Finding Mobile Internet Policy Actors in Big Data

Adapted from the original image by Cambodia4kids.org, published under CC BY

Adapted from the original image by Cambodia4kids.org, published under CC BY

Some recent thinking by the Moving Media research team on the implications of big data research in relation to locating informal policy actors:

Scholarly interest in data privacy and the regulation of mobile Internet has intensified in recent years, particularly following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about Prism, the US government’s secret communications surveillance and data mining project. Much analysis has focused on the politics and architectures of data privacy regulation and network access. However the surveillance moment also invites scrutiny of academic data gathering and mining online. In open governance movements such as Occupy there has already been considerable debate about the ethics of big data research, particularly where the aim is to track individuals’ online agency around political processes and policy activism. With that context in mind, this paper examines the methodological implications of conducting large-scale social network analysis using Twitter for mobile Internet policy research.

Mobile internet is emerging at the intersection of broadband internet, mobile telephony, digital television and new media locative and sensing technologies. The policy issues around the development of this complex ecology include debates about spectrum allocation and network development, content production and code generation, and the design and the operation of media and telecommunications technologies. However not all of these discussions occur in formal regulatory settings such as International Telecommunications Union or World information Summit meetings, and not all are between traditional policy actors. Increasingly social media platforms such as Twitter and Linked-in host new networks of expertise, informal multi-actor conversations about the future of mobile Internet that have the potential to influence formal policy processes, as occurred during the January 2012 SOPA/PIPA campaigns in the US.

As part of the three year Australian Research Council Discovery project Moving Media: Mobile internet and new policy modes, this research team is mapping and interpreting the interplay between these diverse policy actors in three areas of accelerating media development: digital news, mobile health and locative media. However research into informal policy networks and processes online presents interesting problems of scale, focus and interpretation, given the increased affordances for citizen participation within the international political arenas of social media.

To better understand who these online stakeholders might be in the mobile health field, and how they operate in relation to the normative policy and regulatory circuits, we have adopted a social network analysis methodology, in order to track Twitter-based social relationships and debates. Using a series of hashtags, including #mhealth, #mobilehealth and #healthapps to track ongoing policy-related exchanges, we have begun to identify who is influential in these spaces, what they are talking about and how their input to debate may impact on mobile internet regulation.

This paper will outline that SNA approach and highlight some of the procedural and ethical concerns surrounding big data collection and analysis, which are consistent across contemporary digital humanities research. These concerns include how we can use big data harvesting and analysis tools to align quantitative with qualitative methods, how we can justify our research claims via these tools and how we might better understand and implement these innovative research methods within the academy. In particular the paper will interrogate the methodological suggestion that qualitative methods lead quantitative research, considering instead whether a more rigorous approach is to invert the quantitative/qualitative relationship.