data activism

Activists, after marketers, have been fascinated by the evocative power of numbers, data analysis and visualization techniques. They have appropriated data narratives to make their claims. For example, civic hackers and “open data” advocates regularly scrape datasets to prove governments wrong. They organize hackathons and develop platforms and applications to empower also unskilled citizens to monitor public administrations. Activists use Freedom of Information requests to access government data, and launch campaigns where such legislation is not in place. Civic-minded organizations such the < a href Foundation have developed fact-checking platforms that allow the average citizen to verify information in a cooperative manner. Security activists organize crypto parties to teach the average internet users how to protect themselves from cybersurveillance and privacy intrusions by state agencies and companies alike.Data-driven journalism is the new realm where nerds and journalists (and social change activists) meet. All these practices (and many more) come under the rubric of data activism. Data activism indicated the series of social practices that, at different levels, in different ways, and from different points of departure, are concerned with a critical approach to ‘big data’.

Growing out of existing sub-cultures such as the Do-It-Yourself and the hacker culture, and on the idea that access and transparency equal empowerment, these emerging citizens’ practices are expanding the possibilities for participation and activism, and redesigning the notion of civic engagement and policy advocacy in particular. At the same time, activists risk believing that data speak for themselves, whereas they can also be used as a silencing technique by governments and corporations.

This project looks at data activism in democratic countries, combining a political sociology perspective with elements of the epistemology of cyberspace, with special attention to the transformation of policy advocacy. Data activism is seen as 1) a “new” data epistemology (how do Big Data change our way of understanding society?); 2) a (set of) new form(s) of civic participation (how do these emerging citizens’ practices expand the possibilities for participation and activism? How do they redesign the notion of civic engagement and policy advocacy in particular?); 3) a (set of) data journalism practice(s) (how do movements and citizens use data, and data journalism (as the craft of getting stories out of numbers), to foster social change), and a new form(s) of social organizing, leading to new rhizomes (how do groups and individuals concerned with a critical approach to data organize?). In order to know more, please contact the lead researcher Stefania Milan (stefania [at]