Accepted Paper:

Disruption or continuity? Emerging Big Data practices in official statistics  

Author:

Ville Takala (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork across multiple national statistical institutes, this paper argues that rather than radically rupturing previous ways of data collection, Big Data re-raises older concerns around the question of who determines how social data is collected, analysed and disseminated.

Paper long abstract:

The emergence of enormous, interconnected, dynamic datasets, or "big data" as they have become commonly known, have started to pose a serious challenge to official statistics. Many now fear that statistical authorities will increasingly have to negotiate with the private sector for access to Big Data. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted across multiple national statistical institutes in Europe, I suggest that the challenges associated with Big Data are not entirely unlike those previously encountered with more traditional forms of statistics.

For example, since the 1960s, the Nordic welfare states have been collecting very detailed information on their citizens into various electronic registers held by different government departments and institutions. The social security number, a unique identifier for each citizen, has allowed for the information scattered across different registers to be conjoined in to an annual census on the population. Working with registers has necessitated that statistical authorities negotiate with outside actors for access to data. As NSIs move to work with Big Data, similar negotiations remain essential.

By drawing on several empirical examples, I suggest that rather than radically rupturing previous methods of data collection, Big Data in fact re-raises much older concerns around the question of who has the power to determine how social data is collected, analysed and disseminated.

Panel T045
New Collective Practices of Measurement, Monitoring and Evidence