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Literature Review

Case Studies

  Technical requirements
  Future Roles
  New Tools
  Social Questions




Case Studies Index

Review of graphical environments on the WWW as a means of widening public participation in social science research

5.4 Social, cultural, political and ethical questions

There are a great many social, cultural, political and ethical questions that arise out the use of the WWW in general, and through its specific use as a tool for social science research. Not least of these is the spectre of social exclusion, but other problems of apathy, antagonism, trivialisation, bias, freedom of information, confidentiality and political intransigence also affect the viability of web-based approaches to social science research.

Social exclusion

The issue of social exclusion has already generated much general discussion within the social science literature, but becomes more of a focal point when discussing the web as a vehicle for participation. The fact remains that no matter how many people have direct access to the web, either from home, the workplace or public terminals, there will also be a minority of people who for whatever reason do not. Under-representation is a major problem currently facing any ideas for practical real world use of web-based participatory systems. Not everyone at present has access to the WWW and many people lack essential technical knowledge and/or may not be familiar with new developments. This gives rise to the danger of creating an "Information Underclass" for whom there is no access to information and as a consequence lack even a minimum level of understanding that enables effective participation.

Apathy and antagonism

Apathy and antagonism also play an important role. Many people may simply be uninterested or lack the incentive to participate. On the other hand, many people may be actively hostile to any idea of digital methods of involvement. This 'technophobic' minority is however, likely to reduce with time as more and more people (particularly in the younger generation) become familiar with computers and their use across a broad spectrum of activities from the home to the workplace. Similarly, the passage of time will see an increased market penetration of the WWW (or its future equivalent) just as television re-shaped our home social lives in the 1960s and 70s and just as the mobile 'phone is re-shaping personal communications today. In the short-term, there is likely to be a massive rise in the numbers of people with connections to the WWW. Even those who do not own a PC will have easy access to WWW stations at local libraries, council offices and other public places.


Another pit-fall for web-based participation is the potential for trivialising social science research. Research can be a complex process of hypothesis generation, observation, data collection, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Public involvement in research through web-based systems necessitates simplification and therefore increases the danger of missing key points or issues. Web-based social science research may fall foul of the criticism that it is undermining the foundations of rigorous research and replacing it with a digital 'plug and play' version. This criticism gives rise to a real worry over misrepresentation of the true nature of the population. Participants more used to computer games than work-place computer applications may not take the problem seriously and be tempted to play around thereby giving false feedback to researchers.

Bias and (dis)information

For many people who are genuinely interested in a particular social science problem or issue, bias in system development may be a real concern. One of the advantages of the WWW is its independent nature, but this gives rise to the problem of potential bias in system authorage and control. Taking the nuclear waste disposal problem as an example, a web site authored by the nuclear industry is likely to paint a somewhat different picture of the problem than say one authored by an environmental pressure group. The potential for (dis)information in the data, models, web-site structure and associated text is enormous. Essentially the onus is on the user to recognise this and place their (dis)trust accordingly. This is a basic flaw with any information media, be it the press, television, radio or the WWW. Any attempt to police the information provided on WWW is against its basic principles of freedom of information and so is either doomed to failure or if successful, will ultimately kill-off the WWW.

Freedom of information

Freedom of access to information can be a major constraint to researchers and the public alike in the design and implementation of effect participatory systems. At present in the UK several barriers have been erected and kept in place by organisations holding relevant datasets. Comparisons can be drawn between the UK and the USA which has had a Freedom of Information Act for many years. In the UK, citizens have to pay vast sums of money for digital map data from the national mapping organisations. In the USA, access to digital map information is free. Even though certain datasets in the UK are available free of charge, the bureaucratic and physical barriers preventing their effective use can be quite considerable.

A good example is the Chemical Release Inventory compiled by the then Department of the Environment (DoE) from permits issued to companies and institutions to release chemical substances into the environment. This important environmental dataset was freely available for public scrutiny but in such a form as to make it inaccessible to all but the most tenacious of researchers. Friends of the Earth (FoE) have now accessed all this data and produced an excellent interactive web-site which allows users to inspect the emissions permit data and search the database using a simple map interface. Users can also search for the permitted chemical releases nearest to their own postcode. All the FoE Chemical Release Inventory does is remove the barriers to the use of this data making it easily accessible to the public, but it is far in advance of the methods of access employed by the ministry.The present UK government is now making noises about a Freedom of Information Act for the UK. It remains to be seen what this will mean for freedom of access to key social science relevant datasets.


One difficult issue facing web-based collection of social science data is confidentiality. If an individual can be identified in data gleaned over the web then it may be deemed confidential under the rules of the Data Protection Act. As it happens, much information pertaining to individuals accessible from web access logs, for example, is very difficult to trace to an individual since most users will be accessing the Internet via a service provider such as CompuServe or AOL. This makes tracing the individual to a specific address impossible. Where information is collected about an individual through an on-line questionnaire for example, it needs to be made very explicit to the respondent that the information they enter about themselves may be used and published. It is probably good practice in such cases to publish a warning notice before and after the questionnaire and not to ask questions that enable the individual to be identified, thereby gaining permission to use any data entered and retaining the anonymity of the respondent.

Political intransigence

Most of the systems discussed in this report are essentially digital versions of paper questionnaires with varying levels of interaction and multi-media content that have been produced to support pure research objectives. The higher end applications such as the nuclear waste disposal decision support system and some of the projected 3D virtual worlds support higher goals; those of participation in decision making. The potential of web-based participatory systems in some sectors of social science research will no doubt in time be realised. The potential of participatory systems in decision making and support is less certain. The ideals of 'cyberdemocracy' (democratic process enhanced and perpetuated through direct public participation in important political decisions via digital means) are noble and yet fraught with difficulties, some of which have been covered above such as under-representation, (mis)representation, trivialisation, bias and (dis)information.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to the development of successful web-based decision support systems, however, is that of political intransigence. Although enlightened political minds have recognised the vast potential of the Internet and WWW as an (dis)information medium, the political machine as a whole is likely to be unenthusiastic. Information is power and most politicians as a result view the WWW and web-based participatory decision support systems as a grave threat, not only to their role as decision-makers, but also to the current political status quo. Politicians and other decision-makers in industry and commerce invariably subscribe to the "we know best" principle and perhaps rightly so. Whereas the advantages of participatory web-based systems from a social science point of view are that they offer an open, flexible and rational approach to public involvement in the decision-making process, the politician is likely to see these qualities as distinct disadvantages that are likely to undermine positions of power in the decision-making hierarchy.

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