A Data Revolution for Whom?

This piece was originally published in Open Democracy on 10th July 2015.

The growing availability of digital data and data technologies has led many civil society groups, governments, and international organisations to talk of a “data revolution”. But what kinds of political projects, models of citizenship and forms of action will such a data revolution enable? And whom will it ultimately serve?

Following debates about open government amongst political actors from the White House to Wikileaks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the critical political question around digital data generated by states is what information is disclosed to whom.

Leakers, hackers and whistleblowers transgress disclosure rules to bring caches of data to the masses, arguing that the sunlight of public scrutiny should be allowed to shine in on documents which were previously dark.

In parallel, the concept of “open data” has gained significant traction amongst transparency activists and amongst politicians in some of the world’s most powerful nations. Advocates of open data often focus on how information is released, arguing for legal and technical modes of disclosure which enable everything from new kinds of computational analysis to glittering ecosystems of web services and applications.

But a politics of public information predominantly focused on the transparency, disclosure and “opening up” of official information risks overlooking several critical parts of the bigger picture – including what information is generated, who uses it to what end, and how it organises collective life.

We ignore at our peril the question of whether information routinely generated by public bodies for their manifold objectives (such as evaluating policies or delivering services) is attuned to the needs, interests and questions of civil society groups, journalists and others outside the public sector. What are the risks of these systems for whom? Can we assume that public bodies are already measuring what society collectively considers important? It would surely be a miraculous (not to mention suspicious) coincidence if public sector data systems were already optimised to address the vast and evolving constellation of concerns in democratic politics.

In his masterful study The Politics of Large Numbers, the late historian and sociologist of science Alain Desrosières examined the evolution of modern statistical practises in tandem with different conceptions of politics and statecraft. His work highlights the different contingent concerns which are embedded into different quantitative methods and approaches for making sense of the world around us.

Over time these different “ways of knowing” – whether in relation to populations or public institutions, markets or meteorological conditions – may become so deeply ingrained, so taken for granted, that they begin to appear natural to us and it may be harder to imagine other ways of measuring things.

A politics of public information worth its salt surely needs to go beyond a focus on what data sees the light of day, towards developing ways of scrutinising, challenging, re-envisaging and re-calibrating the priorities, rationales and methods of public information infrastructures, holistically conceived.

Imagine public information systems are like a kind of elaborate camera – with various institutional processes instead of photographic plates exposing a gradual impression of some aspect of the world. Rather than the central political question being who has access to the pictures, surely it is also critical to ask about what the camera is capturing, how it is set up to take shots, what these shots can tell us about what we consider important and how they can be put to work in society to inform and shape different forms of collective behaviour.

What might this look like in practice? Several French researchers have proposed the portmanteau “statactivism” as a way to characterise forms of activism which mobilise statistics to secure progress on a plethora of social and political issues. Rather than the blanket mistrust and withdrawal from quantification and measurement of social phenomena per se, these “statactivists” focus on the critique of specific forms of official measurement, and propose alternative indicators designed to advance social justice on a range of different issues – from working conditions to gender equality to climate change.

Campaigning around information about company ownership is a recent example of where activists have had to look beyond the question of disclosure and towards new ways of reshaping data infrastructures. Information essential to cracking down on tax evasion, tax avoidance and illicit financial flows was simply not collected by public bodies. In response, a broad group of NGOs and activists undertook an extensive campaign to reshape the UK’s data infrastructure for company ownership. This included making the case for changing legal rules, administrative procedures and software systems, as well as experimenting with new designs to inform what a new register might look like for companies as well as data users.

Several recent journalistic projects focus on what is not officially counted, which might be seen as another form of critical intervention into public information infrastructures. The Migrant Fileswas set up in response to the lack of official statistics about migrant deaths crossing the mediterranean towards Europe. It documents over 20,000 deaths, drawing on evidence from media articles and other publicly available sources. In a similar vein, The Counted project from The Guardianbears witness to thousands of deaths in police custody in the US in order to draw attention to the scale of a problem which remains undocumented in official statistics. Both projects ultimately aim to instate these proposed forms of measurement in the public sector.

As well as looking beyond what information is disclosed to what is measured in the first place, and how this is measured, it is imperative for a politics of public information fit for purpose in our current moment to develop a clearer conception of who uses data, and how data infrastructures operate in the world.

In this regard, we might consider moderating some of the mythologies that shape our thinking about everything from democracies to markets, innovation to revolution – mythologies of spontaneously self-organising actors that will optimise society, if only we can create the right conditions for them to flourish. Who, specifically, do we anticipate will use public information? And how, specifically, do we anticipate that they might use this information to bring about the kinds of social and political objectives that we desire?

If we do not scrutinise these questions we risk being left with, for example, data without users or analysis without action. Information about tax evasion is toothless without having institutions who are adequately resourced to tackle it. If civil society groups are to stand a chance of effectively counter-balancing corporate influence on political decision-making, they must be equipped with the capacities and legal mechanisms – not just the information – which will enable them to do so.

Whether we like it or not, digital information systems are reconfiguring many areas of life. But exactly how they will do so is still very much up for grabs. It remains to be seen whether the data revolution will become an instrument to accelerate marketisation, managerialism, austerity and the “neoliberal” reconfiguration of the public sector, or whether it might afford opportunities for progressive interventions to civilise and recompose systems which are currently wreaking havoc on the planet and human life. Either way, the data revolution is something that we cannot afford to ignore.

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