Telling Data Stories: Developing an Online Tool for Participatory Speculative Fiction


This case study describes a project that combined speculative fiction and co-design as qualitative social science research methods. It also describes how planned methods had to be adapted from physically co-present to online implementation and how we also had to change our expectations regarding the outcomes of the project.

The combination of speculative fiction and co-design or co-creation offers a powerful way to enable participants to engage in public discussion of subjects or topics that they may be reluctant to talk about, perhaps because of complex loyalties, or perceptions of risk. Our study explored surveillance practices in Higher Education—that is, practices such as monitoring access to both virtual and physical learning spaces, online proctoring, the use of Learning Analytics, and the use of packages such as Office365, which allow for increasing surveillance of student and staff activities. However, similar methods could be used in other contexts where social and power dynamics might prevent explicit discussion of participants’ actual experiences. They are also effective in surfacing fears (and to some extent, hopes) about what has not yet happened, but might.

The research was profoundly affected by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with planned physically co-present workshops coinciding with a period of strict national lockdown. This resulted in changes to both planned methods and expectations of what could be achieved during the funding period. This means that the case study also provides insights into how a research team can respond and pivot in relation to the changed research context, including rethinking both methods and goals without changing core aims. The case study also highlights how a shift to online data sourcing can have unanticipated consequences, particularly in relation to anonymity and informed consent.

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