School ‘data frictions’

One of the key lines of inquiry during our initial months of research will be investigating how data is ‘journeying’ between and outside schools. As we have begun to discuss in other posts, this involves tracing and mapping the movement of digital data across infrastructures, between platforms, applications, systems and the everyday lives of the people that use them.

An important element of these mapping processes involves paying attention to where data journeys are slowed down, impeded, restricted, blocked and halted. Indeed, this sense of fragmented and partial is the reason that we talk specifically about data ‘journeys’ rather than data ‘flows’. As Jo Bates reminds us, digital data does not flow fluidly and continuously. The idea of ‘journey’ also dispels any sense that these impediments and frictions should be seen as ‘problems’ or ‘inefficiencies’ that schools need to overcome or work around. Instead, these are inevitable manifestations of the complex politics of digital data movement.

Indeed, as Paul Edwards (2011) reasons, these ‘data frictions’ result from the sociomaterial contexts within which digital data exist. In this sense, data frictions provide a highly insightful way of making sense of how “people, infrastructures, practices, things, knowledge and institutions” (McNally et al. 2012) work together to shape the flow of data. Thus the data frictions evident in any school offer a ready means of unpacking the dynamics and politics of “how and why digital data do and do not move between actors with different, and at times conflicting, interests” (Bates 2018, p.413)

Building on the work of Edwards, the information scientist Jo Bates (2018) highlights to three different forms of friction that we are likely to encounter in our school research. These are: 

  • Data sharing infrastructures and forms of data management established within schools (e.g. technical infrastructures, data management practices, ways of organising data): These types of friction encompasses a wide range of issues. For example, issues of interoperability between data-sets remains a perennial technical impediment to digital data use within education. Moreover, many schools continue to assign non-specialists to positions of data stewardship and, as a result, become reliant on unorthodox vernacular data practices. Other infrastructure and management-related frictions include the restricted business models of the propriety platforms that schools are using, alongside the limited amounts of time and/or funding that school authorities are prepared to apportion to data-work.
  • Regulatory frameworks that school data uses are subject to (e.g. legalities, policy, standards): 
These frictions relate to the range of international, federal, state and local regulations that schools’ data might encroach. These can take the form of regulatory documents, institutional policies, data management protocols, metadata standards and so on. For example, school data use in Europe has been re-shaped dramatically since the enactment of 2018’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Around the world, schools also remain subject to national regulations regarding privacy, human rights and intellectual property. All of these have a bearing on what schools do with data.
  • Socio-cultural factors within a school that shape the ways in which people engage with digital data (e.g. systems of thought, forms of knowledge, subjectivities, communities, institutions): These final types of friction are perhaps the most pervasive but also the least apparent. Issues here might include cultural norms that develop within a school – for example, how concepts such as ‘privacy’ or ‘evidence’ are commonly understood and acted upon. At the same time, schools are also places where broader cultures of trust, competitiveness and/or performativity might impact on decisions that teachers (and students) make with regard to disclosing or publicising data. There may also be distinctly different data norms shared between particular groups in a school (e.g. the data understandings of students as compared to older teachers).


All these data frictions constitute key points at which we can interrogate the datafication of schools and schooling. As Jo Bates (2018, p.423) puts it:

“These dynamics of data friction are important because they influence what is made visible to and knowable by who, and therefore impact profoundly on the development of future knowledge and social relations”.

Every moment of ‘friction’ can therefore shed valuable light on how the movement of data within, between and outside schools brings different social actors into altered forms of relations with each other, and potentially leads to significant reconfigurations of power. In other words, these digital frictions offer a useful means of examining what Helen Kennedy (2016) describes as emergent forms of “data relations”. These ‘frictions’ can also be an important part of reckoning the likely success (or not) of alternate data arrangements in schools – such as ‘open data’ practices and other possibilities for data access and use. In all these ways, then, approaching digital data in terms of where, when and how it is not‘working’ should give us a much clearer sense of how data might be made to ‘work’ better.

[notes on: Bates, J. (2018) “The politics of data friction”, Journal of Documentation, 74(2):412-429]