Dr Heather Ford
University Academic Fellow in Digital Methods
0113 343 5858
Clothworkers' Building North, Room G23a
Office hours: Tuesdays and Wednesdays 2.30-3.30pm, by appointment during non-teaching weeks.
MA (UCBerkeley), D Phil (Oxford)
Prior to my postgraduate work, I worked as an Internet rights activist with organisations including Creative Commons, Privacy International and the Association for Progressive Communications. I have worked in a variety of roles, including as a web editor for my first job after university with the non-profit, The Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, as an activist and social entrepreneur by co-founding Creative Commons South Africa, the African Commons Project (a non-profit based in South Africa) and as a founding director and executive director of iCommons, and more recently as an ethnographer for the non-profit software company, Ushahidi. My previous work experience has shaped my research agenda and has led me to take a more critical, reflexive approach to power in new media ecosystems. Over the past five years, I have worked extensively with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, studying verification practices on Wikipedia during international news events, the nature of authority and power on Wikipedia, and the role of software and code in shaping the development of social media environments. Over the past five years, I have worked extensively with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, studying verification practices on Wikipedia during international news events, the nature of authority and power on Wikipedia, and the role of software and code in shaping the development of social media environments. My work is grounded in theories of media power, practice theory and the social construction of knowledge in the fields of media and communications, information science and science and technology studies.
My research interests include the social and technical construction of knowledge on collaborative platforms and the realignments of power and expertise in new media systems using digital methods. I’m interested in the design and policies of software systems involving collaborative production (particularly in the realm of facts), especially as these platforms become integrated into automated systems such as in the area of predictive search.
I lead the COMM3715 module on Internet Policy.
(2016). Provenance, Power and Place: Linked Data and Opaque Digital Geographies. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 34(6), 957-970.
DOI: 10.1177/0263775816668857, Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/103890/
(2016). Wikipedia and the sum of all human information. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Informationsvidenskab og Kulturformidling. 5(1), 9-13.
Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/95883/
(2015). Trace interviews: An actor-centered approach. International Journal of Communication. 9, 2067-2091.
Repository URL: http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/90625/
Research Centres & Groups
I co-coordinate the Leeds Critical Data Studies Group, an interdisciplinary research group from across the university discussing topics relating to data and society.
I am a fellow of the Software Sustainability Institute, an institute founded to support the UK’s research software community.
My PhD thesis at Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute was entitled: ‘Fact factories: Wikipedia and the power to represent‘ and questions the meme about the internet (and peer production in particular) catalysing a ‘rise of the amateur’ by arguing that instead, we are seeing in the example of Wikipedia a rise of new expertise and the beginnings of a professionalisation among experts who function as gatekeepers at the edges of the Wikipedia network. This has significant implications for the ways in which facts that govern our lives are produced, published and disseminated.
The abstract for the thesis is provided below:
Wikipedia is no longer just another source of knowledge about the world. It is fast becoming a central source, used by other powerful knowledge brokers like Google and Bing to offer authoritative answers to search queries about people, places and things and as information infrastructure for a growing number of Web applications and services. Researchers have found that Wikipedia offers a skewed representation of the world that favours some groups at the expense of others so that representations on the platform have repercussions for the subjects of those representations beyond Wikipedia’s domain. It becomes critical in this context to understand how exactly Wikipedia’s representations come about, what practices give rise to them and what socio-technical arrangements lead to their expression.
This ethnographic study of Wikipedia explores the values, principles and practices that guide what knowledge Wikipedia represents. It follows the foundational principles of Wikipedia in its identity both as an encyclopaedia and a product of the free and open source software and internet freedom rhetoric of the early 2000s. Two case studies are analysed against the backdrop of this ideology, illustrating how different sets of actors battle to extend or reject the boundaries of Wikipedia, and in doing so, affect who are defined as the experts, subjects and revolutionaries of the knowledge that is taken up.
The findings of this thesis indicate that Wikipedia’s process of decision-making is neither hierarchical nor is it egalitarian; rather, the power to represent on Wikipedia is rhizoid: it happens at the edges rather than in the centre of the network. Instead of everyone having the same power to represent their views on Wikipedia, those who understand how to perform and speak according to Wikipedia’s complex technical, symbolic and policy vocabulary tend to prevail over those who possess disciplinary knowledge about the subject being represented. Wikipedians are no amateurs as many would have us believe; nor are they passive collectors of knowledge held in sources; Wikipedians are, instead, active co-creators of knowledge in the form of facts that they support using specially chosen sources.
The authority of Wikipedia and Wikipedians is garnered through the performative acts of citation, through the ability of individual editors to construct the traces that represent citation, and through the stabilization and destabilization of facts according to the ideological viewpoints of its editors. In venerating and selecting certain sources among others, Wikipedians also serve to reaffirm traditional centres of authority, while at the same time amplifying new centres of knowledge and denying the authority of knowledge that is not codified in practice. As a result, Wikipedia is becoming the site of new centres of expertise and authoritative knowledge creation, and is signalling a move towards the professionalization of the expertise required to produce factual data in the context of digital networks.