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7AAVBCS4 Data Activism

Module convenor: Dr Jonathan Gray
Credits: 20
Teaching pattern: Six one-hour lectures and two seven-hour workshops
Module description:

The UN has declared a “data revolution”. Countries, countries and commentators around the world argue that data is “the new oil”, and have set up new programmes to exploit it. But who stands to benefit from this vast proliferation of digital data in society? What is rendered into data and how, and who decides? How are different actors challenging and contesting processes of datafication, and exploring alternatives to surveillance and the dominance of a small number of big platforms? How can data be used to render issues visible, and to mobilise, energise and institutionalise action around environmental, social, economic and political initiatives?  This module provides an introduction to the research and contemporary practices of “data activism”.

The module will introduce various practices of “making things public” and “keeping things private” through interventions around data infrastructures. But this is not just a straightforward story of balancing transparency and privacy. Data activism is an important and emerging site of knowledge politics and experimentation around the role of information in society. Journalists, NGOs and civil society groups use various forms of digital data to draw attention to their causes (from inequality to climate change), by telling stories and making different kinds of evidence and experiences with data. This includes both creatively using, questioning as well as providing alternatives to data from public institutions and platforms. Data can be used not only to quantify and analyse issues, but also to assemble publics to address them. Activists also challenge surveillance, commodification and discrimination by drawing attention to systems for mass data collection, analysis and algorithmic classification, and by exploring the use of encryption tools and alternative infrastructures.

Data politics can be very obvious, such as in the way in which different sources of information are put to work in governing collective life. The politics of data can also be more subtle, such as in the everyday practices of classification and quantification facilitated by the digital devices around us. While the bias of the data is easy to assert, it can be much more difficult to observe. Information systems hide their political attachments, not necessarily maliciously, but simply because it allows them to more effectively perform their tasks. Data activism arises precisely from the desire to expose (and if possible rebalance) the power asymmetries inherent in information systems. It seeks to promote spaces for deliberation around data infrastructures; to investigate the conditions of their production; to explain the constraints they generate; and to propose alternative ways of redistributing their social consequences.

Through a series of readings, seminars and participatory workshops with external guests this module will explore how data activism seeks to change our perspective on data and to shift our attention from particular information systems to the broader sociotechnical arrangements that shape collective life.

Draft teaching syllabus

Lecture/Seminar 1: An Introduction to Data Activism

Lecture/Seminar 2: Making Data Public and Making Public Data

Workshop 1: Participatory Workshop on “Changing What Counts”

Lecture/Seminar 3: Tracking the Trackers

Lecture/Seminar 4: Platforms, Algorithms and AI

Workshop 2: Participatory Workshop on “Retraining the Machine”

Module aims

This module will provide an introduction to emerging practices and visions of “data activism”, exploring how citizens, civil society groups and others are intervening around the creation, use and dissemination of digital data. As well as familiarising students with contemporary politics, practices and infrastructures through which data is made public (e.g. transparency, leaks, open data) and kept private (e.g. encryption, obfuscation), the module will examine 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 journalism, data visualisation and interventions around platforms, algorithms and AI. It will provide a theoretical, conceptual and practical grounding for the study of different forms of data activism – including through digital methods, content analysis and “experiments in participation” around data projects with NGOs, journalists and other external guests.

Learning outcomes

- Gain a solid grounding in recent social and cultural research around data activism and the politics of data (including open data, data journalism, citizen data and associated fields);

- Obtain experience in studying and developing data projects – including gathering, analysing, visualising and intervening around data through participatory group work with external guests;

- Learn how to study data activism and the politics of data, drawing on a combination of digital methods, content analysis and experiments in participation.

Core reading

Baack, S. (2015). Datafication and Empowerment: How the Open Data Movement Re-Articulates Notions of Democracy, Participation, and Journalism. Big Data & Society, 2(2), 2053951715594634.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bruno, I., Didier, E., & Vitale, T. (2014). Statactivism: Forms of Action between Disclosure and Affirmation. Partecipazione e Conflitto, 7(2). Retrieved from

Dencik, L., Hintz, A., & Cable, J. (2016). Towards Data Justice? The Ambiguity of Anti-Surveillance Resistance in Political Activism. Big Data & Society, 3(2), 2053951716679678.

Desrosières, A. (2002). The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. (C. Naish, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dijck, J. van. (2014). Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data Between Scientific Paradigm and Ideology. Surveillance & Society, 12(2), 197–208.

Gabrys, J., Pritchard, H., & Barratt, B. (2016). Just Good Enough Data: Figuring Data Citizenships Through Air Pollution Sensing and Data Stories. Big Data & Society, 3(2), 2053951716679677.

Gray, J. (2016). Datafication and Democracy: Recalibrating Digital Information Systems to Address Societal Interests. Juncture, 23(3). Retrieved from

Jasanoff, S. (2017). Virtual, Visible, and Actionable: Data Assemblages and the Sightlines of Justice. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 2053951717724477.

Milan, S., & van der Velden, L. (2016). The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society, 2(2), 57–74.

Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pybus, J., Coté, M., & Blanke, T. (2015). Hacking the Social Life of Big Data. Big Data & Society, 2(2), 2053951715616649.

Raley, R. (2013). Dataveillance and Countervailance. In L. Gitelman (Ed.), “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: MIT Press.

Ruppert, E., Isin, E., & Bigo, D. (2017). Data Politics. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 2053951717717749.

Schrock, A. R. (2016). Civic hacking as data activism and advocacy: A history from publicity to open government data. New Media & Society, 1461444816629469.

Taylor, L. (2017). What Is Data Justice? The Case for Connecting Digital Rights and Freedoms Globally. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 2053951717736335.

Thornham, H., & Cruz, E. G. (2016). Hackathons, Data and Discourse: Convolutions of the Data (logical). Big Data & Society, 3(2), 2053951716679675.

Velden, L. van der. (2015). Forensic Devices for Activism: Metadata Tracking and Public Proof. Big Data & Society, 2(2), 2053951715612823.


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 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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