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By Dennis Nguyen & Rhied Al-Othmani

Datafication and automation are “hot topics” in expert discourses and are often portrayed as two intersecting technological trends that triggered fundamental transformations throughout society. Data-driven technologies change how businesses operate, how governments work, and how people interact with each other in the public, professional, and private spheres. Big data and artificial intelligence are the two forces, so it seems, that lift global society into a new age. Closely associated are other novel trending tech developments such as the “Internet of Things”, blockchain, 5G, and quantum computing. The early 21st century is marked by high expectations towards the next wave of digital transformation, especially towards its economic potential and promises of all-encompassing optimisation.

As users, we are all part of this transformation: we use and adopt digital devices, share our data with organisations that use them to run their services (and often to make a substantial profit), and gradually change our behaviours and expectations with the increased use of data-driven technologies in so many domains of daily life. The user as a customer and citizen is a driving force in the digital transformation, directly and indirectly, voluntarily and involuntarily.

Users and data-driven organisations have complex relationships. In this research project, we aim to better understand how users as lay audiences look at data, tech, and the organisations that use them, while we are also interest in how data practitioners in these organisations try to talk about their uses of data and tech to their target groups.

The User as the Centre of the Data Ecology and Lay Audiences Perceptions of the Digital Transformation

The user is at the centre of the modern data ecology. Without her, there would be hardly any data for most commercial entities and administrative bodies to work with. However, the user is not a standardised unit or monolithic entity. Everybody is a user but everybody is also different. While research on lay people’s views on technology is growing, there is still a lot we do not know about how they actually perceive, experience, and evaluate datafication and increasing automation.

Concept of Interest

This is where this research project connects: it charts perceptions, expectations, and evaluations among “lay audiences” towards the digital transformation. This includes different components: 1) what they know about novel technological trends, especially in respect to datafication and automation; 2) how they learn/inform themselves about technology topics; 3) what benefits but also risks they associated with data-driven technologies; and 4) how much they trust different types of public and private organisations with their use of data.

Example Data from the Survey

To gain a better understanding, we are conducting a survey among lay audiences in different countries (The Netherlands, Germany, UK, Greece, and Turkey). Data collection for the Dutch context is complete and currently subject to analysis, with other countries following throughout the next 12 months. The main goal of the survey is to explore how demographics, affinity for technology, awareness for data practices, attitudes towards data-driven technologies, data literacy, and trust connect.

Communicating about Data Practices – The View of Data Professionals

Communication about data is key to creating transparency about data practices and building trust. As data practices we define all forms of data collection, data analysis, data retention, and data sharing. Both public and private organisations make use of data to varying extents and are obliged to inform users about data policies and data rights (especially in Europe under the GDPR). However, just throwing information at users does not mean that organisations engage in meaningful dialogues with users. Furthermore, there are also many myths and misconceptions about data among lay audience that may lead to over- or underestimating certain data risks.

Many data professionals have a vested interest in being clear, open, and transparent about their data practices and also seek ways to explain better how data can make a positive difference. However, there is often a lack of mutual understanding between users and data-driven organisations – which can also be described as a translation problem.

We expand our survey on lay audiences with qualitative research in form of interviews with data professionals to take stock of current communication practices, challenges, and approaches. These insights eventually inform the development of guidelines for “how to talk about data” with different lay audiences.

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