Running an intensive, application only summer school on how to create, use and think about social data during an international lockdown presented both a challenge and an opportunity: does this work online? Is it better? We marketed this school to as wide a field as possible, aware that we would face a challenge in navigating international time zones, and ended up with the most geographically diverse cohort we’ve ever managed at an event.

June 2021’s Social Data School, which was produced in collaboration with our partner, the Cambridge Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, explored the challenges to data protection principles in a world where networked surveillance is fast becoming the norm; analysis of the social and cultural impact of recent advances in machine learning driven systems for classifying and generating images and texts; and discussions of data-intensive methods for the analysis of disinformation on social media platforms. In contrast to broadcast-style, mass audience online events, which are often very passive experiences for participants, we recruited a small cohort of around 20 participants in order to allow meaningful networking and discussion.

Delivery methods included seminar presentations, small group discussions, demonstrations and experimental lab sessions. All entirely possible using a mixture of Zoom for teaching, Moodle for resources, Google Docs for on-the-fly collaboration, and Wonder for socialising.

There are clearly benefits to in-person discussion: some people are encouraged by the presence of easy-to-read body language in the physical room; but others clam up during face to face interactions and are comforted by the distance of a computer screen. We asked some of our participants to let us know how they felt this year’s Social Data School went, and whether this new distance ended up bridging any spaces.


Robert Good |
Holding the Data School online and its international virtual classroom format burst any echo chamber bubbles that might exist, and as a result, the range of experiences, cultural perspectives and approaches to the problems that we discussed was far greater than might have been the case in a conventional format. Holding conversations with delegates from around the world brought to life something of the reality behind the headlines that we read on a daily basis, and this enabled a much more direct appreciation and understanding of the scale, complexity and range of political factors that underpin many of the issues that we discussed.


Sandani Yapa Abeywardena |

The CDH Data School not only introduces you to a wide array of tools, but also to different ways of thinking and visualising the data that we have. I found that the diversity of the cohort at this year’s Data School was quite beneficial as my fellow participants brought their unique (contextual) experiences to the classroom. While the instructors were instrumental in introducing the participants to the content, the participants themselves helped in “layering” knowledge – basic principles of ethics and privacy as relating to data which sometimes are understood almost as universal concepts, for instance, became multi-faceted and nuanced because of the diverse experiences they brought to the table. These multitudes of experiences from diverse contexts reminds you to always focus on the process of data collection and what ingrained biases may already exist in your approach that colour that data. In general, I really enjoyed learning the breadth of digital methods available and its potential to (re)envision how social data can be collected, (re)viewed and (re)examined – the CDH Data School provided just enough of an overview to equip participants with the knowledge to dive deeper into the themes and tools that intrigued them, and for me, personally, I am excited at the possibilities of incorporating these methods into my own work.


Mariana Hafiz

Diversity is important because it makes us more knowledgeable and sensitive to each other’s experiences. It creates the opportunity to discuss society’s critical questions in directions which you might have taken for granted while talking to people from your social bubble or from similar backgrounds. For instance, in conversations about technology governance with Dr Hugo Leal, it was clear that people in Europe and here in Brazil had very different experiences in thinking about the State’s role in regulating technology companies. For some countries there is a great sense of trust in the government to do “what is right”, while for others trust in the government is very low and polarization is very high, which makes discussions about State governance rather controversial. I remember thinking that it all came down to how much you trust your democracies, which was shocking because I was not expecting this depth of discussion and also because it resonated with my own work as a training social researcher. This is also an important feature of the Data School: because it is so holistic in their treatment of data and technology issues, it can be really insightful in very different ways for people in different settings.


Julett Pineda |

When the Social Data School began, I did not dread having another Zoom meeting on my calendar. On the contrary, every morning, I looked forward to logging in. For three weeks, I engaged in some of the most fascinating conversations and debates I’ve ever had in my life – and half of these powerful insights came from my fellow course members, who made me rethink pressing issues concerning privacy, gender, race, culture, and other gaps.

Being part of this global virtual classroom equipped me with a critical vision that my work as a journalist lacked. The Social Data School shrunk the thousands of kilometers that kept us apart and gathered us in a virtual room – a tremendously powerful exchange that goes beyond learning an open-source tool or cracking an algorithm.


Filip Biały |

Datafication and algorithmization of contemporary societies is often understood as a uniform process, and presented from a perspective that suffers from implicit Western-centric bias. That is why it was extremely refreshing and intellectually stimulating to take part in the Social Data School alongside people from such diverse cultural backgrounds. It reminded me that questions and problems posed and considered as new or pressing in the West, may have completely different meaning elsewhere or for a person that belongs to ethnic minority. One example that I remembered from the discussion was about the phenomenon of fake news. It has been treated as an emerging threat to Western democracies. But for a person from a discriminated minority, hearing “fake news” about them is their life-long experience. Only when we understand such a perspective can we begin to appreciate how methodologically and theoretically important it is to include minority voices in the research design process. It is crucial especially in the context of data science that is too frequently perceived as the only objective game in town. Before we start quantifying things and look for meaningful correlations, we need to be able to develop empathy and understanding of social and human matters in question.
And this, for me, is the greatest value of digital humanities.







  • Posted 23 Sep 2021
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