Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Public Sphere

Last March I had the privilege of attending a meeting in Washington DC to explore the formation of the Media and Communications Policy Data Consortium, an initiative of the Social Science Research Council to facilitate and expand access to a wide range of commercial and non-commercial data sets that frequently are used in media research, policymaking, and advocacy. The Data Consortium is part of a larger project of the SSRC entitled Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Public Sphere whose ambitious goals are both idealistic and practical. Projects launched in 2006 include the establishment of a website (the Media Research Hub) for researchers and activists. The site will host a searchable, community-updated researcher index, online project brokering, a community-filtered resource database, a collaborative grants portal, a data consortium portal, and a conference alliance portal. (It is not quite launched yet but they're getting close.) Additionally it will host a collaborative grants program and the Data Consortium to facilitate the sharing and evaluation of commercial data (both U.S. and international), obscure or neglected public data, and orphaned data sets.

Led by Joe Karaganis of SSRC, the Data Consortium meeting was comprised of folks from the Center for Public Integrity, Media Access Project, New America Foundation, Consumer Project on Technology, and the Future of Music Coalition, as well as a few academics--researchers, students, professors and a librarian. After agreeing on our purpose (that "public policy should be made with publicly available data") we spent a long time discussing the requirements and benefits of consortium membership and our potential constituency--academic departments and schools, associations, research centers, think tanks, advocacy organizations, and libraries--and how to reach out to them.

The Data Consortium has just been booked for a June 24 presentation of its progress at the American Library Association in Washington DC. It should be one of the more interesting programs at the conference.

Those interested in learning more about the current state of the media data access landscape, the unevenness of the playing field and solutions for grading it, should contact Philip Napoli, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Business, Fordham University, for a copy of his soon to be published paper "Necessary Knowledge for Communications Policy: Information Inequalities and Commercial Data Access and Usage in the Policymaking Process" (forthcoming, Federal Communications Law Journal).

ABSTRACT of Napoli paper:
Communications policymaking increasingly relies upon large-scale databases manufactured and marketed by commercial organizations. Data providers such as BIA Research, Nielsen Media Research, and Arbitron play a vital role in aggregating the data that policymakers, policy analysts, and policy advocates rely upon in policy deliberations. In many ways, these data providers supplement the limited data gathering capacity of government bodies such as the FCC and NTIA and thereby help to bring a greater quantity of relevant data to bear on policy issues than would otherwise be possible. Indeed, these data are utilized extensively by stakeholders with an interest in policy outcomes to conduct and submit studies that policymakers rely upon in their deliberations (often in lieu of conducting such research on their own).

One unfortunate byproduct of this situation, however, is that, to the increasing extent that the data relied upon in policymaking, policy analysis, and policy advocacy are provided by commercial organizations, substantial inequalities in access to these data inevitably arise. Specifically, significant actors in the policymaking process, such as academic researchers and public interest organizations, lack the financial resources of communications firms and industry associations to gain access to the data that are vital to conducting thorough, reliable, and persuasive policy research. Policymakers themselves often find their research objectives inhibited by the enormous expense associated with the relevant large-scale commercial datasets, and thus find themselves increasingly reliant upon the analyses conducted by those stakeholder groups with the resources necessary to gain access to such data. As a result of these information asymmetries, policy decision-making is likely to suffer, as the research inputs inevitably fail to reflect the full range of considerations across the full range of interested stakeholders. This article illustrates these issues via a case study of the FCC's 2003 media ownership proceeding and offers suggestions for how the existing disparities in access to policy-relevant data might be addressed.

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