We are DATACTIVE, a research project and a research collective exploring the politics of big data broadly defined. We are researchers, meaning we exercise both curiosity and scientific rigor in exploring social reality and its manifold web manifestations.

iuData activism: The politics of big data according to civil society is a research project based at the Department of Media Studies of the University of Amsterdam. It is funded by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (StG-2014_639379 DATACTIVE), with Stefania Milan as Principal Investigator.

data activism

We live in a time of data abundance, one in which data is not merely a commodity or a tool for surveillance, but also a metaphor of power. With the diffusion of ‘big data’, citizens increasingly engage in new social practices rooted in technology and data, which we term data activism. With data activism we indicate the broad range of socio-technical practices that take a critical approach to massive data collection. It emerges out of existing activism sub-cultures, such as the hacker and the open-source movements, but overcomes their elitist character to involve also ordinary users. It concerns both individuals and groups, and operates at different territorial levels, from local to transnational. It takes two forms. First, citizens increasingly resist by means of technical fixes the threats to civil and human rights that derive from corporate privacy intrusion and government surveillance (re-active data activism). Second, people take advantage of the possibilities for civic engagement, advocacy, and campaigning that big data offer (pro-active data activism). ‘Re-active’ and ‘pro-active’ identify two facets of the same phenomenon: both take information as a constitutive force in society capable to shape social reality [1], and are enabled (and constrained) by software. By increasingly involving average users, they are a signal of a change in perspective and attitude towards massive data collection emerging within the civil society realm.

[1] Braman, Sandra (2006). Change of State. Information, Policy and Power. MIT Press


the research questions

The project investigates civil society’s engagement with massive data collection, addressing three main research questions: How do citizens resist massive data collection by means of technical fixes (re-active data activism)? How do social movements use big data to foster social change (pro-active data activism)? How does data activism affect the dynamics of transnational civil society, and transnational advocacy networks in particular?

We use the lenses of data activism, an umbrella term that indicate grassroots mobilizations enabled but also constrained by software, which take a critical stance towards massive data collection. They emerge from, for example, the hacker and open software movement, but increasingly involve ordinary users, signaling a change in perspective and attitude towards massive data collection emerging within civil society.

the approach

The project adopts a multidisciplinary conceptual framework integrating social movement studies, science and technology studies and international relations. It analyzes organizational forms, action repertoires and the enabling role of software in data activism, and identifies emerging structures and strategies of transnational advocacy networks. Data are collected via qualitative and computational methods.

DATACTIVE, however, is also a springboard for a number of related individual projects, touching upon threat modelling as a growing practice in the design and implementation of security, data divides and civic tech communities, grassroots visions of the internet, internet infrastructure and human rights, app-enabled surveillance, data infrastructure and genealogies, and cybersecurity governance.



Our values

We like to think of our research as antidisciplinary: we are empowered by our differences and our respective mixed backgrounds in the social sciences and humanities. We muddle up the borders between sociology | science and technology studies | critical security studies |philosophy | political science | development studies | human computer interaction | liberal arts.

Not only are we curious about the world, we also seek to make a difference. We experiment with engaged research an approach to research that, without departing from systematic, evidence-based, social science research, aims to make a difference for groups and individuals beyond the academic community. This approach emerges from our individual engagement over the years with a variety of social movements and non-governmental organizations across the world. It affects, for example, the questions we ask and the ways we engage with groups and individuals. In other words, we take the ethics of research very seriously. We explicitly privilege a grassroots perspective, and our research often takes sides. It is activism by other means.

We seek to engage critically with our role in academia and the public education system. We acknowledge (our) privilege but also listen to our dissatisfaction with hierarchical and authoritarian systems. This is why we try to experiment with horizontal, participatory dynamics in our daily practices. We learn from each other and our differences, and engage in prefigurative politics, subverting here and now the hierarchical relationships and dynamics of academia.