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6AAVC302: Data Worlds and the Politics of Public Information

Module convenor: Dr Jonathan Gray
Credits: 15
Teaching pattern: 
Ten one-hour lectures and ten one-hour seminars
Module description:

The past decade has witnessed an explosion of interest in data in public life. Data imaginaries, technologies and practices are reconfiguring politics, cultures, economies and societies – from smart cities to the UN’s “data revolution”, from the sharing economy to civic hacking, data journalism to digital research. How can we make sense of these developments? What methods, concepts, theories and approaches do we need to do research with and about digital data, datafication and the “data society”? This module will explore the politics of public data with a particular focus on the rise of “open data” and how digital technologies are redistributing worlds of public information. It will explore different approaches to studying the politics of data – drawing on a combination of digital methods, content analysis, experiments in participatory design as well as a rich and interdisciplinary set of readings from different fields.

Module aims

This module will explore ways of researching and responding to the rise of data in public life, including by:

  • Familiarising students with the study of “data worlds” and contemporary practices, infrastructures and movements involved in both making data public and making public data.
  • Introducing the notion of “open data” in relation to broader histories of public information, information policy and visions of the role of information in democratic politics, markets and public life.
  • Providing a foundation in the main legal, technical and social conventions associated with open data in public institutions, universities, civil society organisations and companies.
  • Exploring how digital technologies are involved in redistributing capacities to produce, utilize and make sense of different kinds of data – including through emerging fields of practice such as citizen data, data activism, data journalism, smart cities, platforms and sensors.
Learning outcomes

At the end of this modules, students will be able to:

  1. Understand and engage with recent approaches to studying data politics and data worlds.
  2. Understand and critically reflect on the main aspects of data projects and data practices, including data visualisations, data interactives, data portals, data platforms, data journalism and data activism.
  3. Understand the main legal, technical and social conventions associated with open data and associated practices and policies of public information.
  4. Design and implement empirical studies of data projects – including through digital methods, content analysis and other research approaches.
Core reading
  • Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Desrosières, A. (2002). The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. (C. Naish, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Gitelman, L. (2013). “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: MIT Press.
  • Halpern, O. (2015). Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
  • Latour, B., & Weibel, P. (Eds.). (2005). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Rottenburg, R., Merry, S. E., Park, S.-J., & Mugler, J. (Eds.). (2015). The World of Indicators: The Making of Governmental Knowledge through Quantification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The module is assessed through two 2,000-word essays (an intermediary and a final one).
Each essay counts for 50% of the final grade.


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years. 

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