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Worknote: Data-related research landscape

Tue Oct 12, 2021
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Weeknotes: personal reflections from the ODI research team. Keeping you informed about our projects, research and decision-making processes.

By Sara Marcucci, Researcher; Annalisa Eichholzer, Partnerships Manager; and Jared Keller, Senior Technical Researcher

In recent years, digital technology and its applications have evolved and expanded their scope significantly – including the exponential development and broadening of data-related research.. This data-related research landscape is dispersed, which can be an obstacle to appreciating the breadth and richness of the conversation around data and its intersections with society. It therefore seems useful to have a place where people who need to take a look at the bigger picture can do so, ultimately understanding the overall state and development of that conversation.

Thus, in the summer of 2021, we at the Open Data Institute (ODI) launched a project aimed at surveying the research landscape about data, its value, uses and impacts. Indeed, we believe having a clear picture of what we’re loosely calling ‘data-related research’ is fundamental to inspire, inform and influence key figures of the data ecosystem, including policymakers, funders, researchers and the media.

As part of our new work programme for 2021-2022, our review of the data-related research landscape will aim to identify gaps and steer the future research and development work of the ODI and others. In particular, we are interested in better understanding the funding landscape, investigating the different priorities and considerations that drive decisions made by both government and philanthropic funders.

As illustrated in a previous blogpost that introduced the project, we initially thought about understanding the data-related research landscape by adopting a type of approach that started from researchers. We aimed to interview researchers so as to directly investigate the outcomes of the funding process and ultimately use those as the initial object of our analysis.

However, while carrying out the initial desk research, we came to realize we needed to start from a narrower perspective and adopt a more strategic approach. While it remains crucial for us to cast our eyes as widely as possible, it seems just as important to determine clear priorities and develop a feasible research strategy, ultimately focusing on the funding process before investigating the outcomes of such a process.

We therefore decided to start our project by focusing on funders rather than researchers. Given how the research ecosystem is so dependent on and structured around funders, it seems reasonable to investigate their role, who and what they fund, and for what reasons. Approaching the research projects this way, it is possible for us to start answering all of our research questions, getting a look into the data-related research landscape that is both extensive and rigorous at the same time.

We will soon start conducting expert interviews with public sector and philanthropic funders based in the UK. We have decided to limit the initial analysis to the UK so as to enable a more focused and in-depth type of research. Nevertheless, we do intend to expand to other regions as well as other types of funders at later stages.

We hope the interviews will be a source of insightful information to understand the complex and multifaceted landscape of data-related research. Additionally, it seems worth noting that we are not focused on research on digital technology that is data-heavy, nor are we exclusively investigating research that requires substantial amounts of data (eg clinical studies). We want to find answers to these types of questions:

  • Who is funding research in this area?
    • In the UK, who are the major funders of ‘data-related research’ – ie research about data, its value, uses and impacts?
    • How much funding do they direct toward ‘data-related research’ each year? How much in past years? How much is planned for future years?
    • What is the process for securing funding?
  • What ‘data-related’ topics are being funded by these orgs? 
    • What ‘data-related’ topics are they currently funding – eg research related to data and society, policy, governance, etc? What are they interested in funding in the future?
    • How do funders identify new topics/themes worthy of funding?
      • To what extent is the research agenda driven by funders?
    • What is currently ‘big’ in the world of data, tech, policy, governance, new uses of data, etc? What new technologies, policies, stewardship models, uses of data are impacting people, organisations and societies?
    • What are going to be the next ‘big things’ in data over the next one, five, and ten years
  • Who is conducting research in this area?
    • Which are the main actors working in this area?
    • What sectors or disciplines are these people and organisations working in?
    • Where are they publishing, communicating, and discussing?

Once the interviews are completed, analysed, and synthesised, we plan on publishing a report with our findings. We hope a cohesive and comprehensive gathering of the results of our initial exploration will inform and inspire policymakers, regulators and other researchers. Yet, this will not signify the end of this research project; in fact, given how rapidly the data-related research landscape evolves, our goal is for the study to be iterative and be updated periodically.

We would very much like to conduct this investigation with other researchers operating in the data-related research field, exchanging ideas and receiving external input and feedback to help us identify where to look next, ultimately finding potential needs and gaps that we can try to address in further phases of the research. Get in touch if you would like to collaborate with us on this project!