Co-ideating new methodologies for citizen empowerment in the data economy
Are there new ways for citizens to visualise and interact with the data that are routinely collected about them in their everyday lives, e.g. to see the kinds of futures imagined or performed through data?
Many studies conclude that, at an individual level, citizens have privacy and security concerns about sharing data with apps and online services but do it all the same – for reasons of convenience, inertia or an assumption about the existence and enforceability of sufficient consumer protections At population level, there is evidence of a “non-informed consent culture” (Bechmann, 2014) where data is extracted, commodified and controlled in ways that are illegible and unknowable to citizens; and where withholding consent to share data can be disadvantageous or even detrimental for citizens.
We seem to have reached an impasse, however, where the issues are well-known, but the citizen voice is largely missing from debates about how to re-balance the hardwired power asymmetry between ‘Big Other’ and individuals and communities.
What did the project involve?
This project sought to bring together an initial group to explore ways to break this impasse using interdisciplinary dialogue and research to ideate new methodologies for citizen empowerment in the data economy. The purpose of this study was to bring together an interdisciplinary team to co-ideate new methodologies for citizen empowerment in the data economy, working with families participating in a citizen-led housing initiative.
In order to ideate these new methodologies, the team wanted to think creatively about four fundamental questions:
- Are there new ways for citizens to visualise and interact with the data that are routinely collected about them in their everyday lives, e.g. to see the kinds of futures imagined or performed through data?
- What different forms might citizen data empowerment take in a ‘Smart City’ like Bristol, where the perspectives and interests of citizens risk being excluded? E.g. enabling citizens to critique and reveal how data is produced and used; ‘reclaim’ data for alternate analyses; or produce counter-data.
- Are there ways of ‘doing data differently’ in order to mitigate the data inequalities that can cause or exacerbate social inequalities?
- What kinds of data do individuals and communities find most useful in supporting their everyday lives and aspirations – both now and in the future?
Through collaboration with WeCanMake – Knowle West Media Centre’s citizen-led housing initiative – the conversation had a strong practical focus on the financial lives of citizens where a vast array of data is used to determine critical questions such as the quality of financial services and products they have access to; the price they pay for them; and their perceived fitness as prospective employees, tenants or homeowners.
The conversation also involved members of the Wellspring Settlement, a “a charity run for the community and led by the community, it is not run for the profit of any individuals. We are accountable to you and aim to work with you to ensure that everyone in our community has all the opportunities to live the best life they can. We will listen to you and hear what matters to you, and use our influence as an organisation to talk to the City Council, Health Service and others to ensure your voice is heard.”
Through these partnerships the initial conversations were able to focalise their attention on the Bristol community and specific residential areas, benefiting from the input of charities that already consider methods by which they may empower the members of their communities.
Who are the team and what do they bring?
- Sharon Collard (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol) is a researcher in Personal Finance. She is Research Director at the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre. The Centre’s research has helped improve policy and practice in sectors such as financial services and energy, in turn improving outcomes for consumers.
- Melissa Mean (Knowle West Media Centre) is Director of We Can Make, a citizen-led housing programme and part of Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol. We Can Make unlocks micro-sites for affordable homes, using digital fabrication tech to localise production and build community wealth.
- Julie MacLeavy (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol) is a researcher whose research aims to develop a ‘cultural political economy’ reading of state intervention and its geographies.
- Ed Atkins (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol) is a researcher whose research broadly explores the topic of ‘just transition’, or how sustainability and/or decarbonisation policies can be made fairer and more inclusive.
- Lyndsay Grant (Education, University of Bristol) is a researcher with a focus on critical approaches to digital technologies in society and education, digital and data literacies, and sociotechnical futures.
What were the results?
After several meetings and discussions, the research team discussed a number of outputs that unfortunately did not come to fruition due to the disruption of COVID-19 and resource issues. The team came together to create a more detailed proposal for future funding.