Research Impact


Using digital anthropology to shape engagement with UK government

UCL research has shown the importance of digital technology in the public’s relationship with government and politics, shaping the digital design and research culture across UK government departments.

Man typing on laptop computer keyboard

28 April 2022

Professors Haidy Geismar and Hannah Knox are experts in digital anthropology, having established both the UCL Centre for Digital Anthropology, and developed the first and only graduate programme in the field worldwide.  

Through ethnographic research on communications infrastructures in Peru, Manchester and Europe, Professor Knox has shown that technical systems are at the heart of the relationship between the public, politics, and governance. These interfaces become the material site through which questions of social responsibility, political agency, appropriate ownership and ethical practice are established and challenged.  

Professor Geismar’s insights have changed both academic thinking and digital practices beyond academia, especially in the cultural sector, through tracing new digital forms, from social media archives to 3D printed museum collections. She documents and analyses how factors such as local and contemporary understandings of identity, citizenship, and ownership shape digital content and platforms, and how digital media reflects these values back to its audience. 

Shaping digital interface design 

Government services are increasingly moving online, and the UK government has been investing in research to improve the design of online user interfaces. As prominent experts in the field, the UCL team’s work has helped the UK government bring digital anthropology approaches into their design, improving the experience of users across www.gov.uk’s more than 2 billion visits between 2012-15.  

The UCL ‘Tech Taster’ course, created by Geismar for the civil service, demonstrates how digital systems are material and need to be understood as objects and images in the world, and that digital design must extend beyond the interface between user and system. 

The UCL team has taught the course five times to more than 100 civil servants across 12 government departments, including the Home Office, Cabinet Office, DEFRA and HMRC. This has changed how UK central and local government services are delivered to citizens and shaped how civil servants design digital interfaces. For example, a touchscreen app for the police was re-designed after ethnography informed designers that officers often wear gloves.  

Ethical innovation 

Professor Knox’s work has also directly helped establish a government expert body: the £9 million UK Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, which focuses on safe and ethical innovation in artificial intelligence and data-driven technologies, and the £5 million Ada Lovelace Institute. 

The Ada Lovelace Institute is enabling careful stewardship of digital data that keeps pace with technological advances, as well as ensuring that new technologies are developed in a way that benefits everyone. Professor Knox’s research continues to shape the Institute’s ongoing work programme into data ethics and digital government.  

The UCL team’s approach to digital anthropology has changed how civil service user researchers design systems. It has also provided the basis for contributions to high-level UK policy discussions that shape emerging approaches to new forms of data governance. 

Research synopsis

Using Digital Anthropology to Shape Digital Government 

Professor Haidy Geismar and Professor Hannah Knox’s research has demonstrated the material importance of digital technology in the public’s relationship with government and politics. It has shaped digital design and research culture across 12 UK government departments, improved the experience of 2 billion users of www.gov.uk and directly informed the launch of two national institutes to govern and manage digital data.