New Public Data Lab’s First Output: Field Guide to Fake News

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A new “Public Data Lab” at the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath has produced its first fruit, A Field Guide to Fake News, which harnesses digital methods “to trace the production, circulation and reception of fake news online.” The use of digital methods, the guide observes, is not just sufficient but necessary to combat so-called fake news because the current iterations of fake news are essentially digital natives – as are its intended consumers.

As the guide’s introduction explains:

The guide explores the notion that fake news is not just another type of content that circulates online, but that it is precisely the character of this online circulation and reception that makes something into fake news. In this sense fake news may be considered not just in terms of the form or content of the message, but also in terms of the mediating infrastructures, platforms and participatory cultures which facilitate its circulation.

This fake news effort illustrates what the focus of this new lab will be – advancing the development, use and eventual public uptake of social science research drawn from public data. This will extend from a university’s center’s traditional remit of academic research to policy applications to advocacy, journalism and even direct public participation. As the fake news effort suggests, the specific projects will be drawn from very cogent public concerns, and organizers have identified the challenges from issues such as climate change, tax base erosion, migration and automation as examples of future investigations.

Co-founders of the lab are Jonathan Gray, Prize Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research; Tommaso Venturini with the Institute of Complex Systems at the University of Lyon; and Liliana Bounegru of the University of Ghent and the University of Groningen. They are joined by a team of 15 (so far) lab coordinators drawn from universities throughout the United Kingdom and Western Europe.

SAGE Publishing, the parent of MethodSpace, last week entered into a partnership agreement to help support the nascent enterprise. “It is our hope,” said Ziyad Marar, SAGE’s president of global publishing, “that the Public Data Lab, with the support of SAGE, will become a pioneer of innovative digital tools, methods and born digital data in public policy, research and teaching.”

Public data is defined, at least why, “as information that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone with no existing local, national or international legal restrictions on access or usage.” (The term encompasses its cousin “open data,” which is often associated more with purely government or government-funded sources.) The lab hopes to wrap its digital arms around the explosion of public data, both existing material that is being digitized and perhaps more importantly, data that was “born digital” through smart phones, social media, etc.

The intent is to use this for research and to develop innovative research methods, but also to develop data literacy and data comfort among the wider public, or at least it emissaries like journalism and public service organizations. The goal is to not only translate what any given set of data tells us into the vernacular, but also to foster the facility for future translation or future data.

The lab’s organizers have identified the scope and direction they wish to grow into, including developing the methods, tools and code needed to analyze public data and advancing the general literacy – both inside and outside the academy — around data, which in turn can support greater engagement and research. In a more academic setting, they hope to develop participatory design methods for creating and working with data and to break down the silos – whether disciplinary or geographic – that prevent collaborative examinations.


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