BigDataSur 2020 year-in-review

by Stefania Milan, Emiliano Treré and Silvia Masiero

December 18, 2020

2020 has been a tough year for many reasons. The COVID-19 global health emergency has claimed lives, exposed our dependence on the digital infrastructure, and impoverished many communities even further. We were forced to change plans, subvert our lifestyles, distance ourselves from our loved ones. The first pandemic of the datafied society has exposed the weakness of people and communities at the margins. Not only has the Global South been severely hit, but also gig workers, impoverished families, domestic violence survivors, LGBTQ+, indigenous, migrant, racialized and rural communities have paid an even higher price in terms of lowered income, loneliness, violence, death. If anything, this pandemic has made clear the need for an initiative like Big Data from the South, tasked with interrogating and exposing impending forms of inequality, injustice and poverty as they intercept the datafied society. 

Against this backdrop, Big Data Sur has not remained quiet. Our network has produced a number of critical cutting-edge reflections on the main challenges of the pandemic. The thematic, multilingual blog ‘COVID-19 from the margins’, launched in May 2020, has given voice to the many fringes left in the dark by the mainstream coverage of the pandemic. It has and continues offering precious food for thought to reflect on the challenges of the pandemic for the disempowered.

To date, we published contributions from over 80 authors, in five idioms, and reporting from some 25 countries. We covered all continents–from Indonesia to Mexico, from Peru to New Zealand, from Namibia to China to Spain. Among others, we ran a special on Brazil when the controversial president Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the pandemic as a mere ‘gripezinha’ (light flu). Lately, a group of astronomers contributed their experience with working with indigenous communities in the rural areas of Brazil. 

We worked in the shadows (we even designed the logo ourselves!), we worked nights. We fundraised to be able to pay a small contributor fee to authors in need, and provided editorial support in several languages to empower less experienced writers to share their stories for a global audience. This was only possible thanks to new team members that joined us. Silvia Masiero, Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of Oslo, has joined Emiliano Treré and Stefania Milan in the editorial team. Nicolás Fuster, Guillén Torres, Zhen Ye, Jeroen de Vos, and Yiran Zhao provided key support in the background. Volunteer proof-readers like Sergio Barbosa (Portuguese) e Giulia Polettini (Chinese) helped us occasionally. To this splendid team goes our gratitude and appreciation: without their precious help, we would not have been able to publish in so many idioms and with such a high frequency.

Unfortunately, our project is chronically underfunded. But some illuminated organizations believed in the urgency of the BigDataSur agenda. In particular, the COVID-19 blog was supported by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and School of Journalism, Media and Culture at Cardiff University (UK), and by the European Research Council via the DATACTIVE project: thank you!

Besides the blog, also in 2020 BigDataSur work and values has been featured in public talks and lectures, and in a seizable number of academic writings. An analytical matrix to study ‘data from the margins’ will soon appear as part of the Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Digital Media edited by Rohlinger and Sobieraj for Oxford University Press. A special issue of the multilingual journal Palabra Clave will be released in August 2021 exploring ‘Latin American perspectives on datafication and Artificial Intelligence’. And more is in store, including plans for a course on ‘Decolonizing Datafication’ to be added to the teaching curriculum at the University of Amsterdam—for a start. 

What’s next?

Due to lack of funding, the COVID-19 blog will progressively wind down. So hurry up and send us your posts if you want to join the conversation! 

But we also have great news in store for you: the blog has given birth to the multi-vocal book COVID-19 from the Margins: Pandemic Invisibilities, Policies and Resistance in the Datafied Society. The book—proudly multilingual and rigorously open access—will be released in early January by the Amsterdam-based Institute for Networked Cultures, as part of their edgy series ‘Theory on Demand’. As some of you know, the December release date had to be postponed because COVID-19 hit the publisher, too. We wish to extend our heartfelt thanks to our amazing copy-editor Andrew Schrock from Indelible Voice, who worked against the clock to deliver the final manuscript. Thanks to funding by two of the University of Amsterdam’s Research Priority Areas, namely ’Global Digital Culture’ and ‘Amsterdam Center for European Studies’, as well as the DATACTIVE project, we will print a sizable number of copies for free distribution. Let us know if we should reserve a copy for you! We can mail it anywhere.