‘Does Data Make a Difference?’

In 2017 the Research Unit in Public Cultures has made efforts to rethink our relationship to both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. In this spirit, we asked our RUPC Graduate Academy: ‘Does data make a difference?’

The RUPC hosted a workshop in which our PhD students and ECRs briefly presented on the question of data in their research projects, thinking through in particular, how data informs their research methods. They considered: What is my data? How does it inform my research? What are the challenges and limits of my data? And, more broadly, how can data-driven research fit with critical thinking and understanding of public culture?

Anna-Claire Blogg – "Data for Examining Data"

Anna-Claire discussed the ways in which data collection and analysis have thus far shaped my research into data policies and governance. I discuss the scope and timeliness of her collected data as two key challenges she has faced in developing her research design this year and outlined strategies for navigating these issues. Anna-Claire also considered the extent to which data has thus far informed her research design and reflected on how the data for her project may offer further insight into public culture.

Suneel Jethani – "Activity Tracking and the Politics of Uncomfortable Data"

In his paper, Suneel explored the relations between activity tracking and of practices of data avoidance and interference. He argued that an exploration of idiosyncrasy in activity tracking exposes atmospheres, temporalities, energies and rhythms of living socially with data. His research looks specifically at the coupling of technical and political affordances produced in relation that forms between wearable sensors, data-schema, and algorithms and human knowledge-seeking, anxiety, and insecurity. This paper presented ongoing work that seeks to contribute to understanding the prevailing mindsets relating to data production, interference, resistance and refusal. Suneel suggested that as socio-technical systems, activity tracking is limited in its ability to be empowering due to technical contingencies resulting out of affordance-configurations established during the design, prototyping and development phases of technology diffusion and assimilation. Practices of avoidance, interference, and refusal therefore, are an interesting paradox where technically mediated deception and self-delusion constitute a politics where uncomfortable and confronting data is framed by ill-defined configurations of data/self.

Bree Trevena - "The Data Shuffle: Weighing Quantitative and Qualitative Data in Cultural Infrastructure Policy"

Data-driven research has gained ground in Victorian state policy over the past two decades, typified by reliance on quantitative ‘big’ data to drive public infrastructure decisions. However, the rise of big data is increasingly tempered by concerns about its limitations in interpreting cultural and social contexts. Additive layers of qualitative ‘deep’ data are increasingly being introduced in attempts to shape a big picture with depth. Drawing on Melbourne-based creative industries case studies, Bree’s presentation unpacked some of the challenges and opportunities in marrying quantitative and qualitative data research to shape public cultural infrastructures in Victoria.

Kate Mannell - "Which way to Slice it?: Making Decisions in Qualitative Data"

Qualitative interview data can produce unique insights into personal experiences. It can also, however, present researchers with challenges around how best to organize and present their data, particularly when a data set is large and/or relatively unstructured. This is the case with the data in Kate’s doctoral research, which is drawn from interviews with young people about how they use mobile messaging technologies. Kate uses this data to analyse how people manage and reduce their availability to friends – actions made difficult by the ‘constant connection’ that mobile messaging technologies enable. Building this analysis, however, first requires making decisions about which narratives, themes, and categories to draw out of a data set that includes a vast array of possibilities. In light of this, Kate considered the challenges involved in this decision-making process, and discussed how these are being resolved within her research project such that she can use the data to point to broader cultural practices around technology use, friendship, and social availability.

Christopher O'Neill – "Cultural Techniques and The Sensualisation of Data in the Sensor Society"

Chris’s research methodology has primarily drawn upon the Cultural Techniques school of 'German Media Theory'. Drawing particularly on the genealogical approach of Foucault, Cultural Techniques tends to eschew big data approaches in favour of historically situated analyses of the enmeshment of bodily techniques within evolving media ecologies. While not a quantitative data driven approach, the status of the lived experience of data technologies has been key for Cultural Techniques research, with Kramer and Bredkamp (2013: 24) in particular drawing attention to the "the sensualization – the aestheticization– of invisible processes and theoretical objects". To this end Chris’ research has analysed "the inchoate mixture of techniques, practices, instruments, and institutional procedures that give rise to a technological set-up" (Geoghegan 2013: 69), with a view towards interrogating how sensor-enabled data collection technologies have transformed the organisation of knowledge and practice within medicine, labour, and domestic security.

Estelle Boyle - "Public cultures of belonging: How refugee and migrant voices reveal successes and limits of Australia’s multiculturalism"

This presentation outlined the research design and data gathering processes for Estelle’s doctoral thesis, and highlighted the challenges, limitations, and broader implications of conducting qualitative research with people of refugee and migrant backgrounds. Estelle drew attention to particular concerns related to research with this diverse demographic, including ethical considerations, recruitment, and complex socio-political dynamics informing the participant/researcher relationship. She concluded by positioning the project’s central themes and methods as crucial to our understanding of public cultures in the multicultural context of Australia.

Fiona Whitworth - "Which came first, the data or the decision? Data and Public Places"

Fiona discussed the emergence of data-driven decision making in management of public places, and the ‘study of public life’, which in turn has its roots in the urbanists and community activists of the 1960s and 70s such as Jane Jacobs and William Whyte.  Recognition of the social and cultural value of public life has brought a focus on the data that public places can generate.  Fiona argued that, with new technologies enabling new ways to study public life and create data, there are signs that data is being used to inform decision making and evolve new forms of place making practice.