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University of Bath

Public Engagement and Policymaking in the Era of Big Data (PhD project)

A PhD research project exploring how publics can engage with data technology in the context of policymaking.

About this research

This research aimed to examine how publics can engage with emerging data technologies in the context of local and national policymaking. We send out millions of bits of information everyday through things like filling forms in a GP surgery, searching for a restaurant on Google, and logging in to social media. Government is a key collector and user of this information, however, we do not normally have control over how they use that information nor where it is ultimately held. There is an absence of tangible public involvement with the ways new forms of data are collected and used by government. The project included four qualitative exploratory streams of research contextualised through the history of public engagement, the current environment of public engagement around data, methods used by government data teams, and pilots of new public engagement initiatives.

The goal of this programme of work was to first understand how engagement is done in local and national government, and then to develop a set of techniques for engaging publics around new forms of data use and collection. Early results included an ethnography with the Government Digital Lab that found public engagements are often instantiated within limited bounds of influence. As well as an actor-network driven inquiry of the use of data in Bath and North East Somerset council which found that the rhetoric around data does not align easily with the day-to-day challenges and realities of local authority work. The ultimate goal of this work was to create a reflective, practical, and critical understanding of the intersections between publics and government bodies and how they fit together in a datafied society.

Project team

Emily Rempel, supervised by

Selected key outputs

  • Publication: Preparing the prescription: A systematic review of the aim and measurement of social referral programmes. BMJ Open. Rempel, E.S., Wilson, E.K., Durrant, H. & Barnett, J. (2017)
  • Conference Paper: Beyond the Hype: Using storytelling to explore the use of data in local government. Rempel, E.S. (2017). Presented at Data Power Conference 2017 in Ottawa, Canada, and at ADRN Conference in 2017, in Edinburgh.
  • Conference Paper: Developing a sociotechnical imaginary: The role of publics in the future of new data. Rempel, E.S. (2016) Poster presentation presented at the Data for Policy 2016 conference in Cambridge and verbal presentations at the University of Bath Faculty of Humanities and Social Science’s Changing Lives, Changing Worlds Postgraduate Conference and the 3rd Annual Department of Psychology PhD Conference.
  • Workshop: Engaging the public in data science: Looking through the lens of policy. The Government Digital Services Data Science Ethics Launch. London. 2016.
  • IPR Blog: ‘The Problem of Public Engagement, Public Policy and Public Data’ May 2016
  • IPR Blog: ‘The machines are all around us: An introduction to the UK Government’s Public Dialogue on Data Ethics’ February 2016.
  • IPR Blog: ‘How do we decide what works in wellbeing?’ January 2017.