Inspiration

DIGITAL JOURNEYS: Janne’s case from the Digital Literacy course

Investigating the historical development of tracking and e-commerce technologies on the Danish Web

Janne Nielsen, assistant professor at the Department of Media and Journalism Studies at Aarhus University, is widening her digital horizon to face the concrete challenges of her everyday research. Her participation in the Digital Literacy course has whetted her digital appetite, and this case provides an insight into her digital journey through (and beyond) the course.

Motivation

Concrete needs in concrete research

“My motivation for strengthening my digital skills and participating in the course stems directly from my concrete needs in everyday research contexts. Simple operations in my day-to-day work such as making screenshots of over 200 websites daily where I could spend weeks performing it manually – or minutes digitally. This, in turn, empowers me to increase the scale of my material without losing an overview, to explore new ways to look at new kinds of data and to pose new research questions.”

Janne is motivated to upskill digitally due to her daily encounters with research problems and her needs for e.g. cleaning, pre-processing, structuring and visualising data or for automating research processes.

About the project

Tracking technologies, GDPR and e-commerce on the Danish web

Janne’s project aims to analyse the rise, spread and possible decline of different technologies for tracking and shopping online. Tracking and e-commerce are closely related because targeted advertising is one of the main reasons for tracking users online.

Research questions

  • When and how have tracking and e-commerce technologies been used on Danish web?
  • How does the historical use of tracking compare with the current use of trackers on the top 200 live Danish websites?
  • How do Danish websites practice consent (e.g. through cookie notifications), how does their practice change before and after the enforcement of GDPR, and is their practice compliant?

Data

  • The live web and the historical Danish web as preserved in Netarkivet.

A major part of the project is to develop a methodology for searching for specific parts of the source code of websites. She wishes to identify specific traces of tracking and shopping technologies (e.g. lines of code, names or similar) and pinpoint what data sources these can be found in (the crawl.logs, the Solr index, the WARC files etc.).

Furthermore, she wishes to compare the historical development of tracking technologies with trackers “in the wild” – that is, trackers currently on the live web. For this, Janne employs a different methodology involving a browser extension that measures calls to third parties for the chosen websites.

Finally, Janne’s project responds to current debates of privacy and consent prompted by the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Janne is interested in investigating ‘consent in practice’ on Danish websites. For this part of the project, she uses a plug-and-play tool that takes daily screenshots of selected websites. With a clear focus on GDPR compliance, she wishes to contribute to a broader discussion of consent and privacy.

New personal competences

Programming

Janne has started programming, e.g. formulating SQL queries and writing code in R for visualisations (aided by IT supporters).

Statistics

Janne has also started working with statistics. This has proven necessary to handle the large scales of data that she works with.

Digital inspiration

Janne has collected inspiration e.g. on visualisation and has a better understanding of digital humanities across disciplines.

Access to IT support

“Opened the horizon for where I dare to look”

For Janne, the IT support during the course has been essential, and she has used it extensively. It has increased the quality of her project, but more importantly, it has “opened the horizon for where I dare to look – for what I dare to ask and imagine.”

Spillover effect on teaching

When we start giving students these tools, new and exciting things come out of it

Janne’s new competences and insights rub off on her teaching. She has used concrete tools, e.g. Voyant for text analysis, in classes, and lots of students end up using the tools for their exams.

“Once I started to feel more competent with the tools, the road to believing that I can teach them and make the students feel competent enough to use them became shorter. And when we start giving students these tools, new and exciting things come out of it – ideas and uses that are even new to me.”

Next steps

More programming and statistics, more digital tools in education

Janne has set new goals for herself, such as learning more about programming and statistics – and the ideas keep growing. For various other projects, Janne intends to look into machine learning and computer vision, text mining and topic modelling.

The increase in digital data sources, tools and methods have considerable implications for education. Digital data, tools and methods will take up ever more space in the curriculum, and it is important to create awareness around them in order to avoid the unnecessary waste of time and resources that is often the consequence of manual methods.

“We are not all supposed to learn how to program, but we need to actively discuss what these tools can do that our other methods cannot. We will see more and more digital tools in our educational programs, but this is not about learning them from scratch. It is about planting seeds – and then using the tools as a basis for the kinds of methodological discussions that we have always had.”

Behind the researcher

Janne Nielsen is an assistant professor at the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University. She is head of LARM.fm (a part of DIGHUMLAB), involved in NetLab (a part of DIGHUMLAB) and a member of Centre for Internet Studies at Aarhus University.

Her research interests include cross-media media history, web history, web archiving, web tracking, privacy and consent.

Behind the Digital Literacy course

The Digital Literacy project is a competence development project organised by the Digital Arts Initiative at Aarhus University. It is a unique opportunity for researchers to qualify themselves in the digital area – with their own research questions as a point of departure.

Last modified: May 6, 2019