By Jeroen

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#BigDataSur @LASA: An overview by Anita Say Chan

Why study Big Data from the South? This was the question we – the founder of the Big Data from the South Initiative and the author of this blog post – asked by pulling together a three-session workshop and panel series on “Big Data from the South” at the 2018 Latin American Studies Association Conference (LASA), that took place in May of this year in Barcelona, Spain. The timing of the series was auspicious. That very month, the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – a law introducing new reforms that intended to strengthen EU citizens’ control over personal data, privacy rights, and ensure organizations that collect data do so only with a user’s consent, and while ensuring its protection from misuse and exploitation – had come into enforcement. And only months earlier, the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal had come to public light – in a case that put the world’s biggest social network at the center of an international scandal involving the manipulation of user data and voter profiles for global misinformation campaigns. The case was all the more significant for demonstrating not only the possibility of hacking electoral processes in the 2016 US presidential election or the UK Brexit referendum campaign – but for making evident the pre-existing and potentially continuing precarity of global electoral processes well beyond. That very month, while Silicon Valley corporate heads in the US pronounced to publics around the world that they should continue to be trusted – as data’s and Western liberal economies’ foremost technical experts – with the design and management of data ecologies, across the Atlantic, EU political representatives made parallel arguments for renewed public trust (voting scandals aside) around data policy, leveraging their authority as key spokespersons of the Western world’s legal and political expertise.

The varied crises currently facing Western data institutions – private and public alike – gave an immediate urgency to deepen our understanding and analyses of other forms of data practice and processing beyond the given centers of “data” expertise – technical, legal, or otherwise. But the work of this volume demonstrates the breadth of scholarship long underway from across varied disciplines and research communities (bridging from Latin American and global area studies, to communications and new media studies, anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies, and emerging fields like critical data studies) to address such glaring imbalances – to ask what limited forms of citizen and user are indeed “spoken for” under the interests of Western innovation and political centers –and to ask how it is that such particular centers of knowledge production and research are still enabled to speak for (and in place of) the “global rest”– particularly when issues of technology, the digital, and now indeed, data are involved.

In bringing the LASA session series together, we thus noted how critical scholarship had already begun to undertake analyses of the politics surrounding big data – drawing attention to how datafication regimes bring about new and opaque techniques of population management, control, and discrimination – but how such accounts still largely stemmed from scholars based in institutions in the global north. Our aim was thus to build and expand upon such scholarship by engaging dialogues with new and existing work critical of the dominance of Western approaches to datafication, and that aimed towards recognition of the diversity of voices emerging from the Global South. Stressing opportunities for co-learning across dialogues, we tabled a range of questions that included:

  • How does the availability of data bring novel opportunities for research and collaboration across the Global South?
  • How do activists take advantage of big data for social justice advocacy?
  • What initiatives and actors ask for the release of data?
  • What negative consequences of datafication are activists and organizations facing in the Global South?
  • What practices of resistance emerge?
  • What frames of reference, imaginaries, and culture do people mobilize in relation to big data and massive data collection?
  • Which conceptual and methodological frameworks are best suited to capture the complexity and the peculiarities of data activism in the Global South?
  • And which alternative understandings and epistemologies could help us to better address the contested terrain of data power and activism in the Global South, and Latin America in particular?

The shift involved not only a broadening of geographical and political lenses, but also entailed a broadening of frameworks to encompass – alongside the critical work of analyzing datafication regimes under development by state and corporate actors – new frameworks that could take new and existing practices around data activism seriously. Parallel with growing calls for broadening debates in information, technology and new media studies with “decolonial computing” frameworks (Amrute and Murillo 2018, Chan, 2018, Philip and Sengupta, 2018), such a broadened lens draws from work in Latin American and post-colonial studies around the “decolonization of knowledge” as a means to underscore the significance of the diverse ways through which citizens and researchers in the Global South engage in bottom-up data practices for social change as well as speak for the resistances to uses of big data that increase oppression, inequality, or social harm. Indeed, the prominent collective of global scholars who wrote of decolonial thinking and the “decolonial option” in 2007 did so urging a broader recognition of the diverse contexts and agents of knowledge production who long represented “a colonial subaltern epistemology.” They wrote to draw attention to the long and diverse histories of decolonial interventions that emerged to confront the “variegated faces of the colonial wound inflicted [over] five hundred years of… modernity as a weapon of imperial/colonial global expansion.” (Mignolo, 2007, Mignolo and Escobar, 2010)

Writing as researchers bridging conversations and debates across four continents, they renewed critiques of how the colonial underpinnings of global knowledge production continued to reassert Western frames of thought as universal scientific truths. And they underscored how this “historically worked to subordinate and negate ‘other’ frames [and] ‘other’ knowledge,… reproduc[ing] the meta-narratives of the West while discounting or overlooking the critical thinking produced by indigenous, Afro, and mestizos whose thinking… depart not from modernity alone but also from the long horizon of coloniality” (Walsh, 2007: 224). They thus stressed the vitality of “other” forms of knowledge production occurring “beyond the academy” (Mignolo and Escobar 2010:18), and highlighted the de-colonial options enacted by indigenous and other social movement actors as vital to future decolonial projects. Pressing on “the importance of thinking within” and alongside the perspective of these movements (Mignolo and Escobar 2010:19), they urged scholars not only to reimagine their roles as academic documentarians of movements (actors, that is, still dedicated to a reproduction of dominant forms of modern epistemologies) , but to decenter their own forms of knowledge practice by beginning to “think with [movements] theoretically and politically.” As such, decolonialists posed the significance of how cultivating a politics of decentralization – and a de-centering of the self as expert and knowledge practitioner – might offer an affront to modernity’s domination of other epistemologies – and might open up possibilities for a more radical politics of inclusion and intentionality of dialogues across lines of difference.

And indeed, the encounter in Barcelona last May drew forth vital and vibrant responses from a diverse range of scholars who together represented more than 20 different research institutions (public and private) across over more than a dozen national contexts, and four different continents. Building upon the prompt the editors of this volume following the first conference on Big Data from the South in Cartegena, Colombia to imagine what varied southern theories – in vital, vibrant, plurality — around big data would entail (Milan and Trere, 2017), the participants of our second workshop mapped collaboratively a terrain marked by a complex of readily identifiable contemporary challenges and possibilities alike. These included varied forms of new datafication practices undertaken by the state – but conducted in fundamental partnership with corporate data industries – that were read as explicitly deleterious to civic forms of critical intervention. These encompassed projects that participants marked as material and techno-cultural articulations of “Nation branding,” “Surveillance” in urban and online spaces alike, growing “Smart City Initiatives” that saw to the “Automation of State Functions within Urban Infrastructures,” growing CCTV-like “Centers of Control with Cameras,” and indeed, “Bureaucracy.”

Other participants marked emerging data-driven projects launched under state and private sector partnerships that – less than outright excluding or marginalizing civic participation – instead included narrowly-defined forms of citizen inclusion, that were typically based on recognizable forms of “innovation” practice. This included noticeably growing trends in “Open Government” and “Open Data” initiatives “and “Open Innovation Centers” as a means to transform citizens’ perceptions of and relations to the state.

Mapping more promising vectors, participants noted new growth in the use of “media archives” in film, video, literature, or music and civic data collections as resources newly utilized for new citizen-driven projects around “Data Literacy,” “Memory Mappings and Weavings from Neighborhoods” (including those especially marked by conflict and violence, such as those in urban Colombia), “Communal and Neighborhood Open Street Maps”, and “Feminist Mappings of Femicides” and sex-based hate crimes. Participants also marked the development of new practices or use of existing data sets (acquired from either government, public, or corporate data sources) – as practices that drew from existing data resources or infrastructures, and reoriented or hacked them to create fundamentally new technocultural and material resources. This included the “Reappropriation of Stolen Archives” and cultural artifacts taken (whether under colonial powers or in the name of national patrimony) from traditional and indigenous communities, the “Use of Drones to Map Marches” and document potential state abuses, the “Use of Analog Phone Communication between Taxi Drivers” as a means to circumvent smart city programs in Mexico City, and even the outright “Rejection and Refusal” of dominant technology products and solutions, until alternative civic uses might be defined.

Working together over the course of the afternoon-long session, the participants brought to life a number of principles underscored in the earliest iteration of Big Data from the South that alternatives theories and approaches to big data would entail. This included a considerations of the heterogeneity of data practices – coming from state, corporate and also civic actors – who could facilitate or resist “datafication” processes, to center decolonial thinking that would attend to alternative practices, imaginaries, and epistemologies in relation to data; to consider the work of infrastructure within diverse contexts in the Global South; and to be open to the dialogue the varied vectorizations it might have between actors representing diverse and complex realities between “northern” and “southern” worlds.

In conversation, and in consideration of the recent globally-scaled data scandals of 2018 that had brought the legitimacy of national elections and the authority of dominant Western data institutions – private and public alike – into question – the roomful of participants began to collectively map a series of other concerns and problematics that built upon earlier mappings. This included how data archives and practices had been influenced by community-defined communication infrastructures. It included too how other objects that defined people’s day to day contact with data resources might especially be mindful of how everything from seeds to digitally tagged farm animals (and objects beyond cell phones and urban smart city infrastructures) might be recognized as implicating datafication in more-than-human worlds. How might such considerations and practices developing within community contexts – and that draw attention to the rights, responsibilities and obligations around “community data” or “comuni-datos” – how might these emerge as a collective argument and resource to defend as an alternative to Western framework’s privileging of individual privacy rights (or data as personal property). How might recognizing the innovation within such work deepen a decolonial data project by decentering recognition of conventional data experts – as industry employed or IT-trained data scientist and engineer – to more everyday forms of data expert and practice centered around citizen and civic actors? And finally, could taking seriously the work of such processes as Data Dialogues help to forge new convergences, interfaces, or forms of technosocialities that could further deepen the ethical debates and intersectional, inter-allied work needed to energize the development of alternative data practices in the face of the evident global crises of dominant data institutions today confront?

It is worth noting that such a project and core of concerns within a Data from the South initiative finds ready resonances within existing debates in critical data studies, and the growing scholarship around algorithm studies, software and platform studies, and post-colonial computing. And while most of this scholarship has indeed emerged from institutions in the Global North, varied concerns scholars within such circles have signaled as key areas for future development, indeed point towards potentials for convergences. This includes a reinforced rejection of data fundamentalism (Crawford and boyd) and technological determinism infused within many analysis of algorithms in application, and a fundamental recentering of the human within data-fied worlds and data industries – that resists the urge to read “algorithms as fetishized objects… and firmly resist[s] putting the technology in the explanatory driver’s seat… A sociological analysis must not conceive of algorithms as abstract, technical achievements, but must unpack the warm human and institutional choices lie behind these cold mechanisms. (Gillespie 2013, Crawford 2016) It also involves treating data infrastructures and the underlying algorithms that give political life them intentionally as both ambiguous but approachable – to develop methodologies that “not only explore new empirical [and everyday] settings,” for data politics, including airport security, credit scoring, academic writing, and social media – “ but also find creative ways to make the figure of the algorithm productive for analysis… [and] show that mythologies like the algorithmic drama do not have to be reductive but can be rich and complex ‘stories that help people deal with contradictions in social life that can never fully be resolved’’ (Mosco 2005, 28; see also Lévi-Strauss 1955). Finally, in parallel with approaches for a post-colonial computing that STS and critical informatic scholars have called for have called for (Irani, Phillips and Dourish 2010) in developing decolonial computing frameworks that aim for growing “tactics… that expand the transdisciplinary scope of what one needs to know,” developing approaches around and with Data from the South might further aim to develop new interfaces with allied scholars – from across varied disciplines and regions – required to “think within” between and among in the diverse perspective of wide-ranging and widely-situated movements both inside and outside traditional research spaces. Writing now in the Fall of 2018, as renewed calls for alternative and urgently needed forms of global political imaginaries that no longer take for granted a presumed stability and centrality of Western liberalism and modernity are being called upon, such forms of open-ended relating and experimentation indeed yield valuable lessons.

 

References

Amrute S. and L. R. Murillo. (2018). “Computing in/from the South.” Catalyst, 4(2).

Andrejevic, M. (2012). Exploitation in the data-mine. In C. Fuchs, K. Boersma, A. Albrechtslund, & M. Sandoval (Eds.), Internet and Surveillance: The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media (pp. 71–88). New York: Routledge.

Arora, P. (2016). Bottom of the Data Pyramid: Big Data and the Global South. International Journal of Communication, 10, 19.

Boyd, d., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679.

Chan, A. (2014). Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chan, A. 2018. “Decolonial Computing and Networking Beyond Digital Universalism.” Catalyst, 4(2).

Crawford, K. 2016. Can an Algorithm be Agonistic? Ten Scenes from Life in Calculated Publics, Science, Technology & Human Values, 41(1), 77-92.

Crawford, K., Miltner, K., and M. Gray. (2014). “Critiquing Big Data: Politics, Ethics, Epistemology,” International Journal of Communication 8, 1663–1672.

Dourish, P. (2016). “Algorithms and their others: Algorithmic culture in context.” Big Data & Society, July–December 2016: 1–11.

Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Gillespie, T. (2014). The relevance of algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, & K. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society (pp. 167–194). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mignolo, W. D. (2007). Introduction: Coloniality of power and de-colonial thinking. Cultural Studies, 21, (2 -3 March/May), 155 -167.

Mignolo, W. D. & E. A. Escobar (Eds.). (2010). Globalization and the decolonial. London, GB: Routledge Press.

Milan, S., & Trere, E. (2017). Big Data from the South: The Beginning of a Conversation We Must Have.

Mosco, V. 2005. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Noble, S. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

O’Neil, Cathy. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. London: Allen Lane.

Philip, K., Irani, L. & Dourish, P. (2010). Postcolonial computing: A tactical survey. Science, Technology, & Human Values. 37(1), 3–29.

Philip, K. and A. Sengupta. 2018. “Afterword: Computing in/from the South.” Catalyst, 4(2).

Schäfer, M. & K. van Es, eds. (2017). The Datafied Society: Studying Culture through Data. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Walsh, C. (2007). Shifting the geopolitics of critical knowledge: Decolonial thought and cultural studies “others” in the Andes. Cultural Studies 21, (2-3 March/May), 224 -239.

Ziewitz, M. (2015). “Governing algorithms: Myth, mess, and methods.” Science, Technology & Human Values 41(4): 3– 16.

 

About the author

Anita Say Chan is an Associate Research Professor of Communications in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include globalization and digital cultures, innovation networks and the “periphery”, science and technology studies in Latin America, and hybrid pedagogies in building digital literacies. She received her PhD in 2008 from the MIT Doctoral Program in History; Anthropology; and Science, Technology, and Society. Her first book the competing imaginaries of global connection and information technologies in network-age Peru, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism was released by MIT Press in 2014. Her research has been awarded support from the Center for the Study of Law & Culture at Columbia University’s School of Law and the National Science Foundation, and she has held postdoctoral fellowships at The CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization & Social Change, and at Stanford University’s Introduction to Humanities Program. She is faculty affiliate at the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (I-CHASS), the Illinois Informatics Institute, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, and the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy (CHAMP). She was a 2015-16 Faculty Fellow with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. She will be 2017-18 Faculty Fellow with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and a 2017-19 Faculty Fellow with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory.

Schermafdruk van 2018-07-25 14.50.30

XRDS Summer 2018 issue is out -with contributions from DATACTIVE

The last issue of XRDS – The ACM Magazine for Students is out. The issue has been co-edited by our research associate Vasilis Ververis and features contributions by three of us: Stefania Milan, Niels ten Oever, Davide Beraldo, and Vasilis himself.

  1. Stefania’s piece ‘Autonomous infrastructure for a suckless internet’ explores the role of politically motivated techies in rethinking a human rights respecting internet.
  2. Niels and Davide, in their ‘Routes to rights’, discuss the problems of ossification and commercialization of internet architecture.
  3. Vasilis, together with Gunnar Wolf (also editor of the issue), has written on ‘Pseudonimity and anonymity as tools for regaining privacy’.

XRDS (Crossroads) is the quarterly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. You can reach the full issue here.

July Event Poster

[DATACTIVE event] Democracy Under Siege: Digital Espionage and Civil Society Resistance, July 4

 

 

July 4th, 20.00 hrs @spui25, (TICKETS HERE)

The most recent US elections, during which hackers exposed political parties’ internal communications, revealed the devastating power of digital espionage. But election meddling is only one aspect of this growing phenomenon. From Mexico to Egypt and Vietnam, human rights organizations, journalists, activists and opposition groups have been targeted by digital attacks. How can civil society defend itself against such threats?

The DATACTIVE project (University of Amsterdam) invites you to hear from leading experts on questions of digital espionage, cybersecurity and the protection of human rights in new technological environments. This public event aims to provide a global view of digital threats to civil society and discuss what can be done to fight back.

Ron Deibert (University of Toronto) will present the work of the Citizen Lab, which has pioneered investigation into information controls, covert surveillance and targeted digital espionage of civil society worldwide. He will be in conversation with Seda Gürses (KU Leuven) and Nishant Shah (ArtEZ University of the Arts/Leuphana University).

Speakers

Ronald Deibert is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. The Citizen Lab undertakes interdisciplinary research at the intersection of global security, ICTs, and human rights. Deibert is the author of Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet (Random House: 2013), as well as numerous books, chapters, articles, and reports on Internet censorship, surveillance, and cyber security. He is a former founder and principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (2003-2014) and a founder of Psiphon, a world leader in providing open access to the Internet.

Seda Gürses is an FWO post-doctoral fellow at COSIC/ESAT in the Department of Electrical Engineering at KU Leuven, Belgium. She works at the intersection of computer science, engineering and privacy activism, with a focus on privacy enhancing technologies. She studies conceptions of privacy and surveillance in online social networks, requirements engineering, software engineering and algorithmic discrimination and looks into tackling some of the shortcomings of the counter-surveillance movements in the US and EU.

Nishant Shah is the Dean of Graduate School at ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands, Professor of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University, Germany, and the co-founder of the Centre for Internet & Society, India. His work is informed by critical theory, political activism, and equality politics. He identifies as an accidental academic, radical humanist, and an unapologetic feminist, with particular interests in questions of life, love, and language. His current preoccupations are around digital learning and pedagogy, ethics and artificial intelligence, and being human in the face of seductive cyborgification.

This event is hosted by Spui25 and sponsored by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA).

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[blog] Data by citizens for citizens

Author: Miren Gutierrez

In spite of what we know about how big data are employed to spy on us, manipulate us, lie to us and control us, there are still people who get excited by hype-generating narratives around social media influence, machine learning and business insights. At the other end of the spectrum, there is apocalyptic talk that preaches that we must become digital anchorites in small, secluded and secret cyber-cloisters.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a big fan of encryption and virtual private networks. And yes, the CEOs of the technology corporations have more resources than governments to understand social and individual realities. The consequence of this unevenness is evident because companies do not share their information unless forced or in exchange for something else. Thus, public representatives and citizens lose their capacity for action vis-à-vis private powers.

But precisely because of the severe imbalances in practices of dataveillance (van Dijck 2014) it is vital to consider alternative forms of data that enable the less powerful to act with agency (Poell, Kennedy, and van Dijck 2015) in the era of the so-called “data power”. While the debate on big data is hijacked by techno-utopians and techno-pessimists and the big data progress stories come from the private sector, little is being said about what ordinary people and non-governmental organisations do with data; namely, how data are created, amassed and used by alternative actors to come up with their own diagnoses and solutions.

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My new book Data activism and social change talks about how people and organised society are using the data infrastructure as a critical instrument in their quests. These people include fellow action-oriented researchers and number-churning practitioners and citizens generating new maps, platforms and alliances for a better world. And they are showing a high degree of ingenuity, against the odds.

The starting point of this book is an article in which Stefania Milan and I set the scene, link data activism to the tradition of citizens’ media and lay out the fundamental questions surrounding this new phenomenon (Milan and Gutierrez 2015).

Most of the thirty activists, practitioners and researchers I interviewed and forty plus organisations I observed for the book practice data activism in one way or another. In my analysis, I classify them in four not-so-neat boxes: These include skills transferrers, or organisations, such as DataKind, that transfer skills by deploying data scientists into non-governmental organisations so they can work together on projects. Other skills transferrers, for example, Medialab-Prado and Civio, create platforms and tools or generate the matchmaking opportunities for actors to meet and collaborate in data projects with social goals.

A second group –including catalysts such as the Open Knowledge Foundation— sponsor some of these endeavours. Journalism producers can include journalistic organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or civil society organisations, such as Civio, providing analysis that can support campaigns and advocacy efforts.

missing_ship

This is a moment in the Western Africa’s Missing Fish map where irregular fish transshipments are being conducted in Senegal waters. See interactive map here.

Proper data activists take it further, securing in sheltered archives vital information and evidence of human rights abuses (i.e. The Syrian Archive); recreating stories of human suffering and abuse (i.e. Forensic Architecture’s “Liquid Traces”); tracking illegal fishing and linking it to development issues (i.e. “Western Africa’s Missing Fish”, co-led by me at the Overseas Development Institute); visualising evictions and mobilising crowds to stop them (i.e. in San Francisco and Spain); and mapping citizen data to produce verified and actionable information during humanitarian crises and emergencies (i.e. the “Ayuda Ecuador” application of the Ushahidi platform), to mention just a few.

This classification is offered as a heuristic tool to think more methodically about real cases of data activism, and also to guide efforts to generate more projects.

We know datasets and algorithms do not speak for themselves and are not neutral. Data cannot be raw (Gitelman 2013); data and metadata are “made” in processes that are “made” as well (Boellstorff 2013). That is, data are not to be treated as natural resources, inevitable and spontaneous, but as cultural resources that to be curated and stored. And the fact that the data infrastructure is employed in good causes does not abolish the prejudices and asymmetries present in datasets, algorithms, hardware and data processes. But the exciting thing is that even using flawed technology, these activists gets results.

But where do these activists get data from? Because data can be difficult to find…

How do activists get their hands on data?

Corporations do not usually give their data away, and the level of government openness is not fantastic. “Data is hard (or even impossible) to find online, 2) data is often not readily usable, 3) open licensing is rare practice and jeopardised by a lack of standards” (Global Open Data Index 2017). This lack of open access to public data is shocking when considering this is mostly information about how governments administer everyone’s resources and taxes.

So when governments and corporations do not open their data vaults, people get organised and generate their own data. This is the case of “Rede InfoAmazonia”, a project that maps water quality and quantity based on a network of sensors deployed by communities of the Brazilian Amazon. The map issues alarms to the community when water levels or quality surpass or fall behind a range of standard indicators.

In my book, I discuss five ways in which data activists and practitioners can get their hands on data: from the simplest to the most complex, 1) someone else (i.e. a whistle-blower) can offer them the data; 2) data activists can also resort to public data that can be acquired (i.e. automatic identification system signals captured by satellites from vessels) or are simply open; 3) they can generate communities to crowdsource citizen data; 4) they can appropriate data or resort to data scraping; and 5) they deploy drones and sensors to gather images or obtain data via primary research (i.e. surveys). Again, this taxonomy is offered as a tool to examine real cases.

Of them, crowdsourcing data can be a powerful process. The crowdsourced map set up using the Ushahidi platform in Haiti in 2010 tackled “key information gaps” in the early period of the response before large organisations were operative, providing geolocalised data to small non-governmental organisations that did not have a field presence, offering situational awareness and rapid information with high degree of accuracy, and enabling citizens’ decision-making, found an independent evaluation of the deployment (Morrow, Mock, and Papendieck 2011). The Haiti map marked a transformation in the way emergencies and crises are tackled, giving rise to digital humanitarianism.

forensic_architecture

Forensic Architecture’s Liquid Traces.

Other forms of obtaining data are quite impressive too. Forensic Architecture’s “Liquid Traces” employed AIS signals, heat signatures of the ships, radar signals and other surveillance technologies to demonstrate that the failure to save a group of 72 people who had been forced by armed Libyan soldiers on-board of an inflatable craft on March 27, 2011, was due to callousness, not the inability to locate them. Only nine would survive. Another organisation, WeRobotics, helps communities in Nepal to analyse and map vulnerability to landslides in a changing climate.

Alliances, maps and hybridisation

From the observation of how these organisations work, I have identified eleven traits that define data activists and organisations.

One interesting commonality is that data activists tend to work in alliances. This sounds quite commonsensical. Either the problems these activists are trying to analyse and solve are too big to tackle on their own (i.e. from a humanitarian crisis to climate change), or the datasets that they confront are too big (i.e. “Western Africa’s Missing Fish” and the ICIJ’s “Panama papers” processed terabytes of data). I cannot think of any data project that does not include some form of collaboration.

Ushahidi_map

The first Ushahidi map: Kenyan violence.

Another quality is that data activists often rely on maps as tools for analysis, coordination and mobilisation. Maps are objects bestowed with knowledge, power and influence (Denil 2011; Harley 1989; Hohenthal, Minoia, and Pellikka 2017). The rise of digital cartography, mobile media, data crowdsourcing platforms and geographic information systems reinforces the maps’ muscle. This trend overlaps with a growing interest in crisis and activist mapping, a practice that blends the capabilities of the geoweb with humanitarian assistance and campaigning. In the hands of people and organisations, maps have been a form of political counter-power (Gutierrez 2018). One example is Ushahidi’s first map (see map), which was set up in 2008 to bypass an information shutdown during the bloodbath that arose after the presidential elections in Kenya a year earlier, and to give voice to the anonymous victims. The deployment allowed victims to disseminate alternative narratives about the post-electoral violence.

The employment of maps is so usual in data activism that I have called this variety of data activism geoactivism –defined precisely by the way activists use digital cartography and often crowdsourced data to provide alternative narratives and spaces for communication and action. InfoAmazonia, an organisation dedicated to environmental issues and human rights in the Amazon region, is an example of another organisation specialised in visualising geolocalised data, in this case for journalism and advocacy. I defend the idea that this use of maps almost by default has generated a change in paradigm, standardising maps for humanitarianism and activism.

Vagabundos

Vagabundos de la chatarra, the book.

Besides, data activists usually do not have any qualms about mixing methods and tools from other trades. Not only many data organisations are hybrid –crossing the lines that separate journalism, advocacy, research and humanitarianism—, but they also combine repertoires of action from different areas. An example is “Los vagabundos de la chatarra”, a year-long project that includes comics journalism, a book, interactive maps, videos and a website to tell the stories of the people who gathered and sold scrap metal for a living on the edges of Barcelona during the economic crisis that started in 2007 (Gutierrez, Rodriguez, and Díaz de Guereñu 2018).

Civio, mentioned before, produces journalism, hosts data projects, advocates around issues such as transparency, corruption, health and forest fires. “España en llamas” is a project hatched at Civio that, for the first time in Spain, paints a comprehensive picture of fires. Civio also opens the data behind these projects.

The values that motivate these data activists include sharing knowledge, collaborating and inspiring processes of social change and justice, uncovering and providing undisputable evidence for them, and deploying collective action powered by indignation and also by hope. These data activists deserve more attention.

*A version of this blog has been published at Medium.

References

Boellstorff, Tom. 2013. ‘Making Big Data, in Theory’. First Monday 18 (10). http://firstmonday.org/article/view/4869/3750.

Denil, Mark. 2011. ‘The Search for a Radical Cartography’. Cartographic Perspectives 68. http://cartographicperspectives.org/index.php/journal/article/view/cp68-denil/14.

Gitelman, Lisa, ed. 2013. Raw Data Is an Oxymoron. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

Global Open Data Index. 2017. ‘The GODI 2016/17 Report: The State Of Open Government Data In 2017’. https://index.okfn.org/insights/.

Gutiérrez, Miren. 2018. ‘Maputopias: Cartographies of Knowledge, Communication and Action in the Big Data Society – The Cases of Ushahidi and InfoAmazonia’. GeoJournal 1–20. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-018-9853-8.

Gutiérrez, Miren, Pilar Rodríguez, and Juan Manuel Díaz de Guereñu. 2018. ‘Journalism in the Age of Hybridization: Barcelona. Los Vagabundos de La Chatarra – Comics Journalism, Data, Maps and Advocacy’. Catalan Journal of Communication and Cultural Studies 10 (1): 43-62. https://doi.org/10.1386/cjcs.10.1.43_1

Harley, John Brian. 1989. ‘Deconstructing the Map’. Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 26 (2): 1–20.

Hohenthal, Johanna, Paola Minoia, and Petri Pellikka. 2017. ‘Mapping Meaning: Critical Cartographies for Participatory Water Management in Taita Hills, Kenya’. The Professional Geographer 69 (3): 383–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2016.1237294.

Milan, Stefania, and Miren Gutiérrez. 2015. ‘Citizens´ Media Meets Big Data: The Emergence of Data Activism’. Mediaciones 14. http://biblioteca.uniminuto.edu/ojs/index.php/med/article/view/1086/1027.

Morrow, Nathan, Nancy Mock, and Adam Papendieck. 2011. ‘Independent Evaluation of the Ushahidi Haiti Project’. Port-au-Prince: ALNAP. http://www.alnap.org/resource/6000.

Poell, Thomas, Helen Kennedy, and Jose van Dijck. 2015. ‘Special Theme: Data & Agency’. Big Data & Society. http://bigdatasoc.blogspot.com.es/2015/12/special-theme-data-agency.html.

van Dijck, Jose. 2014. ‘Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data between Scientific Paradigm and Ideology’. Surveillance & Society 12 (2): 197–208.

 

About Miren
Miren is a Research Associate at DATACTIVE. She is also a professor of Communication, director of the postgraduate programme “Data analysis, research and communication”, and member of the research team of the Communication Department at the University of Deusto, Spain. Miren’s main interest is proactive data activism, or how the data infrastructure can be utilized for social change in areas such as development, climate change and the environment. She is a Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute of London, where she leads and participates in data-based projects exploring the intersection between biodiversity loss, environmental crime and development.

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Big Data from the South at the LASA conference in Barcelona

Stefania Milan is the co-organizer with Emiliano Trere (Cardiff University) and Anita Say Chan (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) of two panels at the forthcoming conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), in Barcelona on May 23-26.

The (slightly revised) lineup:

Big Data from the Global South Part I (1033 // COL – Panel – Friday, 2:15pm – 3:45pm, Sala CCIB M211 – M2)
PROJECT FRAMING + GROUP BRAINSTORMING
·      Stefania Milan, Emiliano Trere, Anita Chan: From Media to Mediations, from Datafication to Data Activism
 
Big Data from the Global South Part II: Archive Power (1101 // COL – Panel – Friday, 4:00pm – 5:30pm, Sala CCIB M211 – M2)
·      Inteligencia Artificial y Campañas Electorales en la Era PostPolítica: Seguidores, Bots, Apps: Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Eloy Caloca Lafont 
·      Open Government, APPs and Citizen Participation in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico: Luisa Ochoa; Fernando J Martinez de Lemos 
·      Cryptography, Subjectivity and Spyware: From PGP Source Code and Internals to Pegasus: Zac Zimmer
·      Engineering Data Conduct: Prediction, Precarity, and Data-fied Talent in Latin America’s Start Up Ecology: Anita J Chan
 
Big Data from the Global South Part III: Data Incorporations (1167 // COL – Panel – Friday, 5:45pm – 7:15pm, Sala CCIB M211 – M2)
·      Evidence of Structural Ageism in Intelligent Systems: Mireia Fernandez 
·      Doing Things with Code: Opening Access through Hacktivism: Bernardo Caycedo
·      Decolonizing Data: Monika Halkort
·      Maputopias: Miren Gutierrez

 

About LASA 2018

Latin American studies today is experiencing a surprising dynamism. The expansion of this field defies the pessimistic projections of the 1990s about the fate of area studies in general and offers new opportunities for collaboration among scholars, practitioners, artists, and activists around the world. This can be seen in the expansion of LASA itself, which since the beginning of this century has grown from 5,000 members living primarily in the United States to nearly 12,000 members in 2016, 45 percent of whom reside outside of the United States (36 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean). And while the majority of us reside in the Americas, there are also an increasing number of Latin American studies associations and programs in Europe and Asia, most of which have their own publications and annual seminars and congresses.

Several factors explain this dynamism. Perhaps the most important is the very maturity of our field. Various generations of Latin Americanists have produced an enormous, diverse, and sophisticated body of research, with a strong commitment to interdisciplinarity and to teaching about this important part of the world. Latin American studies has produced concepts and comparative knowledge that have helped people around the world to understand processes and problematics that go well beyond this region. For example, Latin Americanists have been at the forefront of debates about the difficult relationship between democracy, development, and dependence on natural resource exports—challenges faced around the globe. Migration, immigration, and the displacement of people due to political violence, war, and economic need are also deeply rooted phenomena in our region, and pioneering work from Latin America can shed light on comparable experiences in other regions today. Needless to say, Latin American studies also has much to contribute to discussions about populism and authoritarianism in their various forms in Europe and even the United States today.

With these contributions in mind, we propose that the overarching theme of the Barcelona LASA Congress be “Latin American Studies in a Globalized World”, and that we examine both how people in other regions study and perceive Latin America and how Latin American studies contributes to the understanding of comparable processes and issues around the globe.

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Becky and Stefania at the Data Justice conference

Stefania will present on “Questioning data universalism” with Emiliano Treré (Cardiff University) and she will be chairing the session on Data Activism (14.00 – 15.30 Parallel Sessions B).

Becky will present on “It Depends On Your threat Model: Understanding strategies for uncertainty amidst digital surveillance and data exploitation” as part of the Civil Society and Data (chair: Isobel Rorison).

About the data justice conference (website, program)

Date: 21-22 May 2018
Location: Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK
Host: Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

The collection and processing of massive amounts of data has become an increasingly contentious issue. Our financial transactions, communications, movements, relationships, all now generate data that are used to profile and sort groups and individuals. What are the implications for social justice? How do we understand social justice in an age of datafication? In what way do initiatives around the globe address questions of data in relation to inequality, discrimination, power and control? What is the role of policy reform, technological design and activism? How do we understand and practice ‘data justice’? How does data justice relate to other justice concerns?

This conference will examine the intricate relationship between datafication and social justice by highlighting the politics and impacts of data-driven processes and exploring different responses. Speakers include Anita Gurumurthy (IT for Change, India), David Lyon (Queen’s University, Canada), Evelyn Ruppert (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK), Rob Kitchin (Maynooth University, Ireland), Sasha Costanza-Chock (MIT Center for Civic Media, US), Seeta Peña Gangadharan (London School of Economics, UK), Solon Barocas (Cornell University, US and FAT/ML).

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Stefania at RightsCon 2018

Organising, together with the Data Justice Lab (Cardiff University) the following session:

The Fight Against the Institutional Datafication of Social Life: Challenges and Tactics

Friday 18 May, 4pm

Chair: Stefania Milan, Datactive Ideas Lab, University of Amsterdam

Speakers: Arne Hintz, Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University
Malavika Jayaram, Digital Asia Hub
Nandini Chami, ITforChange
Javiera Moreno, Datos Protegidos
Anita Say Chan, University of Illinois
Mitchell Baker, Mozilla (tbc)

This session will serve to discuss challenges and opportunities for civil society advocacy in response to data analytics by governments. While the use of data analytics, scoring and identification systems by state institutions is advancing rapidly, often underpinned by tightening surveillance legislation, civil society efforts to address the datafication of citizens and its consequences have faced difficulties. We will map these challenges, in view of exploring potential tactics and forms of influence. The session will allow participants to share knowledge about innovative strategies of intervention; engage in a dialogue on how citizens can have a say in the adoption and implementation of big data analytics; and advance a transnational mobilization connecting struggles on the consequences of datafication with the social justice and human rights agenda.

About Rightscon

As the world’s leading conference on human rights in the digital age, we bring together business leaders, policy makers, general counsels, government representatives, technologists, and human rights defenders from around the world to tackle pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and digital technology. This is where our community comes together to break down silos, forge partnerships, and drive large-scale, real-world change toward a more free, open, and connected world.

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Jeroen presents at Bevrijdingsfestival Utrecht

Part of de Denkplaats [space to think], hosted by the Utrecht public library, Jeroen gave a talk named “About data, governance, and the role of the citizen”. The talk aimed to engage bevrijdingsfestival visitors with questions of governance of online public space, distribution of responsibility and accountability and the surveillance rationalities underpinning these practices.

 

About the Denkplaats (in Dutch):

De Denkplaats is voor één keer op het Bevrijdingsfestival. We praten verder over social media.

Google en Facebook verdienen bakken met geld aan hun gebruikers. De persoonlijke gegevens van die gebruikers zijn de grondstof van deze miljoenenbedrijven. Meer dan de helft van alle mensen gebruikt hun diensten. Gebruikers mogen gratis gebruikmaken van die diensten, het liefst lekker veel.

Wat weten al die mensen eigenlijk van de intenties en methodes van deze kolossen? Is er sprake van een eerlijke ruil; wij het gemak van snelle, gratis communicatie, zij onze gegevens? Of zijn gebruikers ongemerkt handelswaar geworden?

Zorgen digitale diensten grote vrijheid in communicatie of juist voor onvrijheid omdat de bedrijven er achter aan de haal (kunnen) gaan met onze gegevens?

 

Kom bij ons langs op het Vrijheidspodium!

 

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[blog 3/3] Designing the city by numbers? KAPPO: More than a game 1

 

 

This is already the last blog posts of the series ‘Designing the city by numbers? Bottom-up initiatives for data-driven urbanism in Santiago de Chile’, by Martín Tironi and Matías Valderrama Barragán. Please find here the first blogpost ‘Hope for the data-driven city‘ and the second ‘Digital quantification regimes of cycling mobility‘.

 

For our final post in this series, we explore the case of the social game for smartphones, KAPPO. It was developed in early 2014 by four Chilean entrepreneurs with the goal of engaging citizens with cycling. It is structured around levels in which each trip on the bike gives experience points, virtual coins and rewards to the player, and the highest level of the game is the “Capo”2. It also offers a series of challenges and rankings for competing with friends or other KAPPO players. Though this gamified design, KAPPO puts together a narrative focused on its ability to “provoke,” “motivate”, “create the habit” of regularly using the bicycle and improving the user’s health. As suggested by Kappo in one of its promotional ads, the app promises to “show the cyclist inside of you”.

Although KAPPO did not have great success in Chile initially, it started to grow in adopters abroad in other countries, receiving funds and making public-private partnerships with municipalities in Denmark. Since then, its founders sought to position the app as “more than a game” for smartphones, seeking out different ways of capitalizing on the data generated through its use. For example, KAPPO would develop a competition event called “Cool Places to Bike” where organizations compete on the grounds of which best encourages the use of the bicycle measured by KAPPO. It also developed “Health and Well-being Programs” for companies, promising to improve productivity and well-being of workers by increasing bike use through the use of KAPPO. Local governments have also become KAPPO clients through the development of “KAPPO Insights”, a web platform which allows public planners and officials to process and visualize anonymized routes tracked by the app to decision-making.

The data obtained by KAPPO, however, present biases and is not representative of cyclists of Santiago. Instead of emphasizing the scientific narrative of RUBI regime, the narrative deployed by KAPPO is one that aims to convince city officials based on three aspects: an inexpensive method, data capture in real time, and allowing a “strong” participatory citizen involvement that encourages bicycle use. Via such aspects, KAPPO’s analytics and flow maps acquire value and foster decision making that modifies the city in a rapid, experimental cycle, guided by the “real” movements of cyclists gathered in non-declarative ways. KAPPO thus does not seek to measure and quantify cyclists’ mobility representatively like RUBI, but seeks to intervene directly by encouraging greater bike use, and presenting increases in cycling statistics biannually in order to legitimate this digital quantification regime.

The politics of digital quantification: Some points to an open debate

With these very brief vignettes of digital quantification regimes developed in Latin America, it is interesting to note how initiatives like KAPPO and RUBI that are born in the South and adopt a grammar of citizen participation, also try to differentiate themselves from competing foreign technologies. But they nonetheless end up replicating the rationalities and logics of nudge and automation when they try to escalate to the global market to survive as technological entrepreneurship, diminishing at once the possible capacity of activism or citizen engagement in the planning processes. This opens up a debate around the actual political capacities of sensors and tracking technologies to enhance citizen participation and the agendas behind its developers.

Second, it is relevant to consider the different specificities of each regime of digital quantification. Each regime design and mobilises materialities, narratives and economic interests in order to justify their databases, algorithms and analytics as the most convenient, objective or useful for knowing, planning and governing the city in a data-driven way. As a result, the ecology of quantification regimes is always heterogeneous, diverging and relating to their contexts and interests, and combining various technologies of justification (beyond the device or app). From this perspective, we found interesting elements on the goals of each regime and their capacities. For example, KAPPO exacerbated the participatory or citizen nature of the app under a commercial logic from its inception. By contrast, the RUBI regime initially emphasized participatory and bottom-up elements but the agency of cyclists was gradually displaced by more automated designs to obtain “scientifically correct” data. They also try to differentiate from other methods like surveys and devices, both digital and analogue, invoking limitations and biases. In short, capitalizing on digital data requires various strategies of justification (Bolstanski and Thévenot, 2006) that should not be taken for granted and that goes beyond the generation of data alone. Before going into a priori definition of digital data, users or urban space, it is crucial to delve into these strategies and interests, as well as the reasons on why some regimes of digital quantification end up prevailing, whereas others are ignored.

Third, despite the discrepancies between the cases analysed, we note that both cases start from a shared imaginary of data-driven city governance inspired by the North. In this imaginary, opening and sharing data on the mundane practice of riding a bicycle is invoked as a means of empowering citizen involvement with the capacity to make the city smarter and more bike-friendly. However, this imaginary can lead, first, to a reconfiguration of government as “clients of data” and citizen participation towards more passive, invisible versions that are free of true effort, and in which the exchange of data and is used for the benefit of certain stakeholders with interests other than democratic ends. Before turning cyclists into “co-designers” or “participants” in city planning, they are situated in practice as data producers without ever being informed of the real use of the data generated in a government decision or other use by third parties. And the process of automation of the devices or gamify the design of devices is in direct connection with these forms of participation. This point leave us with the question on which other responses for everyday breakdowns and idiotic data could be enacted to promote an active digital activism. And also, which modalities of experimentation allow for the consideration of those imperceptible murmurs that tend to be marginalized from the prevailing cannons of smart culture3?

Fourth, a data-driven planning and governance initiative opens up the discussion of how notions of “expertise” and “politics” are reconfigured. These regimes of digital quantification promote the belief that the decision-maker, without necessarily being an expert on the topic, can make decisions in a primarily technical manner driven by the “real” behaviour of the citizens and not by opinions, ideological differences or party pressures. Political factors are framed as something that must be eradicated through the gathering and processing of data on people’s behaviour. This politics of technify-ing decision-making is nothing new. As Morozov (2014) has written, the idea of an algorithmic regulation evokes the old technocratic utopia of politics without politics: “Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.”

In this sense, a data-driven urbanism would carry the risk of believing not only in a neutrality or immediacy of data, but with it a depoliticization of urban planning and government in favour of technocratic and automated decision-making systems. Behind the apparent technical reduction of discretion in decision-making by these regimes of digital quantification, in practice, we can see how many political or discretionary decisions are made in how these regimes are enacted and made public.

 

References

Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (2006). On justification: Economies of worth. Princeton University Press.

van Dijck, J. (2014). Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and secular belief. Surveillance & Society, 12(2), 197-208.

Espeland, W. N., & Stevens, M. L. (2008). A sociology of quantification. European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie, 49(3), 401-436.

Esty, D. C. & Rushing, R. (2007). Governing by the Numbers: The Promise of Data-Driven Policymaking in the Information Age. Center for American Progress, 5, 21.

Gabrys, J. “Citizen Sensing: Recasting Digital Ontologies through Proliferating Practices.” Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, March 24, 2016.
Goldsmith, S. & Crawford, S. (2014). The responsive city: engaging communities through data-smart governance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

Goodchild, M. F. (2007). Citizens as sensors: The world of volunteered geography. GeoJournal, 69(4), 211-221.

Kitchin, R. (2014b). The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences. London: Sage.

Mares, N. (2018). What if nothing happens? Street trials of intelligent cars as experiments in participation. In S. Maassen, Dickel, S. and Schneider, C. H. (Eds), TechnoScience in Society, Sociology of Knowledge Yearbook. Nijmegen: Springer/Kluwer.
Mayer-Schönberger, V. and Cuckier, K. (2013). Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Morozov, E. (2014). The rise of data and the death of politics. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/20/rise-of-data-death-of-politics-evgeny-morozov-algorithmic-regulation

 

1. This text is based on a presentation at the Workshop “Designing people by numbers” held in Pontificia Universidad Católica in November 2017.
2. Colloquial term in Spanish for people with a great deal of expertise or knowledge about a topic or activity.
3. On this point, see the controversies and public issues generated by the street testing with driverless cars (Marres, 2018)

 

About the authors: Martín Tironi is Associate Professor, School of Design at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He holds a PhD from Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (CSI), École des Mines de Paris, where he also did post-doctorate studies. He received his Master degree in Sociology at the Université Paris Sorbonne V and his BA in Sociology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Now he’s doing a visiting Fellow (2018) in Centre of Invention and Social Proces, Goldsmiths, University of London [email: martin.tironi@uc.cl]

Matías Valderrama Barragán is a sociologist with a Master in Sociology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He is currently working in research projects about digital transformation of organizations and datafication of individuals and environments in Chile. [email:mbvalder@uc.cl]

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[blog] Can We Plan Slow – But Steady – Growth for Critical Studies?

Author: Charlotte Ryan (University of Massachusetts, Lowell/Movement-Media
Research Action Project), member of the DATACTIVE ethics board.

This is a response post to the blog ‘Tech, data and social change: A plea for cross-disciplinary engagement, historical memory, and … Critical Community Studies‘ written by Kersti Wissenbach.

To maximize technologies’ value in social change efforts, Kersti Wissenbach urges researchers to join with communities facing power inequalities to draw lessons from practice. In short, the liberating potential of technologies for social change cannot be realized without holistically addressing broader inequalities. Her insights are many, in fact, communication activists and scholars could use her blog as a guide for ongoing conversations. Three points especially resonate with my experiences as a social movement scholar/activist working in collaboration with communities and other scholars:

  • Who is at the table?
    Wissenbach stresses the critical role of proactive communities in fostering technologies for social change as a corrective to the “dominant civic tech discourse [that] seems to keep departing from the ‘tech’ rather than the ‘civic’.” She stresses that an inclusive “we” emerges from intentional and sustained working relationships.
  • Power (and inequalities of power) matter!
    Acknowledging that technologies’ possibilities are often shaped long before many constituencies are invited to participate, Wissenbach asks those advancing social change technologies to notice the creation and recreation of power structures:
    “Only inclusive communities,” she cautions, “can really translate inclusive technology approaches, and consequently, inclusive governance.”
  • Tech for social change needs critical community studies
    Wissenbach calls for the emergence of critical community studies that—as do critical development, communication, feminist, and subaltern studies–crosses disciplines, “taking the community as an entry point in the study of technology for social change.” Practitioners and scholars would reflect together to draw and disseminate shared lessons from experience. This would allow “communities, supposed to benefit from certain decisions, [to] have a seat on the table.”

Anyone interested in the potential of civic tech—activists, scholar-activists, engineers, designers, artists, or other social communication innovators—will warmly welcome Wissenbach’s vision of Critical Community Studies. She proposes not another sub-specialty with esoteric journals and self-referential jargon, but a research network of learning communities expanding conceptual dialogs across the usual divides. And, she recognizes the urgent need to preserve and broadly disseminate learning about technologies for social change.

I agree but cautiously. It is just what’s needed. But the academy tends to resist engaged scholarship. We need to think about where to locate transformative theory-building; sadly, calls to break with traditional research approaches may be more warmly received outside academic institutions than within. The academy itself, at least in the United States, is under duress. How would Critical Community Studies explain itself to academic institutions fascinated by brand, market niche, and revenue streams? Critical Community Studies is not likely to be a cash cow generating more profits faster, and with less investment. The U.S. trend to turn education into a profit-making industry may be extreme, but it raises the need to look before we leap.

Like Wissenbach, I entered the academy with deep roots in social movements and community activism. Like her, I want the academy to produce knowledge and technology for the social good. Like her, I want communities directly affected to be fully vested in all phases of learning. Like her, I am eager to move beyond vague calls for participation and inclusion. My experiences to date, however, give me pause for thought.

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Caption: Thirty years in buttons

In the mid-1980’s, I was among a dozen established and emerging scholars who formed the university-based Media Research Action Project (MRAP). We were well-positioned to bridge the theorist-practitioner divide; many of us had begun as movement activists and we had ties to practitioners. This made it easier for MRAP to work with under-represented and misrepresented communities and constituencies to identify and challenge barriers to democratic communication and to build communication capacity.

U.S. based social movements face recurring challenges: our movements hemorrhage learning between generations; we still need to grapple with the legacies of slavery, colonialism and jingoism; our labor movement has withered. Living amidst relative plenty, U.S. residents may feel far removed from crises elsewhere. Competitive individualism, market pressures, and dismantled social welfare programs leave U.S. residents feeling precarious —even if we embrace liberatory ideals.

In light of these material conditions, MRAP wanted to broaden political dialogs about equality and justice. At first, we focused on transferring communication skills—one and two-day workshops. We soon realized that we needed ongoing working relationships to test strategies, build infrastructure and shared conceptual frameworks. But it took years to find the funds to run a more sustained program. Foundations—even when they liked our work—wanted us to ‘scale up’ fast (one national foundation asked us to take on 14 cities). In contrast, we saw building viable working relations as labor-intensive and slow. One U.S. federal agency offered hefty funding for proposals to “bridge the digital divide.” MRAP filed a book-length application with ten community partner organizations, eight in communities of color. The agency responded positively to MRAP’s plan, they urged us to resubmit but asked that we dump our partners and replace them with mainstream charities, preferably statewide.

And so the constraints tightened. Government and foundations’ preference for quick gains could marginalize (again) the very partners MRAP formed to support. To support ourselves, we could take day jobs, but this limited our availability. Over and over, we found—at least in the U.S. context—talk of addressing power inequalities far exceeded public will and deeds. Few mainstream institutions would commit the labor, skill, and time to reduce institutionalized power inequalities. Nor did they appreciate that developing shared lessons from practical experiences is labor intensive. (Wissenbach notes a number of these obstacles).

Despite all of the above, MRAP and our partners had victories. One neighborhood collaboration took over local political offices; another defeated an attempt to shut down an important community school; others passed legislation; and made common cause with the Occupy Movement to challenge the demonization of poor people in America. We won…sometimes. More often, we lost but lived to fight another day. And we helped document the ups and downs of our social movements. It was enormous fun even when it was really hard. As the designated holders and tellers of these histories, MRAP participants deepened our understanding of the macro-mezzo-micro interplay of political, social, economic, and cultural power.

From hundreds of conversations, dozens of collaborations, and gigabytes of notes, case studies, and foundation proposals, came a handful of collaborations that advanced our understanding of how U.S. movement organizations synchronize communication, political strategizing, coalition building, and leader and organizational development, and how groups integrate learning into ongoing campaigns.

We have begun to upload MRAP’s work at www.mrap.info. But those pursuing a transformed critical research tradition, should acknowledge that the academy has resisted grounded practice, and that the best critical reflections were often led by activists outside the academy rooted in communities directly facing power inequalities. In light of this, Wissenbach’s insistence that communities directly affected “be at the table” becomes an absolute.

Let me turn to Critical Communication Studies more specifically. To maximize publishing, U.S. scholars tend to communicate within, not across, disciplines. Anxious regarding slowing their productivity, they tend to avoid the unpredictability of practical work. For their part, the civic tech networks and communities facing inequalities find themselves competing for resources, a competition that can undermine the very collaborations they want to build. Even if resources are located, efforts may fade if a grant ends or a government changes hands.

So while I welcome the call for researchers to join practitioners in designing mutually beneficial projects, I want to do it right and that may mean do it slow. First off, who is the “we/us” mentioned twenty times by Wissenbach (or an equal number of times by me)? We need a real “we”: transforming institutional practices and priorities whether in academic or communication systems is a collective process. An aggregate of individuals even if they share common values does not constitute “us,” social movements as dialogic communities that consider, test, and unite around strategies. (As Wissenbach underscores, “we” need to shift power, and this requires shared strategies, efficient use of sustainable resources, and a capacity to learn from experience).

In short, transforming scholarly research from individual to collective models will take movement building. A first step may be recognizing that “we” needs to be built. Calling “we” a social construction does not mean it’s unreal; it means it’s our job to make it real.

Conclusion

I share Wissenbach’s respect for past and present efforts to lessen social inequalities via communication empowerment. I agree that “only inclusive communities can really translate inclusive technology approaches and, consequently, inclusive governance.” And I know that this will be hard to achieve. Progress may lie ahead but precarity and heavy work lie ahead as well. A beloved friend says to me these days, “Getting old is not for the faint of heart.” Neither is movement building.

 

Bibliography:

Howley, K. (2005). Community media: people, places, and communication technologies. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press.

Kavada, A. (2010). Email lists and participatory democracy in the European social forum. Media, Culture & Society, 32(3), 355. doi: 10.1080/13691180802304854

Kavada, A. (2013). Internet cultures and protest movements: The cultural links between strategy, organizing and online communication. In B. Cammaerts, A. Mattoni & P.

McCurdy (Eds.), Mediation and protest movements (pp. 75–94). Bristol, England: Intellect.

Kidd, D., Barker-Plummer, B., & Rodriguez, C. (2005). Media democracy from the ground up: mapping communication practices in the counter public sphere. Report to the Social Science Research Council. New York

Kidd, D., Rodriguez, C., & Stein, L. (2009). Making our media: Global initiatives toward a democratic public sphere. Cresskill: Hampton Press.

Lentz, R. G., & Oden, M. D. (2001). Digital divide or digital opportunity in the Mississippi Delta region of the US. Telecommunications policy, 25(5), 291-313.

Lentz, R. G. Regulation as Linguistic Engineering. (2011). The Handbook of Global Media and Communication Policy, 432-448. IN Mansell, R., & Raboy, M. (Eds.) (Vol. 6). John Wiley & Sons.

Magallanes-Blanco, C., & Pérez-Bermúdez, J. A. (2009). Citizens’ publications that empower: social change for the homeless. Development in practice, 19(4-5), 654-664.

Mattoni, A. (2016). Media practices and protest politics: How precarious workers mobilise. Routledge.

Mattoni, A., & Treré, E. (2014). Media practices, mediation processes, and mediatization in the study of social movements. Communication theory, 24(3), 252-271.

Milan, S. (2009). Four steps to community media as a development tool. Development in Practice, 19(4-5), 598-609.

Rubin, N. (2002). Highlander media justice gathering final report. New Market, TN: Highlander Research and Education Center.

Treré, E. and Magallanes-Blanco, C. (2015) Battlefields, Experiences, Debates: Latin American Struggles and Digital Media Resistance, International Journal of Communication 9: 3652–366.