To understand uses of personal data in the present, people draw on the past and imagine the future

The collection and analysis of data about us now occurs across many aspects of everyday life, but how do people come to understand these complex processes?

Drawing on Living With Data research – a research project which aimed to understand people’s perceptions of how data about them is collected, analysed, shared and used – Susan Oman, Hannah Ditchfield and Helen Kennedy show that people’s understandings of data uses are based on past experiences and predictions about the future.

Throughout our research, we found that clear information about data uses does not result directly in people understanding them. Focus group and interview participants often assumed that there was more to these data uses than what they saw or were told in our discussions with them, despite our efforts to produce clear and accessible visualisations.

For example, they imagined differences between how data uses are said to work in theory and how they actually work in practice. Or they imagined what might happen to data in the future, if governance arrangements or prevailing norms change.