Talks at “Policy-Making in the Big Data Era” conference, University of Cambridge, 17th June 2015

On Wednesday I will give three papers at the Policy-Making in the Big Data Era conference at the University of Cambridge.

One paper will argue for a broadening of the politics of public information from a focus on the disclosure of datasets to the reshaping of data infrastructures. Another will look at the use and potential of network analysis and network mapping in digital journalism. The last one will look at ongoing empirical work to map the politics of open data on digital media, concluding with some reflections on the value of digital methods for policy research. Abstracts for all three papers are copied below.

Are We Measuring the Right Things? From Disclosure and Data Portals to Participatory Data Infrastructures

  • Jonathan Gray (Open Knowledge; Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam; Royal Holloway, University of London)

Over the past few years open data has transitioned from being a niche area in legal, policy and tech circles to being a prominent topic on the global political stage. At the heart of the “open data revolution” are open data portals – from the initial releases of and to hundreds of local, regional, national and international data portals around the world. Quite a few of these data portals aspire to gather feedback from their users on priorities for digital data release, and some have started to experiment with mechanisms for enabling users to improve or contribute data. However, critics of open data contend that there is a danger that open government data programmes focusing on proactive dislosure can correspond with a weakening and de-emphasis of access to information regimes as an instrument to providing citizens, civil society and other actors with the information they need (Janssen, 2012).

This paper will present ongoing research on how open data intiatives, as complex socio-technical assemblages, engage with users around what data should be published and publication priorities – including an examination of policies, practises, technologies, software and strategies, drawing on interviews with practitioners and advocates, and the analysis of key documents and digital artefacts. It will look at the role of notions of “transparency” and “disclosure” in open data initiatives, and argue for a broader conception of “participatory data infrastructures” which deploy a range of different practises, instruments and technologies in the service of pro-actively engaging with data users not only about what information should be released, but what information should be collected and generated in the first place. It will draw on recent advocacy work around the “beneficial ownership” of companies and tax base erosion, as well as recent research on “data activism” and “statactivism” (Isabelle, Emmanuel and Tommaso, 2014).


  • Isabelle, B., Emmanuel, D. & Tommaso, V. (2014), “Statactivism: forms of action between disclosure and affirmation”, in Partecipazione e conflitto. The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies, vol. 7, n. 2, pp. 198-220.
  • Janssen, K. (2012) “Open Government Data and the Right to Information: Opportunities and Obstacles”. The Journal of Community Informatics, Vol 8, No 2.

Narrating Networks of Power: Narrative Structures of Network Analysis for Journalism

  • Liliana Bounegru (Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam; University of Groningen; University of Ghent)
  • Jonathan Gray (Open Knowledge; Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam; Royal Holloway, University of London)
  • Tommaso Venturini (Médialab, Sciences Po)

In an era of Big Data, networks have become the core diagram of our age. As popular books on the topic contend, the concept of networks has become central to many fields of human inquiry and is said to revolutionise everything from medicine to markets to military intelligence.

In the context of media and journalism, using data to map networks is praised for its potential to expose the workings of power, be it financial or political. The work of the artist Mark Lombardi, as well as power mapping projects such as They Rule, Muckety, Little Sis, Poderopedia and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s Visual Investigative Scenarios have opened up journalistic imagination about how network analysis and mapping might be used in the service of journalism.

While journalists have been experimenting with network analysis and mapping to discover and tell stories with data for decades, the breakthrough moment of this analytical and storytelling device in journalism has yet to come.

Journalists have been reluctant to embrace network analysis and visualisation, and not without good reason. While network analysis can be an effective exploratory tool, in order to be used as narrative tools networks have to be embedded in a rich conceptual framework to generate meaning.

In this article, we propose a possible framework to breathe meaning into networks, a vocabulary of narrative functions that network analysis can play, based on the popular social research approach of ‘issue mapping’, and on examples of use of network analysis and mapping techniques in journalism. Developed at the crossroads between Science and Technology Studies and Internet Studies, issue mapping operationalizes concepts from Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in order to study the state of public issues.

The resulting classification of narrative structures of network analysis in journalism and issue mapping will provide an opportunity to reflect on the potential and limitations of network analysis for mapping power in the context of journalism, as well as on how essential aspects of journalistic epistemology – such as notions of time, space and narrative – are being reconfigured by this set of technologies, practises and concepts.

Digital Methods for Public Policy Research: Mapping Open Data as an Issue Online

  • Jonathan Gray (Open Knowledge; Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam; Royal Holloway, University of London)
  • Liliana Bounegru (Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam; University of Groningen; University of Ghent)
  • Richard Rogers (Digital Methods Initiative, University of Amsterdam)

The digital age – and its abundance of new sources of data and computational methods – has significant implications for political and social research, as well as for how such research is being used in the service of public policy. Debates in this area revolve around methodological, theoretical, epistemological and ethical challenges that digital data and associated methods bring to research (Savage and Burrows, 2007; Burrows and Savage, 2014; boyd and Crawford, 2012).

In dialogue with these debates, several fields of research have been developed over the past years, from digital humanities (Berry, 2011) to computational social sciences (Lazer et al., 2009), as well as specific techniques or approaches within them, from cultural analytics (Manovich, 2011) to webometrics (Thelwall et al., 2005). A survey of these digital research practices can be found in Rogers (2014).

In this paper we introduce one such digital research approach developed at the crossroads between Sciences and Technology Studies (STS), Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Internet Studies, namely digital methods (Marres & Rogers, 2005; Rogers, 2013; Venturini, 2010, 2012). In its essence, digital methods “refers to repurposing online devices and platforms (such as Google searches, Facebook and Wikipedia) for social and political research that would often have been otherwise improbable.” (Rogers, 2014, p. 78).

To examine the potential applications of digital methods in the service of public policy research we take as a case study our recent work on mapping the concept of “open data” as a political issue online. Undertaken as a collaboration between the Digital Methods Initiative and the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam, the University of California, Berkeley and the global civil society organisation Open Knowledge, this research project asks: How can we trace the competing visions and values articulated around open data online? Who are the actors, what are the issues, and how are they related? And, more broadly, what can digital methods contribute to public policy research?

We take open data as a case study because within a remarkably short space of time the concept of “open data” has vaulted from being the rather rarefied preserve of a handful of information activists and technicians to possessing significant currency on the global political stage, featuring prominently in the speeches of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Mayors and Commissioners, as well as on the agendas of major international groups and organisations such as the G8, the G20, the OECD and the World Bank.

Advocates argue that the “open data revolution” will enable greater transparency, accountability and public participation; new civic applications and services; greater government efficiency; technological innovation and new businesses and startups (Gray, 2014; Kitchin, 2014). However, critics argue that open data initiatives may actually end up empowering the empowered (Gurstein, 2011) or acting as an instrument of a programme of austerity, neoliberalisation and marketisation of public services (Bates, 2012, 2013, 2014; Gray, 2014; Longo, 2011; Margetts, 2013).

In spite of its meteoric ascent and its extensive political implications and dimensions, open data remains largely under-studied as a political concept. We address this gap in research by using digital tools and methods to analyse and explore open data as a malleable and contested idea in several online spaces, including Wikipedia, the web and Twitter, and how these digital devices participate in the enactment of open data as an issue online. We find that the meaning of open data is continually reconfigured in response to shifting ideals, conceptions and practices of governance and democracy in different contexts and that different digital spaces enact different visions of this issue. Through hyperlink and resonance analysis, we find that open data is gaining significant traction amongst governments, major international institutions, large companies, media, and small group of “influencers” – but so far it seems to gain less traction amongst non-specialist civil society organisations and actors “outside the bubble”. Through the analysis of metadata on Wikipedia we find that open data is much more of a “digital commons” issue than an open government issue. Through network and co-hashtag analyses we find distinct groupings of actors promoting very different and competing visions of open data as a political idea – from governments promoting innovation and smart cities, to tech activists working on e-democracy or crisis mapping.

We conclude the paper with a number of recommendations for policy in the area of open data, as well as reflections on the theoretical and methodological opportunities and challenges for using digital “methods of the medium” in the service of public policy research, particularly for “born digital” or highly digitally mediated policy issues, including addressing questions of informational bias and representativeness online.


  • Bates, J. (2012). ‘This is what modern deregulation looks like’: Co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative. The Journal of Community Informatics, Vol 8, No 2.
  • Bates, J. (2013) The Domestication of Open Government Data Advocacy in the United Kingdom: A Neo-Gramscian Analysis. Policy & Internet. Vol 5, Issue 1, 118-137. March 2013.
  • Bates, J. (2014) The Strategic Importance of Information Policy for the Contemporary Neoliberal State: The Case of Open Government Data in the United Kingdom. Government Information Quarterly. Vol. 31, Issue 3, 388-395.
  • Berry, D. (2011). The Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities. Culture Machine 12: 1-22.
  • boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society, 1-18.
  • Burrows, R., & Savage, M. (2014). After the crisis? Big Data and the methodological challenges of empirical sociology. Big Data & Society, 1-6.
  • Gray, J. (2014) Towards a Genealogy of Open Data. Paper presented at the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) General Conference 2014, University of Glasgow.
  • Gurstein, M. B. (2011) Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone?. First Monday: 16:2-7.
  • Lazer, D., Pentland, A., Adamic, L., Aral, S., Barabási, A., Brewer, D., … Van Alstyne, M. (2009). Computational Social Science. Science, 323, 721-723.
  • Longo, J. (2011). “#Opendata: Digital-Era Governance Thoroughbred or New Public Management Trojan Horse?” Public Policy & Governance Review. Vol. 2, No. 2, 38.
  • Kitchin, R. (2014) The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and their Consequences. London: Sage. Manovich, L. (2011). “Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data.”
  • Margetts, H. (2013) “Data, Data Everywhere: Open Data versus Big Data in the Quest for Transparency”. In Bowles, N. Hamilton, J. T. & Levy, D. (eds), Transparency in Politics and the Media: Accountability and Open Government. London: I. B. Tauris & Co.
  • Marres, N. and R. Rogers (2005) “Recipe for tracing the fate of issues and their publics on the Web”. In B. Latour and P. Weibel (Eds.) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Rogers, R. (2013). Digital Methods. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Rogers, R. (2014). Political Research in the Digital Age. International Public Policy Review, 73-87.
  • Savage, M., & Burrows, R. (2007). The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology. Sociology, 885-899.
  • Thelwall, M., Vaughan, L., & Björneborn, L. (2005). Webometrics. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 81-135.
  • Venturini, T. (2010). Diving in magma: how to explore controversies with actor-network theory. Public Understanding of Science, 19(3), 258–273.
  • Venturini, T (2012). Building on faults: how to represent controversies with digital methods. Public Understanding of Science, 21(7), 796-812.
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