The case for accessing data in the digital environment: obstacles and strategies.

Digital research from Latin American civil society is an increasingly difficult challenge to overcome. In particular, monitoring the information ecosystem in social networks, websites and open discussion groups, faces incremental costs of access, lack of infrastructure and the challenge of retaining human talent. 

In different spaces, organizations in the region have recognized the widespread difficulty in accessing or using digital social listening services, and have raised questions about the place of data in this context. Fact-checking and journalism initiatives, public policy analysis, platform monitoring, activism and communications strategy for civil society require a conversation to articulate a common purpose that connects with the global agenda.

With this background on the horizon, Linterna Verde led two meetings with researchers and representatives of civil society organizations, in order to map relevant initiatives in Latin America and define the needs of the sector, focusing on those working around the digital public debate. In both meetings, the discussion revolved around the main challenges to access data, the types of collaboration or alliances viable in the short term and the opportunities to connect with the Global North. In this blog post, we share some of the challenges, needs and opportunities identified.

Overview of data research in Latin America

Those involved in digital research in Latin America pointed to challenges specific to the region, such as unequal access to and adoption of technology, the scarcity of tools in Spanish, and localization difficulties that limit access to certain services and tools for data mining and analysis. Some attendees insisted on the urgency of improving access to social network data for public interest research, given that social listening services are very expensive and access through social network APIs is limited and unstable. All this makes many tools developed for this purpose inaccessible. 

Digital literacy is another key point, since even among organizations and professionals in the sector there is a certain degree of ignorance about available tools, projects under development and opportunities for working with data. This also involves understanding the type of activity being carried out and how it differs from illegal or ethically questionable practices. 

While organizations have diverse needs for access to or use of social network data that lead them to explore synergies with external services and products, there is a need to overcome mistrust among social sector actors themselves. Collaborating, whether by sharing tools, pooling knowledge or lobbying to connect with initiatives in the Global North, is vital to overcoming current constraints. 

In fact, in less precarious conditions than those of the global south, where these problems are more accentuated, several projects are advancing today with the aim of accessing relevant data on the digital ecosystem. Among others, the European Digital Media Observatory, the Social Network Archive at the University of Michigan, the Algorithmic Transparency Center and the Democracy and Media Data Cooperative.

Another example is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which in November 2022 produced a white paper proposing a model for studying the information environment based on the experience of the European Organization for Nuclear Research: "A large-scale collaboration of this kind is again needed to connect scholars, policymakers and practitioners internationally, and accelerate research, this time to unlock the mysteries of the information environment."

This call adds to the need for greater investment in technological innovation and adaptation, especially in artificial intelligence. The data verification sector can offer learnings and best practices to help similar organizations adapt to the ever-changing digital environment.

Finally, beyond the difficulty of accessing data on user activity in open spaces of social networks, it is important for civil society to make common cause around the need and relevance of developing public interest inputs. It is critical to chart a course that includes a joint campaign or action vis-à-vis international cooperation, platforms and governments. This cooperative and proactive approach is vital to strengthen digital research from civil society in Latin America, facing current challenges and preparing for future ones.

The case for accessing data' face-to-face event in Bogota, Colombia.