the project


Data 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.