’s a good post, but for some academic social scientists this is now an established argument that’s been developed, been the subject of conferences and books and so on. For a while now, I’ve had a sense of an awkward gap between the conversations about the various concerns for ‘data’ I witness through social media. In particular, I’ve been struck by how different the conversations are between (social sciences) academics from those involved in the development and running of ‘digital’ government services*. I recognise that the following is a bit of a caricature but the quick characterisation serves to assist the wider point I’m interested in exploring.

The fellow academics I follow (mostly in geography but from across the social sciences) have a relatively developed set of political and ethical arguments about the analysis (commercial & governmental–often blurred), big-ness,  collecting/gathering, transformation and so on of digital ‘data’, more often than not with reference to tropes around governance, labour, privacy and surveillance and ‘subjectivity’ (usually in the frame of how we are made individual subjects). So, ‘data’ in this set of debates may signal, for some, negative connotations of commercial or institutional ‘big brother’ and so on. There, of course, plenty of reasons to feel this way.

The digital government services folk, and some of the digital research services people (e.g. from JISC), that I follow often have more diverse and opaque (to me) views. A common foundation for many is the broadly liberal set of arguments for ‘open‘ networked services, somewhere between Stewart Brand’s libertarianism (in the vein of the arguments around “information wants to be free“) and the systematic optimistic liberalism of the W3C: “web for all, web on everything“. Some blog and tweet about the challenges of implementing that ethos and the various systems/techniques developed as a result within the auspices of government. Others write about what is and can be achieved by pursuing the ‘open’ agenda in government. More often that not, there is a positive and ‘progressive’ slant to the debate – developing a ‘common good’ (for want of a better phrase).

The debates do not crossover in my experience. They have their own  pet concepts and specialist terminology, with academics (like me) banging on about ‘dataveillance’, ‘discipline’ and ‘control’, governmentality, and, of course, ‘neoliberalism’; whereas the digital government folk I follow can talk about ‘digital’ and ‘open’ (as nouns), ‘agile‘ and ‘lean‘ (also sometimes nouns) practices. I am not saying any of this is representative, simply pointing out that the kinds of conversation are rather different. Neither of these groupings (as I characterise them) talk about or suggest policy in any detail, which is interesting. Social scientists studying ‘data’ (etc) often discuss methodological technique and diagnose what are perceived to be negative aspects of digital systems, whereas digital government folk are often highlighting progress being made in making ‘public’ data and associated services ‘open’ and more accessible. This may be an issue of ‘methods’. To be (perhaps overly) general – the social scientists I follow do particular kinds of, often, politically inflected research, whereas the digital government folk I follow are attempting to build politically neutral services. So, here, the academics are looking for expressions of power and politics, the digital government folk are attempting to minimise their effects.

We are left with what appears to be an unfortunate gap in a possibly fruitful conversation – there are constructive ways that academic researchers can offer insights into how opaque power structures can operate and, likewise, the digital government folk actually have experience of making complex digital systems for government. At present, in my Twitter stream I see (at best) mutual suspicion and often just totally separate conversations. There are moments though and some academics are clearly engaging albeit ‘critically’, e.g.

I recognise my partiality – that there are more than likely more in-depth conversations going on that I’m missing and I do think there’s some really positive work going on, for example as part of the Programmable City project – for example see the great talk by Sung-Yueh Perng below, that is attempting to look at what it means to build digital public services and the kinds of contributions social scientists (like me – there are lots of other kinds of course!) can make.

I welcome suggestions and comments about this, so please do get in touch.

Sung-Yueh Perng – Creating infrastructures with citizens: An exploration of Beta Projects, Dublin City Council from The Programmable City on Vimeo.

* I am not claiming that those I follow on Twitter and are pigeonholing with this category are representative in any way, this just works for this broad example.

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