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University of Basel

“Big public data” as an opportunity

Ulrich Matter

Is “Big public data” an opportunity or a danger to society? A debate on the future of the fundamental right to informational self-determination. An economist and a legal scholar take up positions.

Ulrich Matter. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Ulrich Matter wrote his dissertation on the topic Political Economics in the Age of Big Public Data.

The digitization of many areas of life, driven by the spread of the Internet and cell phones, has in recent years produced a veritable flood of data about various aspects of our social lives. This opens up new opportunities for conducting empirical research into economic and social relationships on a scale that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

In addition to new technical and methodological challenges, social science research that uses big data must, in some areas, also address important ethical issues regarding the privacy of the research subjects. However, fields of big data that are not especially problematic in this regard do exist – namely, data about public administration and politics.

“Big public data” is explicitly intended for the public, but has so far received little attention from social science researchers. One particular development is key to the increasing availability of big data: the emergence of NGOs and citizens’ organizations that are using the new possibilities provided by the Internet to make the political process more transparent.

This “open government” movement has seen particularly strong growth in the U.S. over the past five years. Organizations such as Project Vote Smart and the Sunlight Foundation publish detailed information about various aspects of U.S. politics. In doing so, they are using new web technology standards that simplify networking and data transfer between different applications and users. This facilitates a decentralized approach to generating, processing and disseminating the data.

The Project Vote Smart website is a good example. The site tells U.S. citizens about every person who holds a public office (or candidates for a public office) in the country – from the president to the county sheriff . The site also gives candidates and politicians a platform for presenting themselves in public. This means they have an incentive to contribute to the comprehensive database themselves.

In order to fulfil their missions as effectively as possible, organizations such as Project Vote Smart also share their data, via interfaces, with other web developers who can then easily embed the data in other applications and websites.

The same technology allows researchers to collect and analyze the data systematically using software they have programmed themselves. Gathering data in this way has a significant advantage for empirical political economy research, as the data are generated and disseminated independently of a specific research question. This is crucial for many politico-economic issues, as research often focuses on characteristics or aspects of behavior that politicians generally want to hide.

The areas of political economy in which these new datasets can be applied include research that uses detailed micro-data about political financing to investigate how stakeholder groups influence economic policy, and the development of new methods for uncovering hidden collaboration in legislative assemblies. Overall, big public data combined with new computer- aided analytical processes promises exciting times for empirical research at the interface of economics and politics.

Ulrich Matter submitted his dissertation, Political Economics in the Age of Big Public Data, to the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Basel in June 2015. He is currently undertaking research for a project entitled “Uncovering Vote Trading through Networks and Computation”.

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