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The words we use in data

Metaphors surrounding_edited.jpg

We partnered with Defend Digital Me and The Warren Youth Project to consider how the metaphors we attach to data impacts UK policy.

Data metaphors and their impact on policy
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Video production, design and voiceover: Matt Hewett

Animation: Talha Zaman

Executive summary

In this report, we explore why and how public conversations about personal data don’t work. We suggest what must change to better include children for the sustainable future of the UK national data strategy.

Our starting point is the influence of common metaphorical language: how does the way we talk about data affect our understanding of it? In turn, how does this inform policy choices, and how children feel about the use of data about them in practice?

Metaphors are routinely used by the media and politicians to describe something as something else. This brings with it associations made in response in the reader or recipient. We don’t only see the image but receive the author’s opinion or intended meaning on something.

Metaphors are very often used to influence the audience’s opinion. This is hugely important because policymakers often use metaphors to frame and understand problems - the way you understand a problem has a big impact on how you respond to it and construct a solution.

Looking at children’s policy papers and discussions about data in Parliament since 2010, we identified three metaphor groups most commonly used to describe data and its properties:

  • Liquid/fluid: data can both flow and leak, just like a liquid or lakes.

  • Resource/fuel: data can be mined; can be raw; data is ‘the new oil’ or ‘fuel for the economy’.

  • Body/residue: data leaves a trace, like footprints. Our data is something that needs protecting.

These different framings for data each have a profound effect on people’s opinions about what should be done with it.

The liquid metaphor suggests that data is unpredictable and difficult to control, while the resource metaphor invokes the idea that data is something we can exploit and extract value from. Finally, the body/residue metaphors treat data as something which makes us vulnerable or left behind in a predatory environment, and so its use is something we should both fear and protect.

In our workshop at The Warren Youth Project, the participants used all of our identified metaphors in different ways. Some talked about the extraction of data being destructive, while others likened it to a concept that follows you around from the moment you’re born. Three key themes emerged from our discussions:

Misrepresentation: the participants felt that data was often inaccurate, or used by third parties as a single source of truth in decision-making. In these cases, there was a sense that they had no control over how they were perceived by law enforcement and other authority figures.

Power hierarchies and abuses of power: this theme came out via numerous stories about those with authority over the participants having seemingly unfettered access to their data, thus enforcing opaque processes, leaving the participants powerless and with no control.

The use of data ‘in your best interest’: there was unease expressed over data being used or collected for reasons that were unclear and defined by adults, leaving children with a lack of agency and autonomy.

When looking into how children are framed in data policy we found that they are most commonly represented as criminals or victims, or simply missing in the discussion. The National Data Strategy makes a lot of claims of how data can be of use to society in the UK, but only mentions children twice and mostly talks about data like it is a resource to be exploited for economic gain.


The language in this strategy and other policy documents is alienating and dehumanises children into data points for the purpose of predicting criminal behaviour or to attempt to protect them from online harm. The voices of children themselves are left out of the conversation entirely.

We propose new and better ways to talk about personal data. We want policymakers to:

  • recognise the human in the data and involve people across the data life cycle

  • talk about data as something more personal than just an economic or political tool, remembering to protect human dignity and human flourishing

  • promote the required infrastructure for data management that sustainable data governance requires

National data policy is no different from other national policies. It should recognise the holistic needs of children, with the awareness embodied in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, that while children are still developing and they need protection, they also need State policy to respect their rights to privacy and participation.

Policymakers must give young people and their legal guardians ways to exercise their rights to an active role in the use of data about them, across the wide range of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural environments; and promote their full flourishing into adulthood.

We are at a critical time in forming the National Data Strategy and how the infrastructure and policy will shape and be shaped by the use of both third party and national administrative datasets for the next twenty years. Just as today’s children develop into adulthood. Yet it fails to take children’s views into account.

We seek to redress that balance.

Executive Summary
Launch at ODI


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Jen Persson launching the report at the ODI



Jen Persson, Alice Thwaite

Workshop design and facilitation

Alice Thwaite

Workshop hosting

The Warren Youth Project, Hull

Research on conceptual data metaphors

Julia Slupska

Report copy

Georgia Iacovou, Jen Persson

Report Illustrator

Gracie Dahl

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