Welcome from the CDRC Co-Directors: The 21st Century has seen a progressive expansion in the availability of data for social science research, which have the capability to provide insights far beyond the population surveys, interviews and focus groups which have formed the backbone infrastructure for social and economic research over the last century. Consumer data are of particular importance, and can conveniently be thought of as generated from any interaction between the providers of goods and services and their customers – from a railway or bus ticket, a smart energy meter, retail loyalty card, financial transaction or social media post. Such data are an obvious treasure trove for social scientists in describing the very essence of lifestyle, activity, attitudes and behaviours – in short, the ingredients of society itself.
The Consumer Data Research Centre was established in 2014 with substantial investment from the ESRC as part of a Big Data Network. The Centre has benefitted from continual Research Council investment over the intervening period, together with support from the University of Leeds and many non-academic partners, offering not only data but often sharing their expertise, access to facilities and other contributions in cash and in kind. Through such generous support, the CDRC has been able to create significant momentum in its core mission to create a bridge between academic research and the generation of social data within the commercial, governmental and third sectors.
The successful execution of such an ambitious project has demanded the interaction of various activities: persuading the curators of high value data sets to grant free access to a new population of prospective users (i.e. the academic sector) and demonstrating through exemplars the importance of doing this; laying down the ethical and procedural foundations for sharing data whose value may be matched by their sensitivity; establishing infrastructure for secure data sharing amongst partners, and for the analysis and processing of such data; developing new methods and techniques for application to novel data types and often unusual forms of behaviour or interaction which they stimulate; and building capacity in the manpower and skills which are necessary to advance this agenda.
In this Research Review, we set out to demonstrate, through description of a rich assembly of case studies and demonstrators, what can be achieved through the analysis of consumer data in multiple contexts. We hope that readers might be motivated to follow our example in seeking to access and adapt our data to their interests; to stimulate new routes to sharing ever more diverse and intense sources of data; and to encourage the custodians of the data to engage in new conversations about widening access and advancing the capabilities and opportunities of the novel data ecosystem. In short, we aim both to inform and inspire through our stories. We do hope that you will find the contents interesting and thought-provoking, and welcome your feedback (firstname.lastname@example.org).