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Critical reflection on data publics: a multi-methodology perspective

Research output: Contribution to conference - Without ISBN/ISSN Conference paper

Publication date2017
Number of pages4
Original languageEnglish
EventData Publics: Investigating the formation and representation of crowds, groups and clusters in digital economies - Lancaster, Lancaster, United Kingdom
Duration: 31/03/20172/04/2017


ConferenceData Publics
CountryUnited Kingdom


A problem with making “big data” (such as that on climate change) public is its interpretation. Raw data is generally incomprehensible, and requires some form of analysis to make sense. Previous attempts involve citizens in this analysis have often taken the form of competitive hackathons, where volunteer programmers work on the data and create interpretations of it over a short time period (Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014). However, these interpretations rarely go beyond dealing with technical problems, and it seems difficult to get other citizens involved due to this technical nature (Hellberg and Hedström, 2015). When dealing with complex systems (Mulgan and Leadbeater, 2013), such as global weather patterns or human societies (and the effects of one on the other), we need to deal with underlying factors.

The experience of a group of 10 PhD researchers on the Hebridean island of Tiree offers a pointer to a multi-methodology approach that could help deal with big data and uncover non-obvious factors. Their work in October 2016 focused on re-purposing 11 phone boxes on the island that had been recently been decommissioned and given to the community. Data gathering took place over two days, the first day was a “data walk” to elict thoughts and reflections from both researchers and islanders on what constituted data, where walking has been shown to help with gathering data about a sense of place (Evans and Jones, 2011). On the second day, the researchers undertook a “writing free-fall”, where each participant spent an hour with a phone box, reflecting on both the box itself, its surroundings and its possibilities. Free-writing (Badger and White, 2000) was encouraged to overcome blocks to creativity. This parallel process allowed each participant to express their creativity and wishes in a methodology of their choice, leading to a diverse range of responses. These included practical technical solutions, propositional objects, values-led design, poetry and art.

After this individual engagement, one researcher gathered together all their responses in a group exercise. As each person gave their response, they brought with them their own background, methodology and worldview. The discussion developed to consider design possibilities that were not obvious, that challenged the taken-for-granted assumptions about what a telephone box was, uncovering its deeper meaning to the local community. This process thus became one of critical reflection (Mezirow, 1990). As the discussion progressed, the value of openness became important in both implementing technical solutions and in creating a renewed sense of community around the re-purposed phone boxes.

We propose this multi-methodology as one that could be particularly relevant to data publics, where stakeholders could reflect on the potential for a particular dataset to inform and enhance their lives.Bringing their individual reflections and approaches together in a facilitated session can then promote critical reflection, a transformation of the meaning of the dataset. Such a transformed meaning can then inform how the data could be used to create sustainable solutions to wicked problems in society (Rittel and Webber, 1973), including the effects of climate change.