Reflection | “Facebook and Your Data” Community Conversation

On Saturday 21st April, some of the central contacts for public and community engagement at the University of Edinburgh, in partnership with community organisation People Know How, ran a public-facing event on the topic of Facebook data. This event was part of the University’s ‘Community Conversations’ series, which had previously included events on Brexit (also run in partnership with People Know How). This post is a summary of the event by Sarah Anderson, one of the organisers.

(If you are interested in the content of the event discussion, see this post.)


“Facebook and Your Data: How Worried Should You Be?” was run in partnership with People Know How, a charitable organisation based in north-east Edinburgh that is committed to bringing about positive social change through the ideas of those affected by challenges. The purpose of the event was:

  • To respond rapidly to a matter of public concern and interest
  • To share high-quality information and insights from academic research – especially when this cuts through confusion created by politics or the media
  • To create opportunities for people who might not normally engage with universities to ask the questions they need or want
  • For researchers to hear the perspectives of non-specialists on their research

Legal experts in IT law at the University of Edinburgh, Judith Rauhofer and Burkard Schafer, and health data expert Mhairi Aitken, were the speakers. Facilitated table discussions were also a planned part of the format.

Reflections on the format

Informing versus dialogue

The format was borrowed from previous events in the series, and also builds on that used by the Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group. Although we definitely didn’t want the event to feel like a lecture, we knew that our researchers had some genuinely interesting and useful perspectives to share, so we wanted to allow time for this before the discussion. As we ended up with a small audience, we ended up with a format where members of the audience asked questions as-and-when, as opposed to talks followed by table discussions. Although all of the audience did all eventually get to speak, those of us facilitating still needed to be mindful of some voices being heard more than others.

Context and timing

The event was scheduled with just three weeks’ lead time – a lot less than we (those of us in the University, anyway – People Know How is more nimble) would usually work to, but necessary to respond in a timely manner to what was in the news. We also wanted to time the event to coincide with People Know’s How’s participation in the St Margaret’s House Spring Open Doors – a day when the larger building People Know How is within gets around 1,000 people through its doors. We scheduled the event to run 4-6pm, partly because people might like to come along before heading out to the pub and after their Saturday daytime jobs, partly to round off People Know How’s participation in Spring Open Doors, and partly to fit in with the availability of one of our speakers.

In reality, on the day, we almost certainly fell victim to the weather – we only had 8 attendees who weren’t part of the organising group! It was a glorious and hot day in Edinburgh, which not only meant fewer people (in our perception) coming through the building as a whole, but also people being hot and tired by late afternoon and not wanting to stay on the for the event – a couple of people commented to us that they were not staying on, although they were interested, for the latter reason.

On reflection, we’re not sure that running the event as part of Spring Open Doors was as essential as we felt beforehand. People are relatively unlikely to decide to go to a  2-hour event last minute. It did mean that, in our advance advertising, we could piggy-back a little on that for the Open Doors but, given People Know How has its own substantial social media following, we could probably have reached a reasonable audience anyway.This would also have freed us up to try a different day and time – although the more typical mid-week evening could possibly have excluded our older audience members?

black and white map with post-its onAdvertising

We were keen to reach primarily people living in People Know How’s informal focus areas – Craigentinny, Lochend, Restalrig and Loganlea – plus also nearby Meadowbank, Easter Road and Leith. Given the event was on Facebook data, we decided that primarily electronic advertising would be justifiable to reach people interested in attending, although we did also drop some printed flyers with People Know How for their volunteers to take out with them to their locally-based projects. With more time, it would have been good to drop printed flyers into local libraries and community centres, plus noticeboards in local supermarkets (we did contact the first two about sharing on their social media).

We set up a geographically-restricted promotion and a page-liker promotion on Facebook (two promotions from our page Edinburgh Local, with a total spend of £4), with the following response:

  • 11 ticket clicks (through to booking page)
  • 93  people interested or going to the event (at peak)
  • 367 people viewed the event page
  • 5,987 unique people saw information about the event

People Know How also promoted through their social media, as did St Margaret’s House. We were listed as part of the St Margaret’s House Spring Open Doors programme on the event website.

In total, we had 10 people book onto the event on the booking page, although booking wasn’t required. It did turn out to be a fair indication, however, of how many people would come on the day – we got eight.

Mhairi Aitken, Judith Rauhofer, Burkhard Schafer

Who came?

The drop-in nature of the event and informal format (evaluation forms were definitely not appropriate) meant we did not gather any self-reported demographic information about attendees. However, by observation, we appeared to have audience members ranging from their early twenties to their late seventies or early eighties. They appeared to be slightly more female than male-gendered attendees, and all appeared to be white but not all appeared to be British.

Did people find the event useful?

Everyone in the audience spoke during the discussion section, and we had to close down the event at two hours – we could have gone on for longer. Based on that, it appeared to be a useful and/or enjoyable event for those who came. However, we did not have formal evaluation form or follow-up survey (neither were practical); in future, it may be desirable to do even an informal poll/show-of-hands that would not disrupt the tone of the event (although with such a small audience, we may still have got overly-positive responses – people would not feel anonymous).

There was one audience member who, it became apparent as time went on, was not necessarily there for the subject and purpose of the event. We took this person aside to answer the questions he had actually come to ask; in as much as he got to ask them and we are now trying to help him, he may have found us being physically there at that time useful!

Choosing the speakers

The specific nature of the topic meant that there were three speakers we really wanted – and those were who we got! However, as well as being incredibly knowledgeable, the speakers were also confident in a less formal setting and format, and could take things like low attendee numbers in their good spirit; this would not necessarily be the same for all speakers (especially without much time for coaching or pre-planning), and was crucial to the success of the event.

Health and safety and working with vulnerable individuals

We basically had no idea who was going to come to the event, so needed to be prepared. We had a staff member from People Know How present throughout the event, and a healthy number of facilitators who were used to working with members of the public. This allowed us to deal with slightly left-field situations (one of which we did get) appropriately and without disrupting the overall running of the event.