2015 > About


The 2015 Data Power conference was co-hosted by the Department of Sociological Studies and the Digital Society Network at the University of Sheffield, and with support from an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) Fellowship. The context of the conference is one in which data are more and more ubiquitous, are assumed to have the power to explain our social world, and increasingly inform decision-making that affects all of our lives. The promise of big data has been widely celebrated: they can give us access to opinions, feelings and actions in real time and at great volume and speed, make all social operations more efficient and enhance understanding of behaviour and social life, it has been claimed.

Given this recent exponential growth in data power, we need to ask critical questions about the costs of the data delirium (van Zoonen) that we are currently living. What kinds of power are enacted when data are employed by governments and security agencies to monitor populations or by private corporations to accumulate knowledge about consumers? Because contemporary forms of data mining and analytics open up the potential for new, unaccountable and opaque forms of population management in a growing range of social realms, questions urgently need to be asked about control, discrimination, and social sorting – about data power. At the same time, equally important are questions about the possibility of agency in the face of data power and of social groups sidestepping the dominating interests of big business and big government in our big-data-driven world.

The conference welcomes an excellent range of delegates. The keynote speakers are the most important commentators on data power in the world today, and speakers in the parallel sessions represent a brilliant mix of prominent thinkers and emerging, early career scholars breaking new ground with their varied research into the power of data. We were especially excited to see so many papers which ground the study of data power in specific contexts, from education and health to journalism, art and cities. This, we felt, represented the next phase of research into data power.