Social media and data – why we need to put it into context, part I

The possibilities to communicate your reality has opened up for through the use new media. Today, an increasing number of people all over the world can through social media and online activism coordinate opinions and ideas. Technology is there, and there is technical possibility for social media to provide new data with the inclusion of traditionally excluded actors. But if this data is not used for transformative measures in the political arena, then what role does data in the end actually play? Because what is the use of data if it’s not used or used properly? Is data really answering the right questions, and does it really help transform people’s lives for the better? Could it be that this is the future of better decision-making, and perhaps a qualitatively better democracy? Or could it be that the use, or misuse, of data actually creates a divide and ever growing distance between citizens and political decision makers?

We need to look at data from a number of viewpoints – data as a relevant form of informative practices, data as generated by inclusive or excluding practices, and data as a transforming (or not transforming) power in political- decision making.

The importance of context

The use of data needs, for one thing,  to address the question of correlation and causation, which can be a tricky thing if you haven’t got the actual context of the data at hand. This is especially true in development. Shirky makes a very valid point when saying that “It is difficult for outsiders to understand the local conditions of dissent” (2011:3). Social media can, for instance, draw attention to various conflicts and bring together external support for internal conflicts. By doing so, it can bring worldwide attention to this, but take little notice of in which context this conflict is occurring. As Aday et al states – the political impact of actors who are not online must also be taken into account.

Social media can, on the other hand, bring about a development that in the long run can make a country more democratic by providing a public sphere for open and free discussion –ideally – but also by strengthening different non-governmental actors. This is of course as long as you have a fair amount of literate people being able to participate, or a situation where these people actually have access to social media in any form. In a global setting, this also implies that democratic systems can provide and collect more diverse and – ideally – more inclusively based data than other systems (oppressive) systems of rule. This of course have implications for the feedback into global governance.

The use of social media globally can bring about a shift in the power balance, but social media alone cannot do this. You have to have actors “on the ground” being able to carry the message into the political system – given such agency – and you must have political actors willing, ready and able to utilize input of data into the system. This brings me back to one of the core question here – to what purpose or to what extent is data used, and what effect does it have in the political dimension.  To what extent does data have a transformative (political) power? To put it more bluntly – it’s easy to tweet away (as a politician) than by actually backing the tweet up with concrete political decisions.

As told by Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier – James Scott means that the use of data “often serves to empower the powerful”. (2013:168). The data can actually tell you one thing, while the conditions on the ground – and the people how live it – tells you another. Data needs to be contextualized, not just summed up. So, how to come to terms with this and use data in such a way to inform political decision-making of the actual conditions? One thing is to gather qualitatively good data built on inclusion, but also to provide scrutiny. One such initiative is the USAID – Making all voices count – that aims to “repair the broken links between government and its citizens” in order to improve for instance governmental performance.




Another initiative is developed by Swedish Media Institute Fojo International – Action for Transparency



So there can be a gap between the digital world, and the use of data, as one must be aware that there’s a risk that it doesn’t accurately reflect the situation “on the ground”. There is also another situation one must be aware of – if the collection of data doesn’t transform into concrete use of it – such as a (informed) political decision, why collect data in the first place? This is a legitimacy issue. Take for instance the UN global conferences, what the UN believes to be an important forum for transformation, as they “shape our global future” as cited by Denskus and Esser (2013:408). Here, in such a setting, there is little deliberation as regards to the input of social media in agenda-setting or decision-making.

Politics itself (as a receiver of data on the international level in this case) also plays a part in data collection when it comes to political thinking. Data alone will not provide better governance. In fact, perhaps it’s in the practice of political analysis and thought that data actually can become more relevant and contextualized. As suggested by Halloran, political thinking is on the rise in development, more international organizations deplore it and through it are looking for the underlying and contextual factors (which requires political analysis) and use this analysis to also understand these factors. They also see how this is related to the local political dynamics. The recipe here seems to be in “integrated, flexible and responsive learning tools that are based on a mix of methods, both qualitative and quantitative” (Halloran 2014:5), which requires new approaches in data collection as well.



Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

Cammaerts, B. and Carpentier, N. (eds) (2007) Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles . Intellect: Bristol, UK. (An up-to-date coverage on media, democracy and civil rights. Chapter 9: Activism and the Media, pg. 217-224, Chapter 11: Civil Society Media at the WSIS, pg. 243-264.

Denskus, T., Esser, D. 2013: Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG SummitThird World Quarterly 34: 409-424.Big Data. A revolution that will transform your life.

Halloran, Brendan. 2014. Thinking and working politically in the transparency and accountability field. Transparency and Accountability Initiative. Think piece.

Kleine, D. 2010: ICT4WHAT?—Using the choice framework to operationalise the capability approach to developmentJournal of International Development 22:  674–692.

Mandiberg, M. 2012: The Social Media Reader, New York, NY: NYU Press.

Mayer-Schönberger, V., Cukier, K. 2013: Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. London: John Murray Publishers.

Shirky, C. 2010: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, New York, NY: Allen Lane.

Shirky, C. 2010: The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political changeForeign Affairs 90: 28-I.The Political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere and political change.

The Guardian 2014. Live Q&A: what is the future of global development communications? Moving away from sensationalism, how can NGOs effectively promote their causes? Entries made by Tobias Denskus on the 3rd of October.


  1. Hi!
    I do agree there are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves concerning the use/miss-use and even abuse of data informing policies and decision makers. However, there is even a more crucial question to be asked: Is the data we are gathering objective/real? Or in other words, are we relying on accurate, complete and trustful data? In this sense, there are a number of critics concerning the way data is produced and the lack of presence of the people the data is concerned about. You propose as an alternative the contextualization of data. I think the concept needs to be better described but from what I can understand, the focus should not be on the data gathering process itself but on the data production. Development actors have succeeded in creating complex methodological solutions to compile quantitative and qualitative data. Please check on this initiative as an example:
    However, there are few “engineering” solutions to make the data from the marginalized, the poor, the invisible people stand alone and receive the attention it should. I wish you can develop better the concept of contextualization of data following this trend.

  2. You ask really interesting questions in this post! “But if this data is not used for transformative measures in the political arena, then what role does data in the end actually play? Because what is the use of data if it’s not used or used properly?” When Reading however I find myself asking, who or what is the responsible for providing for data to reach the political level. For it is as you Point out at the political level that decisions are taken, and even though each individual has the, in an ideal World, possibility to influence every day Life, development and change do also depend on political will and legislation. The UN would not be if there were no political will to provide resources for its various branches and activities. So when we speak of data and data collection in particular, who are we placing as responsible for providing the mechanisms that can make it possible?

  3. Your writing brings my mind two things: first, in order to have an effect there also should be a system where the data is analysed and received. “Data alone will not provide better governance”, as you write. As the previous commentator stated, who should be responsible of collecting the truthful data? If it is the government, aren’t we actually back in the traditional dilemma of sharing information? The emerge of mobile phones, blogs and tweets may have more actual power in the countries that already are democratic. Secondly, citizens can “confuse online rhetoric with substantial political action, diverting their attention away from productive activities”. (Aday et al. 2010)

  4. Thanks for all your great and constructive comments! I have tried to look at various aspects of data (collection, production, use) but wanted to focus on the eventual use of data. As for contextualization part – what I mean is that there need to be a more holistic approach that also looks at things such as culture (relating to understanding of data measures and definitions – the example of unemployment measures in the Carribean in the video that I posted in the “why, what and how of global data is one such thing) and use more qualitative design. Halloran raises the point of the use of more political analysis in development to understand contextual factors, and by doing this hopefully makes for better validity of measures used.