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When Data Are Compromised by Politics

The next speaker at AoIR 2015 is Joanna Redden, another contributor to the Compromised Data: From Social Media to Big Data collection. She focusses especially on how data are being used by governments, and how this impacts particularly on issues of poverty and inequality. Her work is based on interviews with public servants and consultants in Canada, and builds a picture of how and where data are being used in the government.

Data here include government-owned and -created data, as well as from other sources and services including social media. How can we unblackbox and make transparent these uses and processes, and indeed the departments' activities themselves, especially again against the backdrop of the highly secretive, manipulative Harper government experience in Canada?

Canada has seen a turn to 'big data', and this has been happening in the context of a hollowing out of public spaces and services; data may well be used and misused to support specific political agendas rather than as impartial evidence for decision-making processes. There is a strong general argument that big data should never be used as the sole basis for decision-making, but in neoliberal Canada other important data sources have been cut to the point that there are few other sources of evidence left. The datafication of reality has privileged certain political approaches, and reinforced neoliberal perspectives over their alternatives.

Government representatives below the political level themselves recognise these limitations of data, and so it is crucial to understand how data are being utilised and operationalised – but for this, interviews are no longer sufficient. Instead, what is required is a series of ethnographic studies that observe the day-to-day work with data across different government departments.