The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice is committed to advancing the use of big data and data analytics for social justice through scholarly research, educational programming, and public engagement.
In his exceptional survey of current big data methods in the social sciences, Rob Kitchin (2014) describes the current state of affairs as a “data deluge.” Indeed, the tidal wave and flood of data abound in our current computational culture from the engineering and entanglement of dynamic digital architectures in the most quotidian forms of social life. From our interactions on social media to our purchasing transactions to our visits to the doctor’s office to our various engagements with public agencies to our smartphone GPS tracked movement through space, data is being produced on, about, and by us all the time. This data deluge has created new, more expansive forms of research and practice that are informed or driven by data, including in social policy and social work.
The deluge of big data was recognized by the Obama Administration’s commitment toward the fast growing and developing area of public and social policy with data analytics. The Administration’s “Big Data Research and Development Initiative” sought to harness and utilize the insights from the analysis of the massive production of data in order to address the nation’s challenges and social problems. This need hit even closer to home when HealthCare.gov, the website for the Affordable Care Act’s insurance marketplace, crashed within two hours of its launch on Oct. 1, 2013. In their May 2014 report, “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values,” the Administration pointed to the utility of big data for health care, education, law enforcement, and other areas of public and social policy. In the same report, they also spoke to concerns with maintaining privacy values of citizens, the need to better understand and mitigate discriminatory practices due to algorithms, and the need for full accountability and oversight in the use of predictive analytics in law enforcement.
In the digital datafication and automation of social life, the impact on social policy is already felt, but has yet to be adequately theorized or ethically and politically excavated. SP2 has recognized the growing need for research and training on how big data and algorithmic methods are shaping the social, political, and ethical dimensions of life. SP2 makes equity and social justice core concerns and focus in the application and analysis of big data analytic methods. This is a particular focus that is not “data-driven” but rather brings theory and philosophy to bear in order to inform more just possibilities for social policy and practice. This is a focus on how data analytics might be employed to enhance the lives of socially precarious conditions as well as the critical study and analysis of the social impact and consequences of algorithmic life. This includes a focus on the ethical, sociopolitical, and philosophical implications of algorithmic governance and computational culture for social life.