At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we believe that achieving our vision of a world where data works for everyone requires fundamental and applied research into data, its value, uses and impacts. The findings, evidence and insights from this research also need to be widely discoverable and effectively distributed so they can inform, equip and inspire people who need them, such as decision-makers, practitioners, policymakers, regulators and other researchers.
At present, however, this research – that we’ve loosely been calling ‘data-related research’ – is being conducted by researchers spread across a range of different sectors and disciplines. Often, these researchers also have their own particular way of interpreting, approaching and communicating about this subject and space. For researchers, the fragmented and dispersed nature of this research field has meant that it can be difficult to identify relevant results in adjacent areas of enquiry, build on previous work, collaborate on shared interests, or coordinate to avoid duplicated effort. For the audience and users of this research, this has meant that it can be difficult to locate and recognise research findings, insights and evidence that are relevant to their circumstances and needs.
To address some of these challenges, this month we are launching a new project aimed at surveying the data-related research landscape and agenda.
Our short-term goals are to catalogue the research being conducted on topics related to data, its value, uses and impacts; help weave a network of knowledge and enquiry about data; and proactively identify emerging data-related topics worthy of investigation.
Our long-term goals are to build an evidence base for how to collect, manage, use and share data in ways that create positive impacts and avoid harmful effects; and to help steer the future research agenda of the ODI, and others, to address any gaps in that base.
During the first phase of research, running from August to December 2021, we will use a combination of desk research, literature reviews, horizon scanning, expert interviews and targeted surveys to answer key questions such as:
- What data-related topics and trends are researchers in this field investigating? What new technologies, policies, governance models, regulations and uses of data are currently being examined and what, according to those with an eye towards the future, are the emerging topics and trends that are going to impact people, communities, organisations and societies in the coming years?
- Who are the major people and organisations researching topics related to data? What sectors or disciplines are they working in and where are they publishing their findings?
- Who are the primary funders of research in this field? Where can advertisements for this type of funding be found and what is the process for securing it?
- What are the main methodologies used by people conducting research in this area? What types of skills and subject-matter expertise are useful for conducting data-related research?
Importantly, for this first phase of research we will not aim to rigidly or precisely define what we mean by ‘data-related research’ nor will we attempt to define the boundaries of this burgeoning research landscape. As people are fond of saying, data is everywhere; and so research about data and its impacts is being conducted everywhere, sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect. We want to remain open to this and conduct our research in a more ‘grounded’ manner in order to cast our eyes as widely as possible.
What is more, any definition of ‘data-related research’ and the topics and disciplines contained within it, will, as a matter of course, require regular updating. In the coming years, the collection and use of data is almost certain to shift and expand and new technologies, policies, regulations and forms of governance will emerge. The ODI and others working in this field will need to update their research landscapes to reflect these changes and modify their research agendas to investigate any new or developing terrain.
One long-term result of this project, then, is likely to be an annual survey and update of the data-related research landscape and an analysis of emerging topics and trends.
In the short term, we will start by documenting the organisations conducting research in our extended network. In the nine years since our founding, we have directly and indirectly interacted with a wide range of people and organisations conducting research on an array of topics relevant to this project. Collating a list of these people and organisations will prove a useful starting point, which we can then use to snowball further contacts and directions of enquiry. Once we have a critical mass of people and organisations, we can begin mapping the topics and trends they are researching, their sectors and disciplines, their sources of funding and their relevant skills and expertise.
Toward the end of this first phase of research we will release the results of this initial review of the data-related research landscape and agenda and invite feedback on how to make it better and more robust. We hope that the results of the initial review will help us begin to weave a network of knowledge and enquiry about data, which will ultimately help everyone working in this space to communicate, collaborate and coordinate.
In later phases of this project we will work to expand and update this review to build out our evidence base for how to collect, manage, use and share data in ways that create positive impacts and avoid harmful effects. We hope this will help get this evidence in the hands of the people who need it and help to steer the future research agenda of the ODI and others to address any gaps in that evidence base.
We would like to survey and explore this terrain with others, so please get in touch if you would like to collaborate with us on this project. Indeed, we are aware of similar efforts to map parts of this landscape such as data.org’s project aimed at charting the ‘Data for Good’ landscape and would love to work together with like-minded researchers to weave together these various pieces.