Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Algorithms as organizational figuration: The sociotechnical arrangements of a fintech start-up

To further the understanding of sociotechnical arrangements that involve algorithms, our journal paper developed the conceptualization of algorithms as organizational figuration, illustrating how algorithms and organizations shape each other in the case of a fin-tech start-up.

Organizations increasingly employ machine learning algorithms, whether as part of their original business model or in efforts to optimize and reform existing practices. For this study, we followed a Danish fintech start-up through its process of defining itself as a fintech, developing an algorithmic tool for screening investment portfolios, and launching its core product of sustainable investment opportunities for pensions savings. We found that the company follows a general trajectory of shaping the algorithm, then being shaped by it, but that this process involves a series of more specific sociotechnical arrangements, some of which develop consecutively while others co-exist for shorter or longer periods of time.

To gain deeper understanding of this process, we turned to the concept of figuration, as developed by Couldry and Hepp (2017) and Braidotti (2011), respectively. Beginning from their common understanding of figurations as relational arrangements of social and technical elements, which are to be ‘mapped’ rather than interpreted or otherwise explained, we follow Braidotti’s notion that figurations are living maps of organizations that can be identified as ‘conceptual personae’ or performative images of socio-political becoming. Returning to our case, we can now detail the figuration of our case organization as variously foregrounding the agency of human actors and of the algorithm and show how these agencies are predicated upon each other as well as on other aspects of the sociotechnical arrangement. The algorithm, initially developed to fulfil the organization’s purpose of sustainable investment, increasingly shapes the organization, shifting its purpose from normative potentiality to pragmatic realization. As one of human members of the organization observes: 

I was attracted by it, like cool that it was a pension that would be good for a lot of things. But now it is like it has become more specialized in the direction of climate because it is quantifiable and measurable and easy to report. But the more parameters that have to add up, like human rights and women in management, the more difficult it will be to create a portfolio that still gives a good return. Because it should not cost our users any money to protect something good; that is our entire selling proposition.  

Here, the agency of the algorithm interacts with economic imperatives of profit-maximization (for the organization as well as its users) to figure the organization as a conduit for turning input (investment portfolios) into output (optimal profitability, given set requirements of sustainability). 

Empirically, then, our case is one of an organization that becomes figured more and more as its algorithm. Conceptually, however, this implies understanding algorithms in relation to the organizations they figure – and by which they are figured. An algorithm may be a procedure for turning input into output in accordance with set rules, but that is never all it is. Or rather, the ‘black box’ of that procedure is shaped from the outside as it were, through the relations between algorithmic and other organizational elements (be they social or technical). Understanding algorithms as organizational figuration, in sum, means providing living maps of their relationality, multiplicity and processuality, identifying the ways in which the give shape to and take shape from processes of organizing, establishing spatial multiplicity within a temporal trajectory. 

Monday, 30 August 2021

Dashboard stories: How narratives told by predictive analytics reconfigure roles, risk and sociality in education

Juliane Jarke and Felicitas Macgilchrist introduce a new paper on, "Dashboard stories: How narratives told by predictive analytics reconfigure roles, risk and sociality in education", out in Big Data & Society  doi:10.1177/20539517211025561. First published June 29, 2021.

Video abstract


In this paper, we explore how the development and affordances of predictive analytics may impact how teachers and other educational actors think about and teach students and, more broadly, how society understands education. Our particular focus is on the data dashboards of learning support systems which are based on Machine Learning (ML). While previous research has focused on how these systems produce credible knowledge, we explore here how they also produce compelling, persuasive and convincing narratives. Our main argument is that particular kinds of stories are written by predictive analytics and written into their data dashboards. Based on a case study of a leading predictive analytics system, we explore how data dashboards imply causality between the ‘facts’ they are visualising. To do so, we analyse the stories they tell according to their spatial and temporal dimensions, characters and events, sequentiality as well as tellability. In the stories we identify, teachers are managers, students are at greater or lesser risk, and students’ sociality is reduced to machine-readable interactions. Overall, only data marked as individual behaviours becomes relevant to the system, rendering structural inequalities invisible. Reflecting on the implications of these systems, we suggest ways in which the uptake of these systems can interrupt such stories and reshape them in other directions.

Keywords: Predictive analyticslearning analyticseducationdata visualisationdataficationstorytellingdashboardsmachine learningartificial intelligence

Monday, 12 July 2021

Big Data & Society summer break

The journal Big Data & Society will be on summer break from July 17th to August 28th. Please accept any delays in processing and reviewing your submission, and in related correspondence during that time.

Have a great summer!

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

BD&S is now leading the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary domain of the Social Sciences Citation Index

We are pleased to announce that the journal Big Data & Society has received an Impact Factor of 5.987 according to the Journal Citation Reports by Web of Science Group, 2021. The 5-Year Impact Factor of the journal is 8.118. The journal is now ranked as the highest journal out of 110 in the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary domain of the multidisciplinary Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI). More information on SSCI can be found here: https://clarivate.com/webofsciencegroup/solutions/webofscience-ssci/.

We are proud of this accomplishment and thank our authors, reviewers and editors for all their hard work. The journal could not have achieved this without you and without our readers. We look forward to continuing to offer feedback and space for thoughtful and innovative research on big data practices.

BD&S is a SAGE open access, double blind peer-reviewed scholarly journal. It publishes interdisciplinary research principally in the social sciences, humanities and computing and their intersections with the arts and natural sciences about the implications of Big Data for societies. After launching in 2014, it has published 400 original research articles, commentaries, demonstrations, and editorials in a series of special theme collections. Visit the journal web site at https://journals.sagepub.com/home/bds.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Welcoming Prof. Hannah Yee-Fen Lim as a co-editor of Big Data and Society

We are very happy to be able to announce that the journal has a new co-editor, Dr. Hannah Yee-Fen Lim (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). Prof. Lim will expand our editorial expertise in the legal aspects of big data and related technologies. 

Prof. Hannah Yee-Fen Lim 
Division of Business Law, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 

Prof. Lim is an internationally recognised legal expert on all areas of technology law, including data privacy, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Fintech, health technology, ethics and intellectual property. She has been appointed as a legal expert and has been advising international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations (UNCITRAL). She is currently one of 15 international legal experts appointed by UNIDROIT to research on and draft new International Model Laws to govern Cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and other digital assets. She is the author of hundreds of papers and 6 scholarly books on law and technology published by internationally established publishers such as Oxford University Press. She graduated with double degrees in Computer Science and in Law from the University of Sydney, Australia where she went on to complete a Master of Laws by Research with Honours under a Telstra Scholarship. Hannah’s research has been cited with approval by senior judiciary, most notably by the High Court of Australia.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Mapping business and data partnerships in the social media ecosystem

Fernando van der Vlist (@fvandervlist) and Anne Helmond (@silvertje)

Social media platforms are among the world’s most profitable businesses whose business models rely on digital advertising revenues. The current global digital advertising market comprises thousands of interconnected platforms and (platform) businesses and is projected to be worth $333 billion, in which programmatic advertising accounts for the vast majority (84.5% or more) of total revenue. Despite its significance, not enough is known about the structure of this global digital advertising market, how exactly it relates to social media, and the importance of partnerships and partner integrations in connecting them.

In our article in Big Data and Society, we consider the significance of business and data partnerships in the social media ecosystem to understand how partners mediate and shape the governance and power of the world’s largest digital platforms. We present an empirical method for tracing their partnerships and partner integrations (the software integrations built through partnerships) – inspired by a prior empirical study of how partnerships figured in Facebook’s platform evolution. We then apply this method to map the thousands of business(-to-business) partnership relations that comprise the social media business ecosystem to learn more about the different types of partnerships and their role in mediating and shaping the governance and power of social media platforms in particular.

The empirical maps show which relationships are involved, which are exclusive or shared, and help us to identify key sources and locations, or ‘nodes’, of power in this ecosystem. Importantly, they spotlight the central role of partnerships and partner integrations in connecting social media platforms with what we call the audience economy – the complex global and interconnected marketplace of business(-to-business) intermediaries involved in the creation, commodification, analysis, and circulation of data audiences for purposes including but not limited to digital advertising and marketing. That is, we present the relationship networks that make up the ecosystem of social media, search engines, and other large digital platforms and which also interconnects the players of this global ecosystem, including leading data intermediaries, cloud service providers, and digital advertising and marketing technology providers.

Social media and audience intermediary partner ecosystems, with highlighted social media platforms (light blue) and audience data intermediaries (orange).

Within this global and interconnected audience economy, business(-to-business) partners play a pivotal role through the creation of software tools, products, and services for shaping the creation, buying, modelling, measurement, and targeting of data audiences. In fact, we suggest that partnerships have been endemic and essential to the burgeoning business of digital platforms, particularly to their ‘programmatic’ (automated, data-driven) advertising and marketing businesses. Through intermediary partnerships and infrastructures, these data and advertising-related practices often extend far beyond any single digital platform environment or geographic territory. Consequently, partners contribute significantly to the ongoing process of ‘platformisation’ through their collective development of integrated software infrastructures between diverse economic sectors and spheres of life.

Most of the partnerships we found when conducting the empirical research in 2018 involved large advertising agencies (e.g. Dentsu and WPP), advertising and marketing clouds (e.g. Adobe Marketing Cloud, Oracle Marketing Cloud, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud), audience data aggregators such as data management and customer data platforms (‘DMPs’ and ‘CDPs’, e.g. eXelate, LiveRamp (formerly Acxiom), Oracle DMP (formerly BlueKai), and Salesforce DMP (formerly Krux)), data analytics and measurement firms (e.g. 4C Insights, Nielsen, and SocialCode), ‘multichannel’ advertising and marketing solutions (e.g. Adobe, AdParlor, Brand Networks, Oracle, Percolate, Salesforce, Spredfast, and Sprinklr), and customer relation management (‘CRM’) solutions (e.g. Adobe, Salesforce, Spredfast, and Sprinklr).

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. It is clear that there are many different types of partnerships and players that may inform our understanding of the nature and structure of the audience economy – including the global digital advertising market, which is exceptionally dynamic – and where the vast stores of digital data held by social media and other types of digital platforms derive their value and worth. That is, how disparate data sources are aggregated, linked, and made valuable through diverse practical applications, including but not limited to targeted advertising and data analytics. Data aggregation and identity resolution have become central processes in this audience economy as a result – and we find those processes as solutions offered by virtually all the leading platform businesses.\

Based on the empirical findings, we suggest that power is not only held by the world’s largest platforms (e.g. those referred to as ‘GAFAM’, or Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft) but also mediated by their partners and dispersed within the integrated platform ecosystem. Google and Facebook’s digital advertising ‘duopoly’, for instance, depends to a certain extent on their strategic position within the partner ecosystem, while strategic partners such as Acxiom, Oracle, and Experian benefit from partnerships with Google and Facebook through being among the few with privileged access to their closed platforms (referred to as ‘walled gardens’ or ‘data silos’). Within this ecosystem, governance and control are exercised through partnership agreements and software infrastructure for the sourcing of data from disparate sources and the distribution across many media channels – all automated and occurring in the blink of an eye.

While there are many important implications to consider, as some already have, the global and interconnected structure of this audience economy raises geo-political concerns around how these intermediary partnerships enable or cause data to move across (international and intercontinental) borders. The prevalence of partnerships between and among audience data intermediaries means that it is exceptionally difficult, sometimes impossible, to trace the origins and flow of audience data throughout the integrated platform ecosystem (or understand where data originates, is stored, and moves – a requirement under the EU GDPR). For instance, Wodinsky from Gizmodo raised concerns about the role of partners mediating, through an unknown number of intermediary partnerships, between Western and Chinese firms and advertisers. Additionally, The Intercept featured how a network of local Chinese partners offered Oracle’s technology and services to Chinese police and defense entities. Given these implications, we hope that our research methodology – and an (openly available) dataset of the partnerships we found – provide useful starting points to undertake additional research to help further improve critical understanding of this audience economy and the players within it.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Introducing the Special Theme Issue on “Studying the COVID-19 Infodemic at Scale”

Guest editors:

·     Anatoliy Gruzd, Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

·     Manlio De Domenico, Center for Information Technology of Fondazione Bruno Kessler, Italy

·     Pier Luigi Sacco, Department of Humanities, IULM University, Milan, Italy; metaLAB (at) Harvard, USA

·     Sylvie Briand, World Health Organization, Switzerland

As manufacturing and distribution of the vaccines are ramping up, false and misleading information about vaccines efficacy, safety and side-effects have also increased on social media. This is reflected in the increasing number of vaccine-related claims being debunked by international fact-checking organizations. But, false and misleading COVID-19 claims, as tracked by the COVID19Misinfo portal from Ryerson University Social Media Lab, are not limited to vaccine-related content. In fact, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, social media has been a key vector in the spread of various types of misinformation about the virus including how it is transmitted and how to treat it. The prevalence of COVID-19 related misinformation on social media contributes to the phenomenon called “infodemic,” when people are exposed to large quantities of both accurate and misleading information related to a health topic. An infodemic makes it challenging for people to know what or whom to trust, especially when faced with conflicting claims or information.

To address the challenges of detecting and combating the spread of COVID-19 misinformation on social media and to contribute to the rapidly growing area of infodemiology, we are pleased to present the special theme on “Studying the COVID-19 Infodemic at Scale”. This special theme in Big Data & Society provides a space for original research articles and commentaries at the intersection of infodemiology, Big Data, and COVID-related dis/misinformation studies that explore questions such as: What are key terminologies and different computational approaches currently used to study and combat the spread of misinformation on social media? How can we use social media data to estimate the effects of the infodemic on individuals and society in general? And more specifically, how can we assess and mitigate the infodemic risks and consequences using Big Data?

The special theme issue builds on a successful series of public events and consultations organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN) Infodemic Management team in 2020. We are also building on the Big Data & Society symposium called “Viral Data” edited by Leszczynski and Zook (2020) which examined Big Data practices and specifically the notion of data virality as related to the pandemic at the midpoint of 2020. 

All together the special theme features the following six research articles and four commentaries by 57 authors from 23 institutions in six countries: