Digital Societies Research Group


We explore critically the mutual shaping of developments in the digital domain and wider socio-cultural and political economic forces.

As a group we engage with the role of information in contemporary issues such as social activism, citizen creativity, scholarly innovation and climate change. We offer critical reflection on the possibilities and ethics of studying society through “big data”, including data from social media.

Of particular interest are developments in discourses, practices and policies around “openness” such as open data and open-access publication. This includes an interest in evolving scholarly communications and practices, encompassing disciplinary cultures, the management of research data and the debate about open access to research outputs. We use both well-established and innovative research approaches in exploring these issues.

We are an outward looking group, keen to develop further our high impact collaborations with organisations and practitioners outside academia, as well as to forge creative interdisciplinary connections with other researchers.

We develop theoretically informed and methodologically innovative research on data, information and knowledge in digital societies. We draw on diverse theoretical influences including practice theory, innovation diffusion theory, social informatics, critical political economy, visual culture and photo theory.

We are involved in projects using a range of quantitative and qualitative methodologies including data mining, co-production, (digital) ethnography and visual research methods.  Some of our research on social media is done in the new Visual Social Media Lab, which focuses on developing methods and theories for studying social media images and works on creating new research tools for the academic community.

Within Sheffield we are part of the Faculty of Social Sciences Digital Society Network and have worked with Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI).

We are also members of the Association of Internet Researchers.

Key research areas

  • Social activism and citizen creativity in amateur weather observation, historical weather data rescue, food growing, and blogging communities
  • The political economic, social and cultural aspects of ‘big’ and open data, with a current focus on social media, weather data and research data
  • Innovating methods and theory for the study of social media
  • The changing nature and role of scholarship in contemporary society, particularly discourses, practices and policies around scholarly communication and openness
  • The use of social media to crowdsource information during human-made and natural disasters
  • The use of digital media for the purposes of sousveillance (inverse surveillance) during civil unrest


Members of the group have been involved in a number of national and international initiatives including advising policymakers and inputting into expert fora. Other activities have included consultancy for commercial and public organisations, and media contributions. Recent examples of such activities include working with Parliamentary select committees, involvement in drafting national policy documentation, and working with local authorities.

We have worked with organisations including WEF, UN, Food Standards Agency, the Russell Group, and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).

We have also made contributions to wider public engagement including media contributions to BBC radio programmes, TED and The Guardian newspaper, and organising public events as part of Festival of the Mind and the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

We work closely with professional communities to co-produce research outputs and open educational resources for learning and current awareness in the complex agenda around research data management and research publishing.

We were involved the ground-breaking Guardian ‘Reading the Riots’ project, analysing 2.6 million tweets in the aftermath of the 2011 UK summer riots. The project won a Data Journalism Award in 2012 for a visualisation that showed the spread of rumours on Twitter during the four days of riots.

We are currently involved in two projects which focus on the role of social media in the information flows that emerge in the immediate aftermath of human-made or natural disasters. Our contribution to CASCEFF ( focuses on the communication strategies deployed by emergency managers during crisis situations, with a specific focus on how they can disseminate information to members of the public that helps prevent cascading effects from occurring. IMPROVER ( will examine how social media can be used to raise awareness about the risks associated with such incidents, as well as exploring the potential use of digital media to create early-warning systems in disaster-affected areas.