This day-long workshop was part of a larger project by Microsoft Research, Cambridge called Tenison Road. I assisted Alex Taylor in the organisation of a workshop day looking at intersections between data, public policy and civic life.

“It is hard not to open a newspaper, journal issue or conference proceedings without seeing something about data. On the one hand we have some pretty exaggerated claims envisioning data (especially Big Data) as the final answer for understanding just about anything that’s hitherto been too complex to understand. On the other, we see an abundance of stories predicting that a surveillance society afforded by the proliferation of personal data is set to dismantle civic life as we know it. Running alongside this is a discussion on appropriate policy frameworks that might enable the potential of data, while minimizing the risks and protecting the rights of citizens – encapsulated by the European Union’s focus this past year on gaining approval for the draft Data Protection Regulation…

Perhaps too often, Big Data (and data in general) is discussed in the abstract, and the tendency is to overlook these nuances and complexities. The impact of forms of digital data on individuals and societies are not fully understood. There is a dearth of evidence on the role of data in everyday life: how people think about it and its effects on communities and community decision-making, in the context of an increasing digitization of our lives. Conceptually, better evidence should lead to improved policy making, both in its effectiveness and implementation. Practically, how this can happen is far from clear.

It is with these, if you will, ‘troubles’ in mind that we’ve planned this day of dialogue, bringing together theorists, policy makers, and commentators. The dialogues will invite provocations and controversies, as ways of getting at problematic issues at the intersection of policy making, technology design and civic life. These may describe situations where the boundaries between people, technologies and concepts are vague, contested or otherwise ‘messy’. Our hope is that they will also be generative, and will invite insights into designing more appropriate technologies, policy frameworks and civic engagements.

Although a shared vocabulary is emerging in this area, many differences remain in how policy problems are understood and articulated; indeed we anticipate that participants in our dialogue day will bring along a wide range of perspectives. Rather than assuming consensus, we want to turn attention to the practice of problem-making itself. How do we currently formulate the challenges and promises of data in policy-making? How are the actors involved (such as individuals and organisations) bounded and framed? The many positions generated during the dialogue day provide an opportunity to deliberately complicate and thicken the issues. How can we learn from each other in order to pose better or different problems? How might provocations or controversies challenge us to articulate actors differently? How might engaging with the practice of problem-making in critical, inventive or speculative ways shift the concerns that emerge? How might these shifts result in better technologies, policies, and ethical systems that can help address the challenges posed?”

Excerpt from Dialogue Day reading materials.