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  • Writer's picturealicjapawluczuk

from citizens story-making to citizens [data]stories unmaking // Data Citizenship

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

This is my final month at the University of Liverpool. In April 2020, I'm starting an ICT Fellowship at the United Nations University in Macau.

In this 7-minute read, I reflect on the last 12 months of postdocing at the University of Liverpool's Me and My Big Data project; the last 10 years of running community education projects; weeks of reading and writing about data literacy - and finally, the Me and My Big Data's in-house framework called "Data Citizenship".


Democratic education and digital media: voice, critical consciousness, and agency.

For me, it all began with participatory media making.

Voice, critical consciousness*, and agency - I was told to focus on these three things when trying to get stuff truly done in a community education setting.

I remeber running community workshops using tapes, camcorders, and chunky tripods. In 2010, the idea of seeing and hearing oneself on a screen still seemed quite sensational.

The power of collective storytelling could be found it the ways people would get together, reflect on their situations and co-create media. For me, community media was all about working alongside mis/under-represented and voiceless citizens to examine their realities, create stories [often of questionable quality] and sometimes even take action. It was never about producing glossy stories, but about the process where knowledge emerged:

"through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other" (Freire)

In the coming years, it wasn't just about citizen media making. We entered the time of participatory digital storytelling - from now on, anyone with a smartphone could call themselves a citizen journalist. With the arrival of accessible and portable tech (e.g. smartphones), we were able to create and share stories 24/7. Podcasts, vlogs, blogs etc. - we tried them all.

The possibilities for reclaiming one's voice seemed limitless.

The Internet offered new ways to explore voice, critical consciousness, and agency. We were all just a tap or scroll away from a revolution [or, were we?]

As I'm typing this, in 2020, I can't help but feel a little bit embarrassed about my earlier tech-enthusiasm. I still remember reading Matt Haig's article in the Guardian, "I used to think social media was a force for good. Now the evidence says I was wrong" - thinking, "clearly I'm not the only one thinking this way ".

Over the years, my hopes for the utopian future of connectedness and equality were slowly dissolving.

Then, in 2016, I began my PhD in computing in hope to learn and document the social impact of the digital revolution - this is where I began to notice even more gaps in my understanding of the new digital/social order and its progress.

Yeah, we had new digital tools to reclaim our voice and share our stories - but have these tools actually helped us to become more conscious, critical and active citizens?

Seeing and hearing oneself on the screen is no longer a sensational event but an everyday occurrence. With millions of stories being created and shared daily via social media, large amounts of data are also produced about their creators - the citizens.

Then, there are the problems related to the datafication of citizens (and their stories) - data-driven political persuasion, algorithmic manipulation of personal online spaces (e.g. social media feeds), excessive online tracking, privacy violations, just to name a few. In the light of the recent data scandals (e.g. the famous Cambridge Analytica) and privacy breaches, it is hard to tell if the stories that we co-produce and share are true reflections of our real selves and our communities.

With data having such a huge impact on our everyday choices and decisions, it is often impossible to decide whose voices are being [mis]represented and amplified online.

The data-related debates got me thinking: Have we all become (1) empowered citizen journalists, active and conscious citizens or (2) more prone to become misrepresented, voices, and powerless?

Researching data literacy seemed like a great way to dive deeper into some of these questions - and this is exactly what I've been able to do at Me and Me Big Data since March 2019.

Me and My Big Data Project is a collaborative research project between the University of Liverpool, Hallam Univesity and the University of Glasgow (funded by the Nuffield Foundation). The aim of the project is to investigate the levels of and variations in UK citizens data literacy and to develop policy and educational materials to support improving this.

I consider myself extremely lucky working alongside some outstanding academics such as Professor Simeon Yates, Dr. Elinor Carmi, Dr. Eleanor Lockey, Professor Bridgette Wessel and Dr. Justine Garegux.

Disclaimer: this is obviously my personal blog, so it is not reflecting the views of the entire Me and My Big Data team!

Okay, but how do we define data literacy?

This is the research question I begin with at Me and My Big Data. Investigating it involved a lot of reading. It is fair to say, that 2019 has been quite eventful when it comes to data privacy breaches and surveillance scandals. Our Me and My Big Data data literacy literature library would expand on a daily basis (and it continues to do so in 2020...).

[Side note: one of the side effects of all of the reading was permanently deleting my Facebook account (but that's another story which I cover here)]

To cut our literature review’s story short, I can say that we have identified three key areas of citizens’ data literacy covered by research:

  • Data Thinking - which covers citizens critical thinking about and through data (e.g. reading and interpreting social media posts)

  • Data Doing - data handling and management

  • Data Participation - pro-active participation in the data society

In each area of expertise, we identified different types of skills and activities that can be associated with each expertise (see the image below). This is a very brief summary of a framework that involved quite a lot of thinking and doing among everyone at Me and My Big Data.

The key thing about Data Citizenship is that it is not only about how to protect yourself online but to become curious and pro-active data citizen. Citizens are not only viewed as passive receivers of the datification processes but as proactive participants, activists and co-creators of data society.

Our Data Citizenship framework has influenced our research design at Me and My Big Data. For example, we have used it to guide the design of our nationally representative survey of citizens data literacy in the UK.

Data Citizenship is an 'open-ended framework' - we’re hoping that we’ll be able to involve citizens in its co-creation. To achieve this, in Spring 2020, we are taking Data Citizenship on the road and will be testing it during our focus groups all over the UK. You'll also be able to learn more about from our publications in 2020.

In the meantime, we have some exciting news - our survey examining UK’s data literacy, “Understanding citizen literacies: thinking, doing, and participating with our data” will be published later this week. Make sure to join us in person or online [#meandmybigdata] on the 28th of February.

Testing, testing: data citizenship in the making.

It is still early days when it comes to using data citizenship in practice. For now, I can only share some of my personal experience of using data citizenship in a community education setting (at Me and My Big Data and Digital Beez).

I found the framework helpful when structuring the outline of a workshop. The three areas of data doing, thinking and participation have proved to be useful when starting a conversation about our individual and collective experiences of data; and its impact on our lives and relationships.

During the workshops, we have mostly talked about 'data doing' and 'data thinking'. Some participants mentioned how Brexit disinformation caused arguments in their families. One person mentioned their friend’s decision not to eat Chinese food as a result of the coronavirus social-media infodemic.

But, the most interesting discussion took place when the 'data citizenship lens' was pointed at the workshop participants: what did you do about these [disinofmration] situation?

Did you help your friend or a family member to fact-check? Did you report false content online? Finally, what [if any] power do you have to shape and influence the way things are when it comes to data society? These questions helped us to dig into our own sense of dis/empowerment, think about the power-structures (e.g. the big-data divide) and possible ways to take actions. Digging into our understandings and feelings around data was a way to begin the conversation, sparking ideas, meaning-making and critical consciousness.

Our workshops were not about getting the data citizenship right but - in line with the democratic education to try to empower,

"reflective individuals who are collaborative problem-solvers and creative flexible thinkers. Just what the world of constant political turmoil and emergent technologies needs

Data Citizenship - returning to voice (doing), critical consciousness (thinking), and agency (participation).

As I’ve learned at Me and My Big Data, the stories surrounding data society are complex and constantly evolving. The world of citizen-led media and story-making has changed drastically in the last decade. Nonetheless, I feel that my early community educational principles - voice, critical consciousness and agency - have largely remained the same. In fact, I'd argue that the need for quality democratic education is more important than ever. As we have found at Me and My Big Data, it is crucial to consider citizen’s voice (data doing), critical consciousness (data thinking), and agency (data participation), when thinking about data citizenship.

So, for me, in 2020, my community education practice is no longer about citizens story-making, but empowering citizens to unmake the stories that are being created about and for them.


Time to say goodbye [and thank you!]

Unfortunately, as I'm leaving the Me and My Big Data project at the end of March, I will not be able to be directly involved in the next research stages. However, I'm sure I'll be following the project's developments from my new office in Macau!

I'd like to say thank you to everyone at Me and My Big Data for supporting and guiding me over the last year. I was data literacy newbie in 2019, but thanks to the expertise of the academics such as Professor Simeon Yates, Dr. Elinor Carmi, Professor Bridgette Wessels, Dr. Eleanor Lockley, Dr. Justine Gangneux , I can now consider myself a humble member of the data literacy research community.

Thank you for introducing me to the ins and outs of the real [post-PhD] academia. Thank you for your kindness and understanding. Thank you for your guidance, support and constructive criticism. Most importantly, thank you for allowing me to smuggle some of the non-ref passions into the project (e.g. playing around with graphics design, running experimental workshops and so on).


*Critical consciousness focuses on achieving an in-depth understanding of the world, allowing for the perception and exposure of social and political contradictions. Critical consciousness also includes taking action against the oppressive elements in one's life that are illuminated by that understanding.

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