Data Power Conference

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Panel Session 6d): Civic Hacking and Riotous Media (Chair: Alison Powell)


Civic hacking: Re-Imagining Civic Engagement in Datafied Publics

Stefan Baack and Tamara Witschge, University of Groningen

In this paper we explore the case of civic hacking to reflect on issues surrounding data power. Aiming at re-imagining civic engagement and creating new civic spaces, civic hacking can be seen as an attempt to reassert agency in an environment increasingly governed by the logic of big data technologies. The trend of datafication of more and more domains of social life has meant that surveillance and personalized advertisement has become rife, also in public spaces (Couldry and Powell, 2014; Couldry and Turow, 2014). Countering this trend, civic hacking, however, equally relies on datafication, whether it entails employing government data, generating new data via crowdsourcing, digitalization of printed documents, or making otherwise unavailable information accessible online (“scraping”). In this paper we explore the possible tension involved in civic hacking’s relation to data.

With the growing prominence of civic hacking, we want to contribute to our understanding of this phenomenon and enable evaluation of the scope and impact of civic hacking practices. We will present empirical findings of a case study of the British NGO mySociety[1], which is one of the leading organizations in the field that pioneered many civic tech applications that are now considered standard (e.g. Through interviews and analysis of policy documents we examine how civic hackers utilize data to empower citizens and reclaim public spaces. Ultimately, we aim to reflect on the conditions and structures under which datafication can serve democratic values and the extent to which these practices allow for the assertion of agency.

Couldry N and Powell A (2014) Big Data from the bottom up. Big Data & Society, 1(2), Available from: (accessed 7 July 2014).

Couldry N and Turow J (2014) Advertising, Big Data and the Clearance of the Public Realm: Marketers’ New Approaches to the Content Subsidy. International Journal of Communication, 8, 1710–1726, Available from: (accessed 24 June 2014).



Open Government Data Practices: The Example of Civic Hacking

Juliane Jarke, University of Bremen

Governments throughout Europe (and indeed all over the world) have begun to open their data repositories to the public. Such initiatives are based on legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) or Transparency Act (TA) but also on the assumption that opening government data is of ‘important and growing economic significance’ (Neelie Kroes)[1].

This paper looks at ‘civic hacking’ as a way of practicing open government data. Civic hackers are anybody ‘who is willing to collaborate with others to create, build, and invent open source solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges‘ relevant to their neighbourhoods, cities or states.[2] Civic hacking initiatives such as CodeForAmerica[3] have been replicated in many countries or cities and bring together software developers, designers, political activists, journalists, data analysts or social entrepreneurs to work on joint data projects either on a regular basis or in one-off events, called hackathons. While civic hacking is becoming increasingly popular, research on the ways in which it performs and produces ‘open publics’, its links to administrations and decision-makers as well as its potential to a more transparent and participatory government is sparse to non-existent. The paper addresses this gap and develops an understanding of civic hacking as situated co-design practice which creates new public spaces.

The paper is based on an ongoing ethnographic study aiming to trace civic engagement (Couldry 2014) through participation in regular civic hacking activities complemented with interviews and focus groups.

Couldry, Nick. “Afterword: Tracing the Civic.” Ethnography 15, no. 1 (2014): 125–32.

[1] Vice President of the European Commission:




Data-Basing: Earthing, Storing and Exploring Riotous Media

Stevie Docherty, University of Glasgow

“The database is now such an integral part of our day-to-day life that we are often not aware that we are using one” (Connolly and Begg 2013). The database has arguably ascended to the primacy once enjoyed by narrative as a form of cultural expression and as a way of organising the world (Manovich 1999).
Data-basing, from this perspective, emerges as a key area of praxis for scholars working ‘with’ or ‘in’ data today. Data-basing means more than ‘using databases’ – in the form of pre-fabricated suites, programmes and packages like Excel or NVivo, which continue to exert their own forms of instrumental hegemony over researchers like myself.

This paper’s contribution lies in combining a reflexive methodological discussion with critical questions around (linked, inseparable) ecologies of media/data. Data-basing is defined here as participation in the design, creation, maintenance and using of environments for the earthing, storage and exploration of data. This paper discusses a unique data-base project: an interdisciplinary attempt to build a bespoke environment for a corpus of media data relating to the 2011 English riots – both digital/material and mainstream/emergent media.

The riots themselves, the worst outbreak of public disorder in 21st century Britain, were a disruptive media event. They took place in and through media, and they generated vast amounts of media content. What implications does the data-basing of a riots media corpus have in terms of the imposition of order and structure on diffuse ecological terrain?