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We (Dennis Nguyen and Rhied Al-Othmani) were invited to present our “Public Values should be leading” research at the 9th European Communication Conference (ECREA) 2022, in Aarhus, Denmark. ECREA is an association for communication scholars who are committed to the advancement of communication research and higher education in Europe. The theme of the 9th conference was “Rethink Impact,” as the purpose is to apply research insights for science, politics, and business, and these outputs are also used for teaching in various sections of multiple universities in Europe and beyond.

That message was also conveyed by Mirko Schäfer, Associate Professor at Utrecht University, during his keynote address. He encourages researchers to involve students in research and to include practitioners in the co-creation of interventions, tools, and experiments. Citizens should also be active participants in the process. Finally, to have an impact, share the findings with the practice. This was encouraging to hear, as studies at the UU and HU Marketing & Customer Experience research group constantly include citizens, students, and organisations. To that end, colleagues from the UU presented research on democratic control over data and AI activities in the local public sector as well as responsible AI and accountability with algorithm creation.

Our presentation was part of the Data and Datafication panel, including impressive research on “Finding the sweet spot and listening to tangents: how to understand people’s reflections on data uses” by Ditchfield, Kennedy, Oman and “Understanding data studies: rethinking research on datafication conceptually and methodologically” by Zakharova. We presented our research “Public values should be leading!” Data professionals’ views on the challenges of value-driven data practices and critical data literacy in the public sector”. 

The research is about the increasing use of data and artificial intelligence (A.I.) in the public sector and raises important questions about how digital technology changes the ways organisations operate and engage with their stakeholders. While public organisations aspire to reap diverse assumed benefits from datafication and automation, it is not always clear how they define the exact purposes and expected positive impacts of technology use. Central to these considerations are public values as a framework for adopting data-driven technology. However, more research is needed to better understand how organisations define and operationalise public values in their data practices as well as what practical factors play a role here.

This concerns two dimensions. First, how public sector organisations introduce, discuss, and formalise data practices internally. Second, how they communicate about their data policies to their stakeholders externally. To critically explore and chart current practices for both, the present study conducted a series of interviews with data professionals in a variety of Dutch public sector organisations. The main research questions are 1) How do they define (public) value in the use of data and A.I. for their contexts of operation? And 2) What challenges do they encounter in informing about data policies and introducing data practices to their stakeholders (internally and externally)? Respondents (N=20) hold different positions of varying seniority in local and national bodies of public administration, and all have mandates for implementing data policies for their organisation(s) and/or are involved in communicating about data practices to diverse stakeholders (e.g., chief data officers, chief information officers, advisors, project managers/leads, senior researchers, communication officers). The study contributes to critical data studies research on data discourses, data cultures, and the role of values in the public sector. It opens the path for further critical discussion of how the making of meaning of data-driven technology can become more inclusive, transparent, and democratic.

We would like to thank the conference for giving us the opportunity to present our work.

Photo’s: by Naja Schultz Petersen and Peter Hedegård Madsen. © Aarhus University, 2022

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