Data Power Conference

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Panel Session 4c): Personal Data and Data Literacy (Chair: Joseph Turow)


The Promise of Small Data: Regulating Individual Choice Through Access to Personal Information

Nora Draper, University of New Hampshire

Amid the big data frenzy, a subset of voices can be heard advocating for “small data.” Where big data promises to exploit intelligence hidden in troves of anonymous information, small data claims to reverse the hierarchies inherent in technologies that privilege access to myriad datasets and powerful algorithms. Small data advocates imagine tools deployed by individuals to help access, analyze and utilize contextualized, personal information. Both the United States and the United Kingdom are experimenting with such programs. In the UK, the Midata initiative focuses on providing individuals with the personal data companies hold about them to encourage consumer-driven innovation. A parallel project in the U.S. – part of the Obama Administration’s Transparency and Open Government initiative – is developing an online clearinghouse for machine-readable government datasets and a corresponding framework to guide consumer-organization interaction.

While both of these projects draw on the frameworks of big data optimism, they privilege the perceived benefits of small data. The articulated goal is two-fold: give individuals control over the collection and use of their information and promote data-informed decision making at the individual level. These initiatives use the powerful language of user control to respond to anxieties exacerbated by big data programs; however, they also reflect a neo-liberal approach to the provision of services in which responsibility for effective decision-making is downloaded to citizens. In this presentation, I use the UK and US initiatives to explore how small data projects combine the soft paternalism of normalization architectures with the neoliberal promise of a responsible citizenry.


The Calculative Power Over Personal Data

Tuukka Lehtiniemi, Institute for Information Technology

In this paper, the concepts of calculative spaces, calculative equipment and calculative power (Michel Callon) are employed in the context of personal data. If decisions concerning personal data are viewed as economic action, they result from a process of calculation where actors evaluate relative values of end-states. Calculation involves calculative spaces and equipment: specific technologies and artifacts that actors employ in the process. Differences in calculative capacities of actors give rise to differences in calculative power. Calculative power may also be purposefully limited and situations of non-calculation constructed to prevent valuation. Currently, if permitting access to personal data is understood as exchange at all, the norm is barter exchange of personal data for service access. This exchange is affected by the relative power of the actors over the terms of exchange. The users are data subjects, arguably having limited capacities of calculation. A number of citizen and governmental initiatives and even early commercial activities currently aim at changing this norm, purportedly beneficially to both parties of exchange, by proposing ways to enable users to make informed decision over their personal data. These initiatives are viewed here as bringing personal data more visibly into the realm of economic action. A case study of internet services whose outspoken aim is to provide users with control and value of personal data, such as The Good Data and Datacoup, is carried out to investigate how such services can act as calculative equipment, facilitating calculative processes and thereby affecting relationships of calculative power.


The Power of Understanding Data

Zara Rahman, Centre for Internet and Human Rights at European University Viadrina

Evidence is power – and one of the best ways of gathering evidence is through gathering, analysing and working with data. But there is a big difference between raw data, and being able to draw information, knowledge or wisdom from it1; this requires a certain level of data literacy that currently relatively few possess. Prerequisites to making sense of data include anything from access to the data, the ability to verify the data and recognise biases, technical skills to clean, analyse and present the data, or access to tools to facilitate these processes, to name just a few.2

Large corporations have the resources to train people and hire people with high levels of data literacy – civil society, on the other hand, does not. To level the playing field of people able to make sense of the increasing amounts of data available to us, and empower civil society to harness the potential of data, the transfer of these skills is ever more vital.
In this paper, a selection of the numerous data literacy initiatives across the world will be reviewed, and the impact of these initiatives assessed, based upon interviews with data literacy trainers as well as recipients of trainings and data literacy initiatives. I will highlight common success factors spanning across the various initiatives, and demonstrate that long term, sustained engagement with communities, led with local partners, is necessary for the potential of data to be harnessed and used by groups with limited resources.



Users and Inferred Data in Online Social Networks: Countering Power Imbalance by Revealing Inference Mechanisms

Laurence Claeys, Tom Seymoens and Jo Pierson, VUB-iMinds-SMIT

In the past, much privacy research has focused on how social media use and social relationships are interrelated. Lately, more attention is given to the access and the use of personal data by Online Social Network (OSN) providers and other third parties. Here, data mining algorithms, machine learning techniques or other data extraction techniques play an essential role in creating meaningful information for understanding and predicting personal information of the user. This leads to a risk of disempowerment through the loss of user agency. Our research investigates how we could counter this data power imbalance, by confronting social groups and users with the way that their data is being collected, processed and inferred. From a theoretical perspective we build on the integration of Science and Technology Studies (STS) with Media and Communication Studies (MCS) (Gillespie et al., 2014), more in particularly taking a critical stance on the co-construction of technological systems (van Dijck, 2013; Mansell, 2012; Feenberg, 1999).

In the paper we present the results of an in-depth user study within the interdisciplinary EU project USEMP ( The study took place in Flanders (Belgium), in November and December 2014. Our findings discuss people's awareness and attitudes towards the way OSN providers and specific third parties can reason on their social media data and related inferences. Through means of 14 semi-structured qualitative interviews using a diverse and innovative set of probes, we captured insights on which personal data people generally find appropriate to share online and their attitudes towards the different ways of data gathering (volunteered, observed and inferred). Later on, we confronted our results with the data-reachability matrix (Creese et al., 2012) wherein the authors define which potential personal information can be inferred through the use of existing data extraction techniques on (a combination of) data, typically exposed on OSNs. Starting from these insights we analyze the need for and the possibility of an end-user visualization of personal data sharing behavior.

Creese S., Goldsmith M., Nurse J.R.C. & Philips, E. (2012) A Data-Reachability Model for Elucidating Privacy and Security Risks Related to the Use of Online Social Networks. In Proceedings of the 11th IEEE International Conference on Trust, Security and Privacy in Computing and Communications ’12, Liverpool, 1124-1131.

Feenberg, Andrew (1999) Questioning technology. London: Routledge, 243.

Gillespie, Tarleton, Boczkowski, Pablo J. & Foot, Kirsten A. (Eds.) (2014) Media technologies: essays on communication, materiality, and society. Cambridge: MIT Press, 325.

Mansell, Robin (2012) Imagining the Internet: communication, innovation, and governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 289.

van Dijck, José (2013) The culture of connectivity: a critical history of social media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 228.