Stefan Baack: Knowing what counts. How journalists and civic technologists use and imagine data

Stefan Baack | University of Groningen, Media Studies and Journalism | Supervisors: Prof. dr Marcel Broersma and Prof. dr Tamara Witschge | September 2013 – August 2017 | sbaack[at]rug.nl

Knowing what counts. How journalists and civic technologists use and imagine data

My dissertation examines how the growing reliance on data and the steady quantification of social life affects democratic publics. It studies the practices and social imaginaries of two actors who facilitate the use quantitative techniques in key areas of public space: data activists and data journalists. As data activists, I describe activists in the open data and civic tech movements who develop projects that aim to make engagement with authorities easier for citizens, e.g. parliamentary monitoring websites that make parliamentary speeches more accessible. Data journalism is used as a label to describe all forms of journalism that work with quantitative data. Data journalists and data activists are relevant because they are so called ‘pioneer communities’ for the use of data within civil society and journalism, which means that they act as exemplars that provide orientation for others.

The thesis is based on three case studies and asks two research questions: (1) What is the role of data in the social imaginaries and practices of data activists and data journalists; and (2) how do the practices and imaginaries of these actors diverge and converge, and how does this shape the entanglements between them? The study shows, first, that the implications of data for democratic publics cannot be determined in an abstract way because they are socially and historically situated and, second, that datafication is creating new entanglements between actors who aspire to work in a public interest, which affects how classic democratic visions are being implemented.