The Administrative Data Research Network was an ESRC-funded project that ran from October 2013 to July 2018. It is currently at the end of its funding cycle and is no longer taking applications. Administrative data research will be taken forward in a new project, which was launched at the end of 2018.

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Engaging the public with admin data research: when science festivals can bridge the communication gap

By Silvia Lanati, ADRC-England Communications, Public Engagement and Events Manager


The public is the ultimate beneficiary of administrative data research at ADRN.

As ‘Better Knowledge Better Society’ says our research using functionally anonymised linked datasets is aimed at better understanding the society we live in and how communities behave and evolve in time and space. These findings can guide policymakers in making effective changes that improve services and increase the welfare of everyone in the UK.

But how can we make the wider general public aware of the critical research happening in our network? How can we gather their raw perceptions regarding the use of administrative data? Are they aware that these data are being used lawfully and ethically in accredited secure environments? That these data have been functionally anonymised? Do they know that not all scientists can access the functionally anonymised linked datasets? How can we win their trust?

Although public engagement is an umbrella term that includes ‘public communications’, ‘public consultation’ and ‘public participation’, at ADRC-England we are focusing on engaging the wider public mainly through local and national science festivals. Since 2014 we have been creating hands-on activities that provide an insight into the life of an administrative data scientist, from finding data errors, to answering geography questions, to taking part in small experiments. The aim of our festival stands is not just to explain the structure of our network or the data acquisition process. We focus on helping people to understand the complexity of this type of social science research by describing how society is the beneficiary of our findings but also reminding people that we are part of the same society so our data are equally likely to be part of a project. As a result, we are keen to listen to people’s concerns and learn from their experience. As staff and research scientists, we have the duty and responsibility to explain our work to the public, especially as we are publicly funded. Moreover, two ADRC-E partners, the University of Southampton and UCL, are signatories of the ‘Manifesto for public engagement’ developed by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). We are committed to consider engagement not as a one-way monologue, but as a two-way dialogue:

“We are committed to sharing our knowledge, resources and skills with the public, and to listening to and learning from the expertise and insight of the different communities with which we engage.”    

With the above in mind, at ADRC-E we are currently testing new ways of starting meaningful conversations and maximising dialogue during science festivals, and considering how to continue these discussions in the longer-term, potentially via social media. At the Southampton Science and Engineering Day in March 2017 we introduced two new tools for engagement and dialogue: a storytelling activity about ADRC-E, and a book to record questions to be answered by scientists. To overcome information overload at fairs and to create a visual memory regarding our story, we used a couple of unbranded padlocks locked together to show two functionally anonymised datasets securely linked together. These were then located in a black safety box, representing our secure laboratories at ADRC-E, which only accredited scientists are able to access in our laboratories to generate research outcomes.

ADRC-E Storytelling piece

For the first time we also introduced ‘The Book of Unknown Data Research Questions’ to any technical questions from the public that we were not able to answer on the spot. We used this to encourage people to follow us on social media and visit our website where they can find the answers from our scientists after the festival.

A critical factor at our stand was the composition of the team on the day: I managed the activities together with a data scientist and a PhD student from the ADRC-E Southampton Centre, therefore showing an array of the professional team members who work in close collaboration at ADRN. Being a PhD student or data scientist at a science festival can be an incredibly educational and rewarding experience: you can optimise your communication style by adapting to different audiences and needs; you get a first-hand impact of the perception that the general public has regarding your research; and you can start building that trust that is so crucial in our research field by showing that behind the ‘mask’ of social science researchers there are normal human beings who care about their work and the benefit that they can provide to society. All these new insights and experiences can then be brought back to our everyday lives, to re-energise our social sciences work and improve our communication skills.

At ADRC-England we are planning to attend more events across the country this summer and autumn. We have already been to the Cheltenham Science Festival last June 9-10, and next stops will be at the Winchester Science Festival (July) and at the BBC Countryfile Live (August), all in collaboration with the University of Southampton ‘Bringing Research to Life’ Roadshow. You can visit the ADRC-England Public Engagement page or follow us on Twitter @ADRC_E to stay up to date with all our upcoming research engagement events.

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Written by Silvia Lanati from ADRC-England and published on the ADRN blog under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Images used with permission.

Published on 17 July 2017

Page last updated: 27/07/2018