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The Emergence of Data Activism

The next speaker at ECREA 2014 is Stefania Milan, who begins by noting the social media response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, using Ushahidi Maps as a key tool for mapping the local situation. This is a positive example of how civil society can put big data to good use: what forms of massive data collection are possible here, and how can they be used for good?

There has been an industrial revolution of data, but citizens face a paradox, as moral codes are not yet aligned with social practices. Big data may mean big control, but also more opportunities; we need data activism to mobilise a critical stance towards massive data collection, emerging perhaps from hacker movements but also involving ordinary users, and enabled but also constrained by software capabilities.

Data activism may take two forms: reactive and proactive. Reactive data activism protects people from surveillance, censorship, and control, for example by developing encryption tools; proactive data activism, on the other hand, takes advantage of existing data to force engagement and social change. So, what resistive but also constructive data practices are beginning to emerge; how does this affect the dynamics of transnational civil society?

Data activism builds on a 'new' data epistemology, and is a relatively new form of civic participation; it constitutes a set of data manipulation practices, and can lead to new forms of social organising that may combine actors who may not normally interact. What impact does this have on the realm of civil society? Not all civil society organisations have the ability to engage with big data, of course, so the shift to big data may end up shaping the structure of the organisational ecology of civil society.