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Studying and shaping a digital world

and SDG 11
and SDG 11
This research contributes to SDG 10
This research contributes to SDG 10

Digitalisation is changing nearly all the patterns of our lives: our contact with the government, the way we work, our daily news consumption and how we communicate with friends and family. This has a great impact on our society and ourselves. How do we manage these changes? Researchers in our faculty (at the ICOG institute) are studying these important societal changes, and contributing to initiatives that aim to make the digitalisation of society benefit everyone involved.

Motor for progress and source of trouble

‘The question is what the exact influence of digitisation will be’, says Marcel Broersma, Professor of Media and Journalism Studies. ‘On the one hand, digitalisation and big data are a motor, for instance for improving healthcare, possibly allowing us to identify diseases before they even manifest themselves in a person. At the same time, however, digitalisation is causing all sorts of problems in terms of privacy or health insurance. It is an important social issue, which is what makes it so academically appealing as well’.

ICOG researchers are involved in many initiatives that study and facilitate this new digital age. The most extensive of these is the VSNU Digital Society Research Agenda, which was presented in November 2017. The agenda unites the fourteen Dutch universities in a common research programme that includes the themes ‘Citizenship & Democracy’, ‘Responsible Data Science’, and ‘Health & Well-Being’.

The first of these programme lines, led by Marcel Broersma, explores the influence of digitalisation on citizenship and democracy. ‘The importance of social media as a news and information source during elections illustrates how digital distribution of (mis)information effects democracy. More practically, it is very handy to be able to fill out an online form today instead of having to queue up in your town hall, or use social media to report a full waste container’.

How do we make the digital future accessible for everyone?
How do we make the digital future accessible for everyone?

Overcoming a digital divide

Digitalisation is not without obstacles, Broersma explains. ‘It raises the question of what it means for citizens if their government is becoming fully digital. Many people will be left behind because they lack digital skills. They won’t be able to fill out their tax returns or reach the municipal authorities, they may make mistakes when applying for benefits or miss out on benefits altogether because they don’t understand the forms’.

In November 2018, the Groningen Digital Literacy Coalition was formed to prevent this looming digital divide. It is an initiative of the University of Groningen, Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, the Municipality and Province of Groningen, childcare centres, primary and secondary schools, libraries, and ICT and publishing companies. The Coalition studies how digital literacy can be increased in all parts of society and aims to make Groningen the most digitally literate city and province of the Netherlands by 2025, an ambitious goal.

An important initiative to come out of the Coalition is the NWO-funded research project Growing up with media, in which researchers Marcel Broersma, Anna van Cauwenberge and Joëlle Swart collaborate with the Stichting Kinderopvang Stad Groningen (SKSG, Foundation for Childcare in the City of Groningen). The project takes the experiences of children with digital media as its starting point. Broersma: ‘In this project we study how children use social media and smartphones to discover the world and orientate themselves. We are also studying social media as a binding agent. How do they impact social relations and how do they connect different life spheres of children such as school, childcare centre, parents and sports clubs? Children too are forever caught, however, between progress and the adverse side effects of that progress’.

Marcel Broersma
Marcel Broersma

Digital humanities

'For older generations and highly educated people, there is a world to win in digital skills as well', Broersma says. ‘Just look at our own research. Until recently we relied on books as the foremost study material, but also traditional humanities such as literature, archaeology and history are increasingly becoming digitised. Everyone needs digital skills to improve the quality of their research. In addition, we will have to study the impact of digitalisation and big data on society’. There is an important role for humanities researchers in studying these changes, and to incorporate digital methods to answer existing and emerging questions.

Recent ICOG research in this field includes The new news consumer, which started in 2013. This is a collaborative project between University of Groningen researchers Marcel Broersma, Anna van Cauwenberg and Joëlle Swart, and several colleagues at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. This project studies the online shift in power from news producers to news consumers, changing the patterns of news consumption and, in response, news production. Taking a different approach in Automated analysis of online behaviour on social media, a project that started in 2017, investigators Marcel Broersma, Marc Esteve del Valle and Herbert Kruitbosch study the changing discursive practices of politicians and journalists on Twitter in a time when politicians no longer need to rely on journalists to broadcast their messages. In another funded project of Broersma, Frank Harbers, Kim Smeenk and colleagues from the Esccience Center and the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Sciences in the Netherlands (CWI) study how genre classification of historical news texts can be conducted via machine learning while also fostering algorithmic transparency.

Everyone +1

So how is Groningen going to be the most digitally literate city in the Netherlands by 2025? In the new Groningen Agreement, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, the UMCG, the Municipality of Groningen, the Province of Groningen and the University of Groningen undertake to prepare the city for a digital future. ‘So much is happening in our region. Groningen truly is a digital city’, Broersma says. ‘We have a strong IT sector, and there is a lot of attention for digital skills in education. Now is the time to bring initiatives together and find out which projects are successful. The strength of Groningen is also recognised on the national level. Recently the Digital Literacy Coalition was granted funding by the Ministry of Interior Relations to host the national living lab of Digital Inclusion. Broersma: "The benefit would be huge if we succeeded in increasing the potential of Groningen’s society as a whole. It would allow people to better participate, make them more future proof and provide us with a better economic perspective. Everyone +1. I think that is a very good aim’.

Last modified:13 August 2021 11.05 a.m.
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