Academic WorkshopMarch 25 2021

Trust and Doubt in Public-Sector Data Infrastructures

danah boyd, Janet Haven

What are the infrastructures surrounding government data from multiple nations/states, and the epistemic battles over that data’s legitimacy?

On March 25, 2021, Data & Society’s danah boyd and Janet Haven brought together interdisciplinary researchers studying government data from multiple nations/states, the infrastructures surrounding that data, and the epistemic battle over that data’s legitimacy. Data has long been a source of power and state legitimacy, as well as a tool to argue for specific policies and defend core values.

From the Hosts

When we first conceived of this workshop in the weeks leading up to the 2020 US Presidential election, we were thinking primarily about the study of trust (and doubt) in public-sector data and the infrastructures surrounding it as a branch of disinformation studies that has largely focused on the role of platforms and social media. But putting out a public call and assembling a set of thinkers and works-in-progress shifted our thinking.

Disinformation certainly emerged as one theme, but even there we saw a broader story about the ways in which governments use data to tell stories about themselves and their citizens. The papers discussed highlighted other themes: modes of resistance and reframing of government data infrastructures and missing data sets by indigenous groups, civil society, and even competing government units; multiple approaches to thinking about time and timeliness as a core concept driving data infrastructure creation in the public sector; and the role of research, researchers, and contested data in efforts to enact “evidence-based policy-making” goals.

Topics and authors represented international communities, and featured the Aadhaar biometric system from India through multiple lenses; COVID responses from Peru, South Korea, and municipalities of the United States; Brazil’s misinformation campaigns during the catastrophic fires of 2019 and 2020. Other featured research explored missing data, invisible data, abused data, and politicized data across a range of contexts, both present and historical. Many of these papers question who controls what data, for what purposes, and with what consequences. Fundamentally, our discussions unpacked and complicated sources of trust and mistrust in government and governance.

The immediate goals of this event were to facilitate feedback on ongoing research, and to recognize an emerging, interdisciplinary field of study, interest and concern in this group. While the workshop focused on one day’s activities, the relationships between attendees and projects discussed will continue to strengthen and grow this field.

Janet Haven and danah boyd