After three years, last month marked my final days at the Oxford Internet Institute. Originally I came just for a 10 month masters degree, but subsequent appointment as a Research Assistant allowed for an even deeper exposure to and engagement with a wide range of Internet-related research. The work I did at Oxford is more formally listed elsewhere, but below are some summaries of my work on the various projects I was involved with, followed by some more general parting thoughts.
Accessing and Using Big Data to Advance Social Science Knowledge (Sloan Foundation)
This was the project I was initially hired to work on, and it set out to investigate the impact of Big Data (which even a couple of years ago was a far less widely known phenomenon) on academia as well as policy and society more generally. I joined the project at a time when the larger part of the 125 interviews had already been conducted by my tireless colleagues, so my work was mostly involved with helping to write up and disseminate the wide array of findings.
Certainly a highlight of the project was a meeting at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy, organised by my colleague Linnet Taylor, which brought together a group of 25 representatives of civil society groups from around the world such as Ushahidi, Privacy International and Tactical Tech, as well as academics such as ourselves, to discuss big data in a developing world context. The meeting yielded a series of recommendations, relating not only to how big data tools and techniques can be used effectively to promote positive change, but also regarding the ethical challenges which inevitably arise. A summary of the meeting including these recommendations were subsequently published in Policy & Internet.
As part of the project we also engaged with other theoretical and ethical issues relating to the rise of Big Data. My colleague Ralph Schroeder and I wrote a series of papers on this, looking at the social implications of Big Data-driven knowledge production, presented at an ethics workshop at KDD in New York; drawing an ethical distinction between data that is volunteered or given by users, and that which is taken (which we call ‘capta’), presented at a CSCW workshop in Vancouver; and looking at the effect of Big Data and quantification more broadly on the news business, presented at the Data Power conference in Sheffield. Finally, our paper discussing debates over ‘causation vs correlation’ and inductive vs deductive reasoning in the Big Data era has been published in Policy & Internet, and we hope to have a chapter in a forthcoming handbook of Internet research looking at Big Data approaches to social media research.
We also looked at the impact of Big Data on politics and policy. I presented my first solo-authored paper on the challenges of gauging public opinion online at the Internet, Politics and Policy conference here in Oxford. With Eric Meyer, we also wrote about policy-making in the Big Data era for a Cambridge University conference, and a paper written with colleagues from Chalmers in Gothenburg – about engaging citizens in political discussions using tabletop devices – was published in FirstMonday.
Finally, as part of the project I’ve given a series of invited talks about Big Data and its impacts on society more generally at various venues, including Gothenburg, Grenoble, Hannover, and to the Oxford branch of the British Computing Society.
This was a project run jointly with the British Library and the Institute for Historical Research, which looked at the potential for the use of web archives as a resource for arts and humanities research. A major part of the project was enabling ten researchers with no prior experience of using web archives to delve into millions of materials from the .uk domain, hoovered up the Internet Archive and indexed by the British Library. Obviously this process was beset with challenges, but the researchers nonetheless produced brilliant reports on their work, which I’ll be synthesising for a chapter in a forthcoming book on the Web as history.
As part of the project we were also able to do some primary research on web archives. A team of us at the OII produced a paper which sought to paint a picture of the history of the .uk domain over 15 years, with a particular focus on the development over time of links between British universities, which was presented at WebSci 2014. I’m currently working on another paper with a colleague on what analysis of archived BBC pages can tell us about what influences the corporation’s international news coverage. In addition, we’ve presented on the considerable potential of academic research more generally, at a conference in Aarhus, the Being Human Festival of the Humanities in London, and at the International Internet Preservation Consortium at Stanford University. Niels Brugger, Ralph Schroeder and I hope to have a chapter covering these issues in the forthcoming Internet research handbook.
This ongoing project, which occupied half my time over the past six months, was also spread across multiple institutions, with our work at the OII focussed on gaining a better understanding of the policies around surveillance powers in the UK, as well as the various recommendations that have been made to change it. As part of this effort, we produced a database of policies, powers and actors relating to surveillance. We’ve also been talking to various stakeholders across the different sectors involved in the ongoing policy debate, and will look to synthesise these perspectives in future publications.
Earlier this year myself and open data maven Mor Rubinstein were awarded funding from innovation promoters Nesta. The resulting project set out to investigate the use of open government data by groups around the world. We spoke to civil society groups, government bodies and journalists in three countries in South America, as well as Israel and Denmark, which yielded interesting comparisons between the attitudes towards and capacities for innovation in these different environments. The project runs for another few months, during which we will write up our findings for a project report as well as academic avenues.
On top of my involvement in these projects, while at the OII I also managed to try my hand at other aspects of the academic life – as a teaching assistant for one of the MSc programme’s core modules; co-organising the second annual Connected Life conference; and helping to write funding applications (some inevitably more successful than others.) More generally, it was great to remain a member of St Hugh’s MCR throughout my time in Oxford, and all that that entailed; the college system being a uniquely useful aspect of the graduate experience there.
As for what’s next: I’ve now moved to MIT to begin a programme in Comparative Media Studies, which mixes study with a research assistant placement. I’ll be an RA with the Hyperstudio group, which focusses on highlighting the value of digital humanities. I think it will prove a great opportunity to conduct further research in an exciting and highly innovative environment – stay tuned to find out how I get on in these new endeavours.