Academic journal article Global Governance

The Social Life of Data: The Production of Political Facts in EU Policy Governance

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Social Life of Data: The Production of Political Facts in EU Policy Governance

Article excerpt

The processes of data collection and data analysis, which are central to the social construction of giving data meaning, include numerous actors and networks that are active in the construction of political facts at the European Union (EU) level. Data presented in EU documents have a social life of their own; they are collected, analyzed, disseminated, used, and reused in various official and unofficial formats and media. With this article, we seek to understand: How does data get collected, analyzed, and contextualized in the EU's policy governance practices? In particular, we discuss ways to conceptualize the social life of data as an ongoing process based on constant transformations of actor and network relationships. Rather than a precise model for understanding data governance, we are proposing a conceptual alternative to think about the role of data in the EU's policymaking processes.

By the social life of data, we are referring to both the relationalities and the transformations of relevant data as well as the social processes of turning these data into facts at the EU level, a process itself shaped by those relationalities and transformations. EU actors and networks project their socioeconomic and political preferences and statuses on data during the process of transforming or translating data into facts. In our approach to understanding how the EU constructs political data, we reject the notion that data speak for themselves, (1) or even the general notion that there is such a thing as raw data. With each step along the way, data interact with different external elements-various economic, social, and political actors, positions, and preferences-transforming their potential for different contexts and meanings. In our approach to the social life of data in the EU's policymaking practices, science and technology studies inspire us (2) and, in particular, we draw from Latour's actor-network theory (ANT) (3) for theoretical inspiration.

We make our argument through two empirical cases, outlining how the social life of data is particularly visible in two policy areas increasingly under EU governance jurisdiction: disaster governance and security provision related to migration and mobility. In both instances, the production of, access to, and use of data not only are an intrinsic part of maintaining these policy competencies at the EU level, but they also inform how these policy areas are actually governed on a daily basis. In the field of disaster governance, the Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (DG ECHO) uses the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) to produce data that is then run through DG ECHO's European Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) to monitor the onset of disasters and coordinate their response. Similarly, DG Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME) gathers intelligence and risk assessment data produced in agencies and departments from around the EU and centralizes this data in DG HOME's Strategic Analysis and Response Centre (STAR) to monitor for and coordinate scenarios requiring a Commission-level response. While we discuss these two complimentary empirical cases in detail in the third and fourth sections, in the next section we discuss the particular theoretical framework used to understand the social life of data. In particular, we look at the ways in which data gets translated into facts and the relationalities of this process.

Conceptualizing the Social Life of Data: An Actor-Network Approach

The political impact of data is becoming a popular avenue for academic research. Ian Hacking famously looked at how the production and manipulation of statistical information was central to the formation of the early modern state. (4) Alain Desrosieres and Michael Oakeshott both separately traced the development of the notion that the world can be readily calculated and acted on, discrediting the rise of "Liberal Instrumental Reason" and "rationalist" policymaking and decisionmaking models based on the inability to calculate all circumstances into useful and meaningful data. …

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