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Understanding Data Discourses, User Views, and Sustainable Data-Ecologies

By Dennis Nguyen

The following is a brief description of a current book project that aims for publication in 2022:

This book provides research-based, practical advice for data-driven organizations on how to critically review and clearly communicate data practices to their target audiences, with emphasis placed on lay people and their information needs in regard to large-scale datafication. The goal is to offer public and private organizations (especially, managerial roles, communication staff, data professionals but also students in relevant subjects) heuristics, guidelines, and tools that allow them to rethink and calibrate relationships with their stakeholders about highly sensitive issues related to data collection, data analysis, and the subsequent impact of their data practices. In focus are communication about datafication to different types of target groups and how to build trust through transparency, accountability, inclusion, non-discrimination, and dialogue.

To this end, the book first proposes a theoretical framework that connects discussions about big data, artificial intelligence, and the digital transformation closer to communication, framing, trust, and critical media literacy and especially data literacy. It argues that datafication is an important language that connects organizations and citizens/customers in novel ways. However, there is an imbalance between data-collecting organisations and data-generating users; not all users understand the impact that data practices can have on them. Organisations that aspire to be ethical and inclusive need here to assess and potentially improve how they explain and justify their data practices to their target groups in an accessible and comprehensible manner. In this respect, they first need to probe their own understanding of the potential risks that their data operations can bear for users, make adjustments where needed, and then communicate the meaning and consequences of their data practices to their target groups. All of this connects to data literacy on both the organisations’ and users’ side. Moreover, modern societies construct data ecologies in which digitalized and datafied information flows shape processes and relationships. These data ecologies are highly sensitive to irritations through untrustworthy, untransparent, and unethical data practices. Ideally, data are shared with clear and value-centred goals that are transparent to all stakeholders; transparency, clarity, and trust through inclusive communication practices about datafication are essential for increasing inclusion, accountability, and user-centric value generation. The book offers a conceptualization of data ecologies and how communication plays an essential role in shaping these. The key concepts are: mediatization and datafication, framing, data-driven feedback loops, data ecosystems, data literacy, data risks (e.g. privacy intrusion and data bias), data ethics, data governance, and value-centred design.

            The subsequent six chapters or “units” then address related challenges and strategies through a critical discussion of empirical findings from original research and case studies. This includes research findings about public perception of datafication, automation, and the digital transformation and recommendations for how to talk about data practices for different groups of users (framing); a categorization of different users types and their information needs based on their understanding of data practices (data literacy); and an overview of challenges and “good practices” that data- and communications experts see emerging in the field of end-user centric digital services, both in the private and professional sectors. The empirical insights were won with a series of related studies that use different qualitative and quantitative methods, partially in a combined fashion, such as: (automated) content analysis of news media discourses on big data, artificial intelligence, and data risks; (cross-national) surveys; interviews; experiments; and policy analyses. The guiding research questions are:

  • How do stakeholders frame risks and chances of digitalisation and datafication in public discourse?
  • How do users differ in regard to attitudes towards data-driven organisational practices and risk awareness?
  • What are expert views on current trends in digitalisation and datafication and what challenges do they perceive as the most urgent ones?
  • What creative-educational measures can increase transparency and incentivise trust-oriented dialogue between users and organisations?

Each unit/chapter discusses relevant theoretical concepts, empirical findings, presents concrete case studies, offers definitions of key ideas in information-boxes, and presents exercises, guidelines and/or workshop ideas that aim for students and professionals alike (with recommendations for adjusting learning objectives and didactics to specific needs of each audience). The goal is to first critically discuss the meaning of datafication, data literacy, and data ethics, point to empirical observations and then to develop a practical toolset.

            The book aims to add to a growing body of research on critical data literacy that tries to connect insights on lay people’s views and attitudes on datafication to data practices, and communication about them, in organisations that are experiencing different levels of digitalisation. Social, political, and economic interactions are increasingly digitalised, which comes with hands-on benefits but also challenges privacy, individual well-being, and a fair society. User awareness of organisational practices is of heightened importance, as vulnerabilities for users are vulnerabilities for data ecologies. Without transparency and a new “social contract” for a digital society, problems are inevitable. Recurring scandals about data leaks and biased algorithms are just two examples that illustrate the urgency of this challenge. Properly informing users about an organisation’s data policies makes a crucial difference and for them to develop sustainable business models, organisations need to understand what users expect and how to communicate with them. Based on empirical research on framing in the data discourse, user types, and trends in organisational practice, the book provides educational tools and concrete advice on building sustainable relationships in a resilient digital society.

Photo by Clayton Robbins 

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