Big data is the term used to define the perpetual and massive data gathered by corporations and governments on consumers and citizens. When the subject of data is not necessarily individuals but governments and companies themselves, we can call it civic data, and when systematically generated in large amounts, civic big data. Increasingly, a new generation of initiatives is generating and organizing structured data on particular societal issues, from human rights violations to auditing government budgets, from labor crimes to climate justice. These civic data initiatives diverge from the traditional civil society organizations in their outcomes, in that they don’t just publish their research as reports but also open it to the public as a database.
Civic data initiatives are quite different in their data work than international non-governmental organizations such as UN, OECD, World Bank and other similar bodies. Such organizations track social, economical, political conditions of countries and concentrate upon producing general statistical data, whereas civic data initiatives aim to produce actionable data on issues that impact individuals directly. The change in the GDP value of a country is useless for people struggling for free transportation in their city. Incarceration rate of a country does not help the struggle of the imprisoned journalists. Corruption indicators may serve as a parameter in a country’s credit score but does not help to resolve monopolization created with public procurement. Carbon emission statistics do not prevent the energy deals between corrupt governments that destroy the nature in their region.
Needless to say, civic data initiatives also differ from governmental institutions, which are reluctant to share any more that they are legally obligated to. Many governments in the world simply dump scanned hard copies of documents on official websites instead of releasing machine readable data, which prevents systematic auditing of government activities. Civic data initiatives, on the other hand, make it a priority to structure and release their data in formats that are both accessible and queryable.
Civic data initiatives also deviate from general purpose information commons such as Wikipedia, because they consistently engage with problems, closely watch a particular societal issue, make frequent updates, even record from the field to generate and organize highly granular data about the matter.
In fact, the purpose of civic data initiatives is not necessarily to inform the public about what is happening, but to provide dependable data based on specific facts and evidences. Civic data initiatives proactively conduct research and converge data from their own field records (interviews and examinations), existing empirical research (other studies), public information (government records to media reports), and private sources (leaks and what not). They organize data into structures, connect the dots, employ data standards, form databases, and provide APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). They systematically publish data supported with analysis and stories.
Once generated, civic data moves. It supports advocacy campaigns, mediates focusing attention on the perpetrator of a cause, fuels investigative journalism, helps build resilient civil positions, becomes a stepping stone for another NGO’s maneuver against status quo, contributes the development of solidarity among struggling communities. The work of civic data initiatives becomes a useful reference for anyone who cares about societal issues including journalists, activists, advocates, lawyers, artists, designers, technologists, academics and other civil society organizations.
As a civic database evolves, a distinctive vocabulary emerges, a vocabulary that prioritizes the civil society and freedoms as opposed to the status quo. When applications and interfaces use such data, the vocabulary would circulate with protocological interventions, which would allow the public to explore the issues from the perspective of civil society instead of the government and corporations. Thus, it would help gain positions of influence that can develop counter-hegemony for the socialist movement, as Gramsci puts it in his writings the War of Position / War of Manoeuvre.
In fact, systematic abuse of power, bluntly oppressive or subtly hypocritical, has to be confronted with systematic struggle. Civic data work emerges as one particular mode of contributing to such struggle.
Several civic data initiatives generate data on variety of issues at different geographies, scopes, and scales. See more detailed information and updates on the spreadsheet of civic data initiatives.
This article was originally published in Turkish (11.06.2016) and translated to Kurdish (15.06.2016), both published on Bianet.org. Burak Arikan thanks Ahmet Kizilay and Zeyno Ustun for proofreading and suggestions.
Burak Arikan is a New York- and Istanbul-based artist working with complex networks. He takes the obvious social, economical, and political issues as input and runs through an abstract machinery, which generates network maps and algorithmic interfaces, results in performances, and procreates predictions to render inherent power relationships visible and discussable. Arikan’s software, prints, installations, and performances have been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally. Arikan is the founder of Graph Commons, a collaborative platform for network mapping, analysis, and publishing.