[BigDataSur] Widening the field of Critical Data Studies: reflections on four years of DATA POWER

Guest Author: Güneş Tavmen

In June 2015, on a Sunday afternoon, I was walking around the centre of Sheffield to buy an outfit to wear while presenting at my first major academic conference. Having forgotten the dress I had prepared at home, I was desperately trying to fix something that would make me look fairly presentable. The conference was the first-ever ‘Data Power’, one of the first academic conferences providing with a space focused on the critical interventions on ‘data’s ever more ubiquitous power’. While it was unclear as to whether this was a one-off conference, together with its successful reception, it has become a biannual conference later on. Besides the usual nerves that every PhD researcher experiences at their first international conference, I was also quite intimidated by the idea that my co-panellist was Rob Kitchin, one of the foremost academics in the smart city research. Having recently finished my first year into PhD studies, I found it daunting to talk about my work in progress next to such high-profile names. Fast forward to September 2019, this time I was strolling the streets of Bremen as I travelled there to attend the third Data Power conference – this time as a fresh doctor who does not get as nervous about what to wear while presenting anymore. Having marked the beginning and the end of my PhD (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second Data Power conference in 2017 since I had no travel funding to afford a trip to Canada), I want to briefly reflect on the shifts I have observed between the first conference and the last, since these transformations might also relate to the larger terrain of an emerging field that has become known as “Critical Data Studies”.

The first Data Power conference was an academic celebrity gathering with an exceptionally large number of established scholars across the field giving papers. The range of presentations was wide in disciplinary approach but was narrow in geographical diversity and representation. Many papers were adopting a philosophical point of view presenting ontological discussions on the datafication of, well, everything. ‘Big Data’ seemed to be the hot topic with many papers addressing it, and, was discussed in relation to a wide range of areas from art to finance. There was a high level of expectations and competition in the air as this field was still in the process of establishing itself as a distinct area of enquiry. Probably because of that, I remember being struck by the inflation of neologies offered in the papers across the panels. This was to the level that, it felt like everyone was working hard to mark their territories through these neologies in this newly established field.

To the contrary of the wide range of the topics discussed, there was a significant lack of diversity with a little attendance from the so-called ‘Global South’ – in other words, it was a highly ‘white’ conference both in terms of speakers and subjects discussed. Except for two presenters, all the papers and keynotes were from organisations in Europe, Australia and North America. I too was at the time representing an institution in London (Birkbeck, University of London) and my paper focused on the London case. However, I remember feeling like the odd one out as a participant originally from Turkey. At the end of the conference, I tweeted about this observation, and to my surprise, it was not very well received. Several attendants, who were all white and employed in European institutions, told me that it was not true that the field of critical data studies was not diverse enough. Well, at least, the alleged diversity was not observable at this particular conference.

Fast-forwarding to 2019, the third Data Power conference portrayed a significant acknowledgement of the need to ‘decolonise’ the field. From the selection of keynotes to the range of topics, there was a substantial effort to widen the field in terms of geographical and socio-cultural inclusion. However, this time, the diversity of the range of topics was relatively limited. Activism, algorithmic justice and ethics seemed to have been raised most frequently in the panels -together with high attention to algorithmic practices of public bodies- while many other topics seemed to have disappeared such as politics of quantified self, political economy of data practices, citizen-science and data-driven urbanism to name a few. Besides, the popularity of the label “Big Data” has gone down, replaced by lots of attention to artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The field of Critical Data Studies has undoubtedly gained huge traction within the space of four years. While Data Power is the only comprehensive and periodic conference to be solely dedicated to Critical Data Studies (at least to my knowledge), there are now many ad-hoc specialised events being organised that deal with a focus on an aspect of data studies (e.g. feminist approaches, fake news and disinformation, data visualisation etc). Arguably, one might say that this might be the reason for the narrowing down of the range of topics, but I think it is not enough to explain the situation at the third Data Power conference. The heavy presence of papers auditing a wealth of public data practices, and the lesser discussion on what makes data practices so prominent in the first place, made me feel like we have given up on asking ontological questions. An overwhelming focus on how to make these systems more ethical and just with a lack of contestation of the domination of these systems through raising philosophical questions may indeed result in auxiliary proposals that help sustain these systems. To be clear, by no means I deny the importance of discussions on ethics and justice, but I believe that there is a strong need also for more genealogical excavations into how and why these systems are in place, as well as questions regarding ‘at what expense’ they perpetuate (e.g. environmental effects, precarious labour practices, political economy perspective and so on) at this conference. Locating data practices within a broader context would thus also inform discussions on ethics and justice.

Let me finish by underlining that these are my humble observations, and of course, they are partial since I did not have the chance to listen to all the presentations. Whatever is expecting us in the next Data Power conference in 2021, I hope that there will be a diverse group of attendees and a solid critical approach, which might help tackle the atrocities our world is facing today. I also hope that it will be in a country where I will not need to go through the horrific process of visa application—which is another, often overlooked dimension to consider when we discuss ‘data power’.

About Güneş Tavmen

Güneş Tavmen is ESRC postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London. She earned her PhD from Birkbeck, University of London; her research focuses on the (open) data-driven initiatives, practices and discourses in the context of smart city making in London.