Category: COVID-19 from the margins

just out: ‘Latin American Visions for a Digital New Deal: Towards Buen Vivir with Data’

Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré, co-founders of the Big Data from the South Research Initiative, have contributed a piece entitled ‘Latin American Visions for a Digital New Deal: Towards Buen Vivir with Data‘ to the essay collection ‘A Digital New Deal. Visions of Justice in a Post-Covid World‘, edited by the Just Net Coalition and IT for Change (India). Their piece is accompanied by the beautiful illustration of Mansi Thakkar.

Read the project description, and download the full collection as pdf from this link.

The Just Net Coalition and IT for Change invite you to explore and engage with our Digital New Deal essay series, a thoughtfully curated set of long reads authored by passionate and committed scholars, activists and visionaries from around the world. In these essays, authors reflect on the current global Covid moment and its challenges from various standpoints and how the digital fits into this equation. From activists steeped in long standing battles against corporate capture of our resources and pushing for food sovereignty, labor rights, climate justice, equitable development, to scholars pondering the new questions of the internet, data, AI and the state of our public sphere, to practitioners seeking to address the disenfranchisement of countless communities and people from digital systems, the Digital New Deal captures the current anxieties, challenges, hopes and visions for the future. Beyond calling out what ails the world, our authors set for themselves in these poignant, informative, and radical pieces, the difficult challenge of outlining progressive solutions…to future gaze, imagine new possibilities and to reclaim the digital for justice.



[BigDataSur-COVID] Digital Social Protection during COVID-19: The Shifted Meaning of Data during the Pandemic

Silvia Masiero reflects on changes in digital social protection during the pandemic, outlines the implications of such changes for data justice, and co-proposes an initiative to discuss them.

by Silvia Masiero

One year ago today was my last time leaving a field site. Leaving friends and colleagues in India, promising to return as usual for the Easter break, it was hard to imagine to be suddenly plugged into the world we live in today. As a researcher of social protection schemes, little did I know that my research universe – digital anti-poverty programmes across the Global South – would have changed as it has over the last 12 months. As I have recently stated in an open commentary, COVID-19 has yielded manifold implications on social protection systems, implications that require reflection as conditions of pandemic exceptionalism perdurate over time and across regions.

The Shifted Meaning of Beneficiary Data

My latest study was on a farmer subsidy programme based on the datafication of recipients – a term that indicates, from previous work, the conversion of human beneficiaries into machine-readable data. The programme epitomises the larger global trend of matching demographic and, increasingly, biometric credentials of individuals with data on eligibility for anti-poverty schemes, such as poverty status, family size and membership of protected groups. Seeding social protection databases with biometric details, a practice exemplified by India’s Aadhaar, is supposed to combat exclusion and inclusion errors alike, assigning benefits to all entitled subjects while scrapping all the non-entitled. At the same time, quantitative and qualitative research works have shown the limits of datafication, especially its consequences in reinforcing exclusions of entitled subjects whose ability to authenticate is reduced by failures in recognition, sometimes resulting in denial of vital schemes.

During the pandemic, as numerous contributions to this blog have illustrated, existing vulnerabilities have become deeper and new ones have emerged, expanding the pool of people in need for social protection. Instances of the former are daily-wage and gig workers – who have seen their extant subalternities deepened in the pandemic, in terms of loss of income or severely heightened risks at work. Instances of new vulnerabilities, instead, are associated to the “new poor” of the pandemic, affected in many ways by the backlashes of economic paralyses across the globe. The result is the heightened global need for social protection to work smoothly, making the affordance of inclusiveness – being able to cover for the (old and new) needful – arguably prioritarian to that of exclusiveness, aimed at “curbing fraud” by secure biometric identification.

Since its launch in May 2020, this blog has hosted contributions on social protection schemes from countries including Colombia, Peru, India, Brazil and Spain, all highlighting the heightened needs of social protection under COVID-19. While describing different world realities, all contributions remark how the vulnerabilities brought by COVID-19 call for means to combat wrongful exclusions, for example using excess stocks of commodities to expand scheme coverage. Against the backdrop of a world in which the priority was “curbing fraud” through the most up-to-date biometrics, the pandemic threw us in a world in which inclusion of the needful takes priority over the roles of anti-poverty scheme datafication. The first implication, for researchers of digital social protection, is the need to devise ways to learn from examples of expanded coverage in social protection, of which India’s National Food Security Act has offered an important instantiation over the last decade.

Social Protection in the Pandemic: New Data Injustices

As the edited book “Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives” notes, the hybrid public-private architectures emerged during COVID-19 have generated new forms of data injustice, detailed in the volume through 33 country cases. The book opens, along with important debates on the meaning of data in a post-pandemic world, the question on data justice implications of COVID-19 for digital social protection. Drawing on contributions published in this blog, as well as reports of social protection initiatives taken during the pandemic, I have recently highlighted three forms of data injustice – legal, informational and design-related – that need monitoring as the pandemic scenario persists.

From a legal perspective, injustice is afforded by the subordination of entitlements to registration of users into biometric databases, which become a condition for access – leading to scenaria of forced trading of data for entitlements, widely explored in the literature before COVID-19. The heightened need for social protection in the pandemic deepens the adverse implications of exclusions, exacerbating the consequences of injustice for those excluded from the biometric datasets. Stories from urban poor contexts ranging from Nebraska, US to São Paulo, Brazil, underscore the same point: while the legal data injustice of exclusion was problematic before, it only heightens its problematicity in the context of the economic backlash of the pandemic on the poor.

From an informational perspective, the way entitlements are determined – specifically, the use of citizens’ information across databases to determine entitlements – has become crucial during the pandemic. Two cases from this blog especially detail this point. In Colombia, information to determine eligibility for the Ingreso Solidario (Solidarity Income) program was combined from existing data repositories, but without detail on how the algorithm combined information and thus, on how eligibility was determined. In Peru, subsidies have leveraged information gathered through databases such as the Census, property registry and electricity consumption, again without further light on how information was combined. Uncertainty on eligibility criteria, beyond deepening pandemic distress, arguably limits beneficiaries’ ability to contest eligibility decisions, due to lack of clarity on the very grounds on which these are taken.

Finally, design-related data injustices arise from the misalignment of datafied social protection schemes with the effective needs of beneficiaries. In the pandemic, the trade-off brought by biometric social protection – entailing increased accuracy of identification, at the cost of greater exclusions – has been brought to its extreme consequences, as extreme are the implications of denial of subsidy for households left out by social protection schemes. This brings to light a trade-off whose problematicity was already known well before the pandemic started, and further heightened by studies questioning the effective ability of biometrics to increase the accuracy of targeting. As a result, a third, design-related form of data injustice needs monitoring as we trace the evolution of social protection systems through COVID-19.

Ways Forward: A Roundtable to Discuss

As the pandemic and its consequences perdurate, new ways are needed to appraise the consequences of shifts in datafied social protection that the crisis that the crisis has brought. Not surprisingly, my promise of going back to the field for Easter 2020 could not be maintained, and established ways to conduct research on global social protection needed reinvention. It is against this backdrop that a current initiative, launched in the context of the TILTing Perspectives Conference 2021, may make a substantial contribution to knowledge on the theme.

The initiative, a Roundtable on COVID-19 and Biometric ID: Implications for Social Protection, invites presentations on how social protection systems have transformed during the pandemic, with a focus on biometric social protection and the evolution of its roles and systems. Abstracts (150-200 words) are invited as submissions to the TILTing Perspectives Conference, with the objective of gathering presentations from diverse world regions and draw conclusions together. Proposals for the role of discussants – to take part in the roundtable and formulate questions for debate – are also invited through the system. In an epoch where established ways to do fieldwork are no longer practicable, we want the roundtable to be an occasion to advance collective knowledge, together deepening our awareness of how social protection has changed in the first pandemic of the datafied society.

Submission to the Roundtable are invited at:



[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 and the Stripping of Power from the Edges

By Niels ten Oever

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people wondered whether the internet infrastructure would be capable of handling the increase in data traffic. When many people started working, streaming, and following the rapidly unfolding news on social media from home, many expected this would strain on the internet infrastructure. Some European politicians were so concerned that they called on Netflix to lower the resolution of their video streams. Why did it turn out the internet infrastructure was able to cope with the increasing demand? The answer is, because the internet no longer works as most people think it does. An extra layer of control was added to the internet by Content Delivery Networks. This chapter will discuss how pressure on the infrastructural margins of the internet is strengthening the center of the network, and examine how COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend.

In 2011, the Tunisian government started heavily censoring the internet in response to popular uprisings in the country. In response, many internet users engaged in what is commonly called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on the Tunisian government’s website. In a DDoS attack, hundreds or even thousands of computers try to reach a website at the same time. This can lead to the website’s server, or the connection to the server, being overloaded and thus render the website unavailable to internet users. When a website suddenly becomes very popular, this can also lead to similar behavior. When many users try to connect at the same time, the traffic effectively renders the site or service unavailable. Eight of Tunisia’s websites were forced offline.

In response to the DDoS attacks, and to prevent down-time of servers due to their popularity, Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) were increasingly used. CDNs are globally-distributed proxy servers, often placed in data centers close to internet eXchange Points (IXPs). While a user thinks they are connecting to a popular website far away, they are connecting to a CDN server that is located near them. While you are thinking you are streaming a video from a jurisdiction that you think is safe, the video is more likely to be stored close to the network controlled by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or your telecommunications operator.

When the internet was designed, an engineer adopted the end-to-end principles as their central motto. This was included in the mission statement of the Internet Engineering Taskforce, the institution responsible for co-developing and standardizing the internet infrastructure:

The Internet isn’t value-neutral, and neither is the IETF. We want the Internet to be useful for communities that share our commitment to openness and fairness. We embrace technical concepts such as decentralized control, edge-user empowerment and sharing of resources, because those concepts resonate with the core values of the IETF community. These concepts have little to do with the technology that’s possible, and much to do with the technology that we choose to create (RFC3935).

When users connected to the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may seem they were edge-users connecting to another endpoint over “dumb pipes”—leveraging the powers of decentralized control. The truth it quite the opposite. The internet infrastructure held up during the COVID-19 pandemic not because people were getting their content from the global internet, but from a data center near them. You may think is actually a good thing, since it caused the internet to not collapse? Maybe. CDNs are the mere latest cause and consequence of centralization on the internet. The difference between CDNs and other large players such as Google and Facebook (who have their own CDNs) is that these other CDNs remain largely invisible. Some of you might have heard about Cloudflare, but what about Akamai, Fastly, and Limelight?

In 2017, Cloudflare unilaterally removed the neo-nazi forum and website Daily Stormer from its services. In 2019, it similarly removed the imageboard 8chan after two shootings in the United States. The company cited the following reason for removal: “In the case of the El Paso shooting, the suspected terrorist gunman appears to have been inspired by the forum website known as 8chan. Based on evidence we’ve seen, it appears that he posted a screed to the site immediately before beginning his terrifying attack on the El Paso Walmart killing 20 people”. The interesting point was that no one asked Cloudflare to do this; they removed the content on their own volition, without a clear process in place. Many critical internet scholars such as Suzanne van Geuns, Corinne Cath, and Kate Klonick have reported on this. While such decisions show the concrete impact these companies can have, it is perhaps even more telling that one hears very little about these companies.

CDNs are perhaps the internet infrastructure that companies benefitted most from during the COVID-19 epidemic, because there was increased traffic to the websites that they provide services to. But what about the people who requested information from these websites? Technically, they got served by another server than the one they thought they were connected to. They might have received something else than what they asked for, because CDNs allow for particularly fine-mazed geography-based adaptation of content. The CDN that served a user in Senegal might have different data than a CDN that served a user in Brisbane. And there is almost no way of knowing by which particular CDN server you got served, or to bypass the CDN. In this way, the opacity of internet infrastructure was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic led to further black-boxing of the internet infrastructure, making it harder for users to understand how it works. While this might make the internet faster and more available, it does not make the internet more reliable. Arguably, it makes the internet a better tool for control, because it increases power asymmetries between users and transnational corporations.

In 2011, Tunisian internet users were able to use the internet infrastructure against their own government. In 2020, it is nearly impossible for users around the world to even know where the websites they are accessing are located, let alone take them down. The internet is no longer a bazaar. The COVID-19 pandemic helped fortify an industrial zone that now is the internet, which only allows users to connect on the outside, without having a view or control on the inside. The internet has become a smart network, with not so smart edges.


Niels ten Oever is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Texas A&M University (USA), associated also with the Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Brazil. His research focuses on how norms such as human rights get inscribed, resisted, and subverted in the Internet infrastructure through transnational governance. Previously, Niels has worked as Head of Digital for ARTICLE19 and served as programme coordinator for Free Press Unlimited. He holds a cum laude MA in Philosophy and a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam. He sometimes


[BigDataSur-COVID] Alternative Perspectives on Relationality, People and Technology During a Pandemic: Zenzeleni Networks in South Africa

By Nic Bidwell & Sol Luca de Tena

Many rural communities in Africa have characteristics that are neither represented by data about COVID-19, nor addressed by public health information designed to help people protect themselves. This does not mean to say that rural inhabitants are unaffected by information designed for different populations; and grassroots initiatives have been vital in countering the impacts of this. Here, we reflect on the role of community networks in customising information and services for rural inhabitants during the pandemic, and how they reveal constructs embedded in data representation and aggregation. Community networks (CNs) are telecommunications initiatives that are installed, maintained, and operated by local inhabitants to meet their own communication needs. Rey-Moreno’s 2017 survey identified 37 community networks in 12 African countries. With the success of four Annual African CN Summits, more are emerging every year. Our account focuses on Zenzeleni Networks in South Africa. Thus, we begin by introducing its response to COVID-19 and ensuring health information suited local circumstances. We end by arguing that examples of contextualisation reveal logics about personhood that are vital to tackling the disease, but not represented by individualist models embedded in datafication.

Zenzeleni’s Response to COVID-19

Zenzeleni is a community-owned wireless internet service provider that has connected more than 13,000 people and 10 organisations to the internet in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. The network is owned by amaXhosa inhabitants (including 40% women) and is run by two local cooperatives. A cooperative approach ensures internet access costs are up to 20 times lower than services offered by existing telecommunications operators, and expenditure is retained locally. The non-profit organisation Zenzeleni Networks NPC was established through the cooperative, and provides vital connections with regulatory authorities and telecommunications expertise. Zenzeleni was seeded in Mankosi, a remote district of 12 villages, by PhD researchers at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, which followed prolonged collaborations on solar electricity and media sharing technologies. Over the past eight years, the community network has evolved as a social innovation ecosystem in which rural communities own their telecommunication businesses. Like other community networks in the global south, Zenzeleni has created employment and developed technical skills in one the most disadvantaged areas in South Africa.

As well as providing more affordable and higher quality network services than alternatives, Zenzeleni’s embeddedness directly links technology and media considerations to local life. As the COVID-19 lockdown ensued, inhabitants working, studying or seeking work in cities returned to their rural family homes. Zenzeleni played a vital role in providing continuity to residents’ urban lives, by adding network infrastructure to extend the community access points and ensuring free and open access to education websites, including all of the nation’s universities and further education colleges. Indeed, usage of access points tripled during since the pandemic began.

Not only are health services difficult to access, but the local populations served by Zenzeleni are particularly vulnerable; they have a high incidence of HIV, tuberculosis, and child and maternal health issues. Thus, Zenzeleni sourced funding to connect the District Hospital. Just as importantly, however, from the pandemic’s onset, the network started to address health information needs. Like other groups across Africa, Zenzeleni immediately recognised the mismatch between health information issued by WHO and South Africa’s national government and local circumstances. Not only was information initially unavailable in most of Africa’s 2000 languages, even when advice was in a home language it was ill-suited to many rural contexts. Recommending regular handwashing, for instance, is inappropriate for Mankosi’s inhabitants who share a few unreliable taps in their villages because water is not supplied to households. Similarly, guidelines on shared transport are irrelevant when only one bus a day connects villages on a five hour round trip to the nearest supermarket. Zenzeleni ensured free and open access to official health websites. Understanding the local context launched projects also increased access to relevant information resources and raised awareness of health strategies that matched local circumstances.

My Mask Protects you, and Yours Protects me: Accounting for Personhood in the Datafied Society

While providing health information in home languages suited to local constraints is vital, but efficacy in managing a socially-spread disease requires integrating deeper insights about the nuances of local social practices and relations. For instance, people returning to villages from cities bring information of varying legitimacy, from recommendations to outright falsehoods. Locally, this information was interpreted through assumptions that information in cities was inherently more credible because cities are highly connected. The valorisation of information associated with electronic media has been discussed elsewhere in rural southern Africa. An implicit part of Zenzeleni’s role has been to foster critical approaches to disinformation by directing inhabitants to legitimate information and ensuring information was properly contextualised. However, at the same time, promoting information access must account for sharing practices. While internet hotspots safely offer socially-distanced access, many inhabitants group around tablets and phones.

Device-sharing practices in Mankosi are not merely about limited access to devices. They also involve a cultural construct of relationality. Devices like smartphones are embedded with logic that personhood exists prior to interpersonal relationships (Bidwell, 2016). This individualist logic contrasts with the philosophy of Ubuntu, an isiXhosa word which is often translated as “I am because we.” This collective logic assumes that neither community or individual exists prior, and being human depends on the mutual and dynamic constitution of other humans. As Eze explains:

We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am.

The importance of the construct of Ubuntu to effective contextualisation is illustrated by Zenzeleni’s local volunteers’ observations that community members assisted each other in putting on face-masks. Senses of mutual responsibility are straightforward in communities such as Mankosi. However, routinely performing responsibility involves physical help and, since none of the guidelines explicitly combine social distancing with putting on a mask, this represents an ambiguity.

The challenge of translating a guideline such as “wear it for me” reveals an important role for community networks in COVID-19 times, and in datafication more generally. Much like the assumption of a person putting on their masks themselves, prevalent models of data extraction, representation, and personalisation cultivate and amplify an individualist logic. Yet, as many commentators have suggested, the best protection we have against the virus is Ubuntu. Zenzeleni and other community networks around the world offer an alternative perspective on relationality, people, and technology.


Nicola Bidwell is an adjunct professor at the International University of Management, Namibia, and a researcher at University College Cork, Ireland. She has applied her expertise in community-based, action research for technology design in the Global South for the past 15 years, and catalysed thought about indigenous-led digital design and decolonality. Nic is an associate editor for the journal AI & Society: Knowledge, Culture and Communication.

Sol Luca de Tena has over a decade of experience in strategic project management within technology development, capacity building, social impact, and policy, with a focus on utilising technologies to address environmental and social challenges. She is currently the acting CEO of Zenzeleni Networks Not for Profit company, supporting the operation and seeding of community networks in rural communities in South Africa. She also leads various projects which seek to address the digital divide in a human centre approach, and collaborates on various working groups and forums on Community Networks in Africa and around the world.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Towards Civic Data Policies: Participatory Safeguards in COVID-19 Times

By Arne Hintz

The pervasive tracing, tracking, and analysing of citizens and populations has emerged as the tradeoff of an increasingly datafied world. Citizens are becoming more transparent to the major data-collecting institutions of the platform economy and the state, while they have limited possibilities to intervene into processes of data governance, control the data that is collected about them, and affect how they are profiled and assessed through data assemblages. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the centrality of these dynamics. Contact tracing and detailed identification of outbreak clusters have been essential responses to COVID-19. Yet, detailed data about our movements, interactions and pastimes is now tracked, stored, and analysed, both “online” through the use of contact-tracing apps and “offline” (e.g., when we fill in a form at a bar or restaurant). The rise of tracking raises the question of how exactly data is collected and analysed, by whom, for what purposes, and with what limitations. Essentially, it signals the necessity of legal safeguards to ensure that data analytics fulfil their purpose while preventing privacy infringements, discrimination, and the misuse of data. The COVID-19 pandemic thus alerts us to the importance of effective regulatory frameworks that protect the rights and freedoms of digital citizens. It also demands public involvement in a debate that affects our lives during the pandemic and beyond.

The wider context of data policy in the wake of major data controversies by both public and commercial institutions—from the Snowden revelations to Cambridge Analytica—is currently ambiguous. On the one hand, it reflects a deeply entrenched commitment to expansive data collection. On the other hand, it increasingly recognises the need for enhanced data protection and citizens’ data rights. In many countries, the possibilities for monitoring people’s data traces (particularly by state agencies) have significantly expanded. The UK Investigatory Powers Act from 2016 serves as a stark example, because it legalised a broad range of measures, including the “bulk collection” of people’s data and communication; the “internet connection records” (i.e., people’s web browsing habits); and “computer network exploitation” (i.e., state-sponsored hacking into the networks of companies and other governments as well as the devices of individual citizens).1

At the same time as these encroachments, we have also seen the strengthening of data protection rules, most prominently by the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018. The GDPR enhances citizen control over data by providing rights to access and withdraw personal data, request an explanation for data use, and deny consent to data tracking by platforms. It requires that data be collected only for specific purposes to reduce indiscriminate data sharing and trading. The GDPR also limits the processing of sensitive personal data. While some elements of the GDPR have been controversial and the regulation overall is often described as insufficient, it has been recognised as an important building block towards a citizen-oriented data policy framework. The emerging policy environment of data collection and data use has been significant in societies that are increasingly governed through data analysis and processes of automated decision-making. Profiling citizens and segmenting populations through detailed analysis of personal and behavioural data are now at the core of governance processes and shape state-citizen relations.

What does the shifting data environment mean during COVID-19 times? How should regulatory frameworks enable and constrain the tracking and tracing of virus outbreaks, and what boundaries should exist? If we accept that some data collection and analysis is useful to address the pandemic and its serious health implications, the purpose limitation of this data (as highlighted by the GDPR) becomes crucial. In some countries, contact-tracing apps were designed to track a much wider range of data than initially necessary for tracing infection chains and enable government agencies to use that data for non-medical tracking purposes. In order to avoid contact-tracing becoming a Trojan Horse for widespread citizen surveillance, strict purpose limitation would be an essential cornerstone of a robust regulatory framework. Similarly, limitations to the collection of sensitive data and the deletion of all data at fixed times during or after the pandemic would be core components of such a framework. While it may be debatable whether wider data collection and sharing would be acceptable as long as the affected individuals give their consent, a consent model often leads to pressures and incentives for citizens to hand over data against their will and interest, which would make strict prohibitions seem a more appropriate mechanism. The COVID-19 contact-tracing case thus points to some of the elements that are increasingly discussed and regulated as part of policy reforms such as the GDPR, and it highlights the challenges of indiscriminate data collection.

Indiscriminate data collection also poses questions about who should develop such policy, and whether broader public involvement would be desirable or even necessary. The COVID-19 pandemic helps us explore the role of citizens as policy actors. Contributions to the regulatory and legislative environment by civic actors outside the realm of traditional “policymakers” have received increased attention in recent years. These range from the role of civil society in multi-stakeholder policy processes to policy influences by social movements and to the development of specific legislation by citizens in the form of what has been called crowd law and policy hacking.’ The COVID-19 case demonstrates multiple dimensions of these kinds of public engagement. It shows the strong normative role of technical developers arguing for decentralised data storage options in contact-tracing apps (e.g., the Decentralised Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing project), who have prevailed in many cases over the initial government intention to centralise data handling. Further, we have seen legal scholars taking the lead in proposing relevant legislative frameworks, for example, by developing a dedicated Coronavirus Safeguards Bill for the UK (which has not, so far, been adopted by the UK government but has still influenced the debate on contact-tracing). The public discourse on COVID-19 responses in many countries has also considered the problem of data collection and possible privacy infringements, thus placing data analytics firmly on the public agenda.

The current pandemic has shown that emergency situations require the rapid adoption of legal safeguards, and a wider public debate on what data analyses are acceptable and where boundaries lie. Policy components from recent regulatory frameworks such as the GDPR can be an important part of this endeavour, as should critical reflection on data extraction laws such as the Investigatory Powers Act. Expert proposals from civil society have promoted rules that address problems raised by the pandemic while protecting civic rights. At the “margins” of established policy processes, these interventions by civil society and the public play a significant role in advancing normative pressure on civic data policies.


About the author

Arne Hintz is Reader at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture and Co-Director of its Data Justice Lab. His research focuses on digital citizenship and the future of democracy and participation in the age of datafication. He is Co-Chair of the Global Media Policy Working Group of the International Association for Media and Communication Research and co-author of Digital Citizenship in a Datafied Society (Polity, 2019).

[BigDataSur-COVID] Africa’s Responses to COVID-19: An Early Data Science View

By Vukosi Marivate, Elaine Nsoesie & Herkulaas MVE Combrink


COVID-19 is a unique event that has shaken the world. It has disrupted the way we live, how we work, and what we think. Across Africa, the arrival of COVID-19 also drew attention to the continent. We have had to live through grim forecasts of how “badly” the continent was going to respond to the virus, or whether the continent was different and we would not feel the impact. Given that we are still in the midst of the pandemic, we have a hard task of sifting through the opinions and reports to get to a better understanding of what has happened. We have to deal both with trying to better measure impact or contemplate if natural remedies would prevent spread. As data scientists, we believe that what is measured obscures shortcomings that otherwise might enlighten us on how we can better deal with such situations in the future.

Africa has significant experience dealing with infectious disease epidemics. For example, countries in West and Central Africa have responded over the decades to Ebola outbreaks, and Southern Africa has had HIV/AIDS to deal with. The experiences gained from these epidemics have prepared African health systems to respond to the pandemic. We are likely to see many research papers in the coming years dissecting what impact this preparedness may have had. In this article, we focus on how Africa worked to track COVID and what that might mean for data scientists in the future. What should we learn? Where did things go well? Where did things fail? How do we improve?

When we Measure the Spread

As the pandemic spread across the Northern Hemisphere, throughout the African continent questions formed about the potential impact of COVID-19 on different African countries. In many countries, COVID working groups were set up. These working groups were typically were made up of government and external experts who planned to look at different factors in the responses to COVID-19. In many instances, these groups used data to track COVID-19 and assist in modelling and data-driven decision making. One would have noticed the proliferation of country-led dashboards or infographics on the COVID-19 spread. In some countries, numbers were difficult to track and understand, because of low numbers of tests. The tracking of COVID-19 spread required a pipeline that could test, report, and aggregate information in a meaningful way for epidemiological and clinical surveillance.

Challenges in Reporting

We have seen international challenges to the free, transparent, and open reporting on the severity of COVID-19. Some African countries had these challenges as well, from denying the pandemic exists to refusing to release information on testing and confirmed cases. These challenges cannot be explained by simplistic reasons such as political pandering, but likely indicate challenges in resources available to respond to the pandemic. Countries have been stretched thin in a short period of time, and systems may not have the capacity to change direction this quickly. In this environment, how do you compile statistics and share meaningful information with both the public and policy stakeholders?

COVID-19 Will Still be With us

No one should underplay how COVID-19 will ultimately impact African countries. Its impact will not only be on healthcare; many sectors of society will likely be reeling from the sustained effects of the pandemic. There is already looming evidence about the adverse and secondary damage to other sectors such as education, crime, healthcare, and the economy. Decisions on border and business closures made during the early stages of the outbreak may also have lasting effects on countries in Africa.

Tracking More than Health

COVID-19 has affected more than just health, and the effects will be with us for some time. As we move into second waves in some countries, we are now deciding how to rehabilitate economies, the education systems, and tourism. All of these decisions require data that crosses between national statistics offices and stakeholders. To better plan recoveries and interventions, organisations and states are working to use data to make choices about which interventions might be best. This process extends the need for data beyond the healthcare system toward a coordinated response driven by the public, private and non-governmental institutions. Data and data related issues are the ultimate reflection of people and capacity issues present within a system. If we are to combat negative outcomes, we should all work toward capacitating our nations to prepare for the future.

Lessons we Must Learn

Counting is hard. It requires will, cooperation and resources that together improve policy. We need to learn how to set up the data infrastructure so that counting can catalyze data practices in the future. Yet, setting up a data infrastructure requires money and human capacity. Across the global population, we will have more emergencies to deal with. As such, governments must prepare adequately during the “peace times.” If we do not prepare, we will not get ahead to manage future crisis and crisis situations better. Investing in capacity and building the required skills to disseminate information in a more reliable way helps prepare us for the future. We should never sway away from training, innovation and incentivising education for the purpose of growth and improvement. Technical skills across all sectors—especially within healthcare—have served vital roles during the pandemic and will continues to do so. Capacitating the healthcare system with the technical skills to manage information, actively strive for excellence, and innovate still remains the foundation of preparedness, and drives the proactive strategies we need to be successful as a society.

Vukosi Marivate ( is the ABSA UP Chair of Data Science at the University of Pretoria. A large part of his work over the last few years has been in the intersection of Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing. Vukosi is interested in Data Science for Social Impact, and uses local challenges as a springboard for research. Vukosi is a co-founder of the Deep Learning Indaba, the largest Artificial Intelligence grassroots organisation on the African continent, aiming to strengthen African Machine Learning. He tweets at @vukosi.

Elaine Nsoesie is an Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. She has a PhD in Computational Epidemiology, an MS in Statistics, and a BS in Mathematics. Her research is focused on the use of digital data and technology to improve health in global communities. Her work has also addressed bias in digital data. She is on the advisory boards of Data Science Africa and Data Science Nigeria. She is also the founder of Rethé (, an initiative that provides scientific writing tools and resources to student communities in Africa to increase representation in scientific publications.

Herkulaas Michael Combrink is a medical biological scientist with more than six years data science experience with “Big Data” of institutional databases. Over the past seven years, he has been active in both healthcare and education. Herkulaas has won several awards for his work in Data Science, Data management and Healthcare. During the COVID-19 outbreak in the Free State, he has been seconded to assist the Free State Department of Health in data science and surveillance support. Additionally, Herkulaas is a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.


[BigDataSur-COVID] Solutionism, Surveillance, Borders and Infrastructures in the “Datafied Pandemic”

By Philip Di Salvo

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a prism and an amplifier for anything data. It has exposed underlying issues that require the attention of academics, activists, journalists, and policy makers. Health emergencies are enormous stress tests for civil rights and freedoms, and for the platforms through which societies come together. With most of the world population under lockdown or subjected to monitoring, digital platforms and internet infrastructures have become leading spaces where social life takes place. This may sound obvious now, but as Franco “Bifo” Berardi wrote in his pandemic-influenced book Fenomenologia della fine, COVID-19 globally recodified the assumptions of our societies, so we must consider their datafied sides. While we live on the internet more than ever, access to tools, basic services, and social environments is becoming increasingly unequal. Such inequalities have increased due to the uneven distribution of opportunities, resources, and the exclusive design of socially-impactful technologies.

In a piece for Open Democracy written from the Dutch and Italian lockdowns last spring, Stefania Milan and I tried to identify “four enemies” from the pandemic in the context of the “datafied society.” Back then, we claimed that the pandemic was accelerating “potentially dangerous dynamics” capable of causing huge collective damage. In the fall of 2020, those dynamics apparently exploded in plain sight, exacerbated by the long-awaited “second wave” of the virus and political intervention worldwide. As we expected, the pandemic reformulated the relationships between tech, power, and justice, as claimed by Linnet Taylor, Gargi Sharma, Aaron Martin, and Shazade Jameson in their book Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives. The outcomes of these reformulation have not yet manifested clearly, but their occurrence appears visible in some domains, especially the most marginalised communities. In this essay, I will discuss four keywords: solutionism, surveillance, borders, and infrastructures.


The pandemic has been accompanied by a new wave of solutionism in policy making, healthcare, and beyond. Solutionism has been described by Evgeny Morozov as the the “idea that given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind’s problems.” We heard lots of these calls during the pandemic, especially when the release of contact-tracing apps were heralded as the “silver bullet” to the spread of the pandemic. In Italy, the government adopted privacy-respectful solutions and frameworks for its national app Immuni (“the immune ones”). However, the sensitivity of the Italian app development came only from weeks of pressure from privacy activists, academics, and journalists to avoid more invasive software solutions. Even in an established democracy, China was frequently described as a model to follow, especially in regards to the tracking of citizens during the pandemic. Although that pressure led to better decisions and an improved app, privacy and surveillance are not the only potential problems in regards to these apps. Whereas they’re undoubtedly effective to trace cases and are one more solution that states can adopt in the battle against COVID-19, they’re not the most fundamental solution.

Even when privacy-respectful, contact tracing apps may exclude enormous segments of the population: Singapore has been an interesting and dramatic case study in these regards, also because the city has been frequently indicated as an excellent example in the response to the pandemic, especially in regards to technology usage. As the BBC reports, though, “success crumbled when the virus reached its many foreign worker dormitories” that are home to over 300,000 low-wage foreign workers, living in inadequate conditions where social distancing is impossible and contact-tracing apps fail in their mission. As the cases number in the dorms sky-rocketed, Singapore authorities started releasing different statistics about the contagion: one about the city community, and one about the population in dorms. Excluded from any form of assistance and prevention, foreing workers were even hidden from the main data, ending up in dedicated statistics highlighting a clear inequality pattern. Stories of exclusion and blatant inequality related to technological responses to the pandemic have emerged from all over the world and also in developed and fully democratic countries. In Canada, for instance, it has been reported that the national contact-tracing app was released in French and English only, signaling another sign of exclusion for the four million Canadians who do not command those languages. In the UK, an expert board reporting to the government highlighted that some 21% of the UK adults do not use a smartphone, de facto excluding them to the access to contact-tracing apps. In Italy, the national contact tracing app doesn’t run on an array of older Android and Apple phones (and has shown some bugs also with more recents models), making income and consumer electronics competence as decisive factors in the spread of the app among the Italian population. The predominance of older versions of smartphones in Italy has been indicated as a driver of the low adoption of the app, as Wired reports. Although the Bangladesh and Western stories can’t be put on the same level in regards of their severity, it is clear that at every latitude technological determinism, when pushed with too much sublime emphasis on “smart” and “shiny” digital technologies, may in any case lead to forms of inequality and exclusion. Furthermore, evidence about the effectiveness of contact tracing apps is also limited, as reported by Lancet in August.


Whereas much of the debate about privacy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic was about contact tracing apps, they’re certainly not the only potentially harmful technology revitalized in recent months. Surveillance studies scholars Martin French and Torin Monahan have pointed out that there is “evidence of surveillance dynamics at play with how bodies and pathogens are being measured, tracked, predicted, and regulated.” Basically, controlling a pandemic spread involves forms of surveillance. The spread of the pandemic has seen an acceleration in the adoption of various monitoring technologies and automated decision-making systems, according to an AlgorithmWatch report. These technologies include bracelets, selfies-apps, thermal scanners, facial recognition systemsm and programs for digital data collection and analysis. As AlgorithWatch posits, are these technologies becoming the “new normal?” The pandemic has seen an acceleration of the implementation of these technologies, frequently supported by a deterministic approach, raising critical questions about informed consent and the impact of such technologies on our fundamental rights. As we wrote at the beginning of this essay, global emergencies are also stress tests for societies and democracies at large, since they’re forced to cope with extraordinary situations. As Elise Racine, a research associate at A Path for Europe (PfEU), argues, “risk for function creep means that these tools may be co-opted by other security initiatives.” In this way, data-driven technologies may endanger the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable, who are more exposed to abusive forms of monitoring and surveillance.

The pandemic has revitalized the appetite for surveillance all around the world, with facial recognition and other controversial technologies leading the way. As the Centre for Security Studies at ETH Zürich reports, the market for surveillance cameras is expecting a substantial growth in 2021, reaching 300,000 new cameras being installed every day globally and a billion cameras installed by the end of the same year.13 Democratic institutions are at stake, since intrusive technologies undermine democratic values and have been shown to be disproportionately used to target minorities and exacerbate racial biases.

Examples of facial recognition being used to enforce COVID-19 restrictions have already emerged from Russia, where Moscow’s enormous network of cameras has been used to control residents during the lockdown. Even in democratic contexts like Italy, facial recognition is making its way into public spaces, often pushed as migration-containment strategy, as happened in the Italian city of Como—another sign that the most vulnerable communities of our societies are also the most exposed to constant monitoring. Crises set new standards. Are we slowly moving into a surveillance state where immediate health measures are paving the way for overreaching forms of surveillance that are here to stay? Without proper testing, clear frameworks, and guidelines, we risk endorsing a normalization of surveillance with effects that could be difficult to assess and take years to be de-implemented.


Borders have traditionally been surveilled. Unsurprisingly, technologies for monitoring borders are also accelerating their adoption across the world, riding promises to make life easier and safer during the pandemic. Whereas boarding a plane without touching any surface may sound like a viable solution to prevent the further spread of the virus, boarding a plane only through facial recognition raises obvious privacy concerns. Datafied “immunity passports” now being discussed in various countries pose serious threats to various segments of the population. They have been sold as another “crisis-response that depends on technology, as we saw with contact-tracing apps,” writes Privacy International. As the London-based NGO argues, these technical solutions are currently being hyped and pushed by private actors involved in travelling and border services, but their adoption may have serious impacts on the right of citizens to movement, and the lives of those most discriminated against. Also, these tools may become useful for profiling, as they may give “the police and security services more powers to not only know information about our health, but also to stop people and demand proof of immunity in certain situations,” as Privacy International again argues. The global lockdown has also deeply changed the nature or geographical borders and their political meanings, as migrants have been disproportionately victimized by this new status quo. Frequently, migrants and refugees failed to be included in COVID-19 statistics and figures, given their invisibility. Refugees are usually the first targets of the datafied surveillance practices discussed here. In April, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported how the digital monitoring and surveillance technological practices being now adopted during the pandemic were originally tested on refugees and migrants during the 2015 migration crisis in Europe. In Singapore, migrant workers have been forced to download a contact-tracing app, while Russia is reportedly considering following suit. Vulnerable communities, like migrants on the move, who are already suffering from weaker safeguards for their rights and freedoms, are now also increasingly becoming a testing ground for implementing datafied monitoring practices that may end up becoming standardized practices in a post-pandemic world.


Digital infrastructures and platforms gained new centrality in our daily lives because of the pandemic. Smartworking, remote teaching, and public services were forced to migrate online and still rely on digital tools to function. This evolution also has profound implications in a society pushing for more datafication. It is time to ask, what are the long-term implications of making private services the de facto infrastructure of social life, citizenship, and agency? Coming back to contact-tracing apps as an example, there is little doubt that the framework provided by the Apple-Google alliance made a privacy-respectful structure readily available. Yet, we should demand greater transparency when such powerful companies become official suppliers of digital infrastructures used for health services. Power balances between national states and private entities are at stake. Most urgently, as David Lyon urges, the pandemic should be the moment when we start considering surveillance implications beyond the singular privacy issue.22 More is at stake, because surveillance has become a structural element of today’s societies. With most of our lives moving online, we’re also moving into spaces where what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” is the ruling economical, political, and social structure. Surveillance capitalism is increasingly exposing all societies’ activities to extended datafatication: the constant monitoring, sorting, and profiling of people for profit. It is time to build exit strategies and new forms of resistance; the datafied society is now an established reality and is already affected by global issues such as a pandemic. The view from inside this crisis has indicated that, in its current shape, the datafied society is increasingly working against its own citizens.

Philip Di Salvo is a post-doc and Professor at the Media and Journalism Institute of Università della Svizzera italiana in Lugano, Switzerland. His areas of research include leaks, the relationship between journalism, hacking, and internet surveillance. His latest books are Leaks. Whistleblowing e hacking nell’età senza segreti (LUISS University Press, 2019) and Digital Whistleblowing Platforms in Journalism. Encrypting Leaks (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). He tweets at@philipdisalvo.


[BigDataSur-COVID] The Trouble of Visualizing COVID-19 During a Nation-wide Lockdown in South Africa

By Adriaan Odendaal

As of October 3, 2020, according to BBC News’ interactive COVID-19 data visualization widget, the continent of Africa had 1,506,015 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 36,288 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths. It drew data from Johns Hopkins University and unspecified “national public health agencies.” My home country, South Africa (SA), accounts for 677,833 of these confirmed cases and 16,909 of the respective deaths—just below half of the continent’s cases of infections and deaths. I compared South Africa to the Netherlands next, having moved to Rotterdam just over a year ago. I opened the Google interactive map that appears whenever you search for anything COVID-19 related. I’m not the only one who developed an obsession with these interactive atlases of blue bubbles found everywhere from news websites to the World Health Organization (WHO) homepage. Being obsessed with data had become the big-data equivalent of so-called “doom-scrolling.” Yet, the ease with which I navigated this statistical information to get an instantaneous aestheticized overview obscured the local labor and material contexts that went into supplying the data from countries such as South Africa.

The Early COVID-days in South Africa

The first case of COVID-19 in South Africa was confirmed on Thursday the 5th of March by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). While I watched the digital blue circles blooming exponentially in the Netherlands throughout March, initially South Africa seemed spared. Africa remained relatively unblemished, only a constellation of small blue pin-pricks. Trying to prevent the eventual outbreak, South Africa went into a strict lockdown on March 23, 2020 and the hashtag #LockdownSA started trending to detail all the tribulations of daily life under a quasi-militarized quarantine. Shortly before the lockdown, a small Johannesburg-based data journalism team called Media Hack Collective (MHC) decided to launch its own South African COVID-19 data-visualization dashboard. The dashboard followed the organization’s core tenet of making data available to the general public in an accessible and understandable format. It tracked cases per province with a detailed breakdown of travel histories, location, age, and gender. Due to a lack of timely and effectively communicated official information during the early outbreaks, the dashboard became instantly popular.

Media Diaries – Episode 2

Despite having moved to Rotterdam, I continued working remotely for a social-impact podcasting company based in Johannesburg called Volume. During #LockdownSA one of our regular partners, the South African Media Innovation Programme, contracted us to produce a show called Media Diaries.[9] This podcast was about the daily occupational struggles of journalists reporting on the COVID-19 crisis during the national lockdown, and sourced stories through voice-notes. The show’s premise was an intriguing paradox: “What happens when our journalists, the people we expect to be out in the world for us, are forced to stay at home?” The frustrations traditional journalists faced were easy to understand. The perspective of data journalists unable to do their work during lockdown was quite different, and showed something often ignored in discussions of data reporting. In the second episode of Media Diaries, we followed the struggles of MHC in maintaining their COVID-19 dashboard.

An Obstructed Flow of COVID-19 Data

MHC, led by award-winning journalists Alastair Otter and Laura Grant, launched their COVID-19 dashboard in mid-March to a phenomenal response. “We had upwards of 300 people looking at the dashboard at any given time,” says Alastair in one of the voice-notes sent to our producers. Their approach to COVID-19 reporting was to circumvent sensationalist journalism and misinformation by taking “hard solid data” and releasing it to the public in a form that was “understandable and usable.” Achieving this goal meant using only authoritative data provided by the South African Department of Health and the NICD.

When Laura sent her first voice-notes at a later stage, she sounded more distressed. “It started off with this amazing flow of information from the NICD,” she said. “They would put it on their website every day. Now the last time they put anything on their website was… three days ago.” The floor of initial public support for project became interspersed with concerned emails. “It’s not really our fault,” Laura had to explain, “The official info is just not coming through.”

Shortly after launching their COVID dashboard, MHC partnered with the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism to assist with the collection of reliable data. The Bhekisisa Centre sent press releases from the Department of Health to MHC, who would use the printed information to provisionally update their dashboard. The trickle-down data they had to work with necessitated a complete rework of their dashboard. “Earlier this morning we heard there were 709 confirmed infections in South Africa,” Alastair said when checking in with our team, “but beyond that number, there was very little data available.” The data that was coming through was one-dimensional. “We initially started off when the first few cases of corona-virus were announced the Department of Health and NICD put out very detailed information about the ages of people, their genders, where they have traveled to, their province, etc… [W]e built the dashboard on that information thinking this would be great.” Laura was sitting in her car, dogs jumping up at the window because they expected to be taken for a walk, when she described the consequent frustrations to me. “We are really struggling to get the data that we used to get at the beginning. So, we decided to change the dashboard and add international graphs and an African one and compare South Africa to other countries… I know we can definitely get data for that.”

Suggestions from the frustrated public that MHC assist with sourcing primary data seemed untenable. “I mean, we agree in principle that people should be assisting,” said Alastair, “but it’s a capacity issue at the moment for most of us.” In a more recent email, Laura told me how much work went into processing the data. “Collecting and keeping the database up to date is the most time-consuming part—that part could not be automated because the data was being published either in PDFs or infographics on social media.” At the time, even the NCIS website’s own dashboard was stalled. “Their data is further out of date as far as we can tell,” said Alastair, “which suggests, perhaps, that there is a huge capacity issue there.”

The Overlooked Problems at the Source of the Data

The frustrations of MHC, and the struggle for reliable data updates during the lockdown, speaks to a larger issue at hand. There are few instances of fully automated data generation. There is always human labor and material conditions involved at some point in the data chain. What Episode 2 of Media Diaries shows—beyond the trials and tribulations of a small team of industrious data journalists—is that even the grand global data visualizations of Google, the BBC, and the New York Times rely on the same single local sources of information that the MHC dashboard used. In fact, both the BBC and Al Jazeera have made explicit use of data from the MHC dashboard. When you scroll down to a global overview of COVID-19 cases on Google’s dashboard, the material and labor constraints that hamper data collection in South Africa gets lost in the big sea of big data, aestheticized to encourage us to accept data as quantified facts. Our data-literacy can create dangerous false confidence when reading these dashboards and widgets. For example, Tanzania has stopped reporting data on May 8, 2020, after a final submission of 509 cases and 21 deaths. When you zoom out on most COVID-19 dashboards, Tanzania’s figures still stand at those paltry numbers. Has Tanzania, and Africa at large, been spared from the worst outbreaks of COVID-19? WHO special envoy Samba Sow warned of a “silent epidemic” in Africa due to a lack of testing on the continent, meaning data silences such as in Tanzania can also be caused by obfuscated data reporting.

Since Media Diaries came out in April, a third member, Gemma Gatticchi, joined the MHC team to alleviate the labor of keeping the dashboard updated. Fortunately, the Department of Health also started consistently releasing daily updates. However, as Laura told me in a recent email that the data updates are still unreliable. “Sometimes it would be 1 PM, sometimes it would be close to midnight. We had many late nights waiting for the updates.” It’s easy to forget about the struggles of Alastair, Laura, and the governmental staff at every level of COVID-19 data collection in South Africa, sitting at my laptop in Rotterdam, interacting with the blue dots blooming over the African continent.


Adriaan Odendaal is a content writer and web designer from Cape Town, South Africa. He is co-founder of the Rotterdam-based research & design studio internet teapot ( He currently works for an open-source start-up in Amsterdam, as well as a podcasting company from Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a BA in Visual Studies and Sociology and an MA in Media Arts Cultures. He has a keen interest in critical and creative coding as well as digital rights. Most recently,­ he led the production of the Kill Switch podcast for Access Now as part of their #KeepItOn campaign fighting internet shutdowns.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Under Other Skies: Astronomy as a Tool to Face COVID-19-Induced Isolation in the Indigenous Village of Aldeia Verde, Brazil

By Arianna Cortesi, Claudia Magnani, Roberto Romero, Paula C.P. Silva, Sueli Maxakali, Isael Maxakali, Ana Maria R. Gomes

OtherSkies, an OAD/IAU-funded project, tackles these questions by collecting native narratives, chants, and myths about the sky that have never been written down and recorded before, in collaboration with researchers of the Indigenous Village Aldeia Verde in Brazil. Soon after the project started, all Universities and the majority of services in Brazil shut down due to the rapid diffusion of the pandemic to all the federal states. To protect the indigenous people, the federal government declared the lockdown of the communities. Even so, the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in many indigenous areas of the country, some of which, due to the absence of internet and phone connection, faced severe isolation. Aldeia Nova is one of the indigenous villages of the Maxakali people that suffered this destiny. To overcome the difficulties of communications, the International Astronomical Union (IAU)-funded project “Other Skies” was modified to grant internet connection to the village, support the independent recording and production of material on indigenous astronomy, and start a virtual gallery for sharing astronomical Maxakali knowledge and their perspective of the world.

Under Other Skies: Dialogues of Different Cosmological Paradigms

The project “Under other skies” focuses on ethno-astronomy, particularly the astronomical knowledge of the Maxakali people, an indigenous population of Brazil. The Tikmũ’ũn people, better known as Maxakali, live in one of the smallest indigenous lands in the State of Minas Gerais, Southeast Brazil, which has been completely devastated by the late colonization of the area. Despite the loss of their territory and the increasing contact with the National Society, the richness of the symbolic and ritual dimensions of their world has attracted great ethnographic interest in the last century. A deep look at the Maxakali experience in everyday life, such as in ritual sphere, immediately shows us the complexity of the Maxakali sociality and cosmology. All their knowledge and practices are made by performing shamanic rituals through which they interact with non-human agencies (the yãmiyxop spirits) that inhabit their territory, sharing feasts, chants, food, and other many practices with them. From the Maxakali perspective, we can see that there are no clear boundaries between knowledge and practice, between the ancient past and the present, or between everyday life and ritual life. Everything in their experience, even astronomical knowledge, is inserted in a space-time continuum, which is activated by the constant power of memory and through the relationship with the multiple non-human subjectivities that inhabit it.

The idea of a dialog between scientific and indigenous knowledge about the sky was born from an encounter between one of the astronomers and two indigenous researchers and sciamans (leaders) of the community. The project will be conducted in Aldeia Nova, a Maxakali Village in Minas Gerais, and involves indigenous researchers, shamans, and elders of the village collaborating with anthropologists and educators of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and astronomers and educators of the University of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The main objective is to collect and translate native narratives, chants and myths about the sky narrated by some of the elders that have never been written down and recorded before.

IAU Office of Astronomy for Development

The project was funded by the Office of Astronomy for Development, a joint project of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) with the support of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). Its mission is to use astronomy to make the world a better place, reminding us that we earthlings live in a pale blue dot orbiting one of the millions of billions of stars of this amazing and expanding universe. Every year, the OAD funds several astronomy-related projects that promote sustainable development through astronomy.

The Potential Risk we Could not Imagine

One of the questions of the OAD selection form is “Describe potential risks and how you will address these?” The words we wrote to answer this question describe several obstacles, without one mention of a world pandemic. The Other Sky project was based on the idea of a dialogue, developed in workshops, meetings, encounters at the margins, that eventually never took place; neither seemed plausible in the nearest future. Yet, we couldn’t give up! So we decided to restructure the entire project. To face this situation we altered the project schedule and budget, including the acquisition of an internet radio connection for Aldeia Nova, purchases of of computers and material to record and produce films and audio in the Aldeia. We also planned to create a virtual gallery, following the example of the exhibition Mundos Indigenas at Espaço do Conhecimento of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte. These encounters left space for independence, and the audience became global.

The Virtual Gallery and the Space of Knowledge

The “Espaço do Conhecimento” (Space of knowledge) of UFMG launched the exhibition Mundos Indígenas in December 2019, where the public was presented with ways of living, knowing, and taking care from Maxakali, Pataxoop, Xakriabá, Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples. It showed that “the history of Brazilian indigenous people is not only one.” With the closure of museums in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to the exhibition were suspended. The exhibition schedule was extended until July 2021, which expanded the possibility of visitation, after the reopening of the museums will be authorized. Meanwhile, Espaço do Conhecimento UFMG prepared a series of new videos to provide the public with the experience of a virtual visit to the exhibition through YouTube videos, launched on September 21. The six videos of the Virtual Visit to the Mundos Indígenas Exhibition are available to the public on the Espaço do Conhecimento UFMG channel on YouTube, alongside messages from indigenous curators and a video on the teheys of Dona Liça Pataxoop.

A Virtual Re-birth

The project Other Skies, supported and inspired by the virtual exhibition Mundos Indígenas, will also create a virtual gallery to present Maxakali astronomy. The gallery will also include images taken from the Southern Photometric Local universe Survey collaboration (S-PLUS), a Spanish-Brazilian collaboration, to map the southern sky in twelve colours. The virtual exhibition will exemplify the heterogeneity of astronomical knowledge. Through an intercultural approach, it will promote an understanding of the different astronomical paradigms, and push back against a superficial approach to science and social biodiversity. An example is the story Star Women, already available in the exhibition Mundos Indigenous. Although COVID-19 marginalized even more Indigenous communities, it created the grounding for the diffusion of their knowledge worldwide. One day we will grab our telescopes and travel up north to the silent dark skies of the Aldeia Nova, to look with different eyes at the same infinite spaces.


About the authors

Arianna Cortesi holds a PhD in astronomy and is currently a post-doc at the Observatory of Valongo in Rio de de Janeiro, Brazil. In the last several years, she has been part of several outreach projects that combine art, music, and astronomy.

Claudia Magnani holds a degree in Anthropology of the University of Bologna, Italy, and a PhD in Education from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Currently she is a high school literature teacher and an independent researcher of Amerindian ethnography, gender studies, and female shamanism. She has been studying Maxakali traditions and culture since 2014.

Roberto Romero is an ethnologist. He obtained a PhD in Social Anthropology at the National Museum and is part of the Núcleo de Antropologia Simétrica, Brazil. He has researched the Tikmũ’ũn (Maxakali) population since 2011. He is part of the association Filmes de Quintal and he is one of the organizers of, a festival of documentaries and ethnic movies of de Belo Horizonte. He served as Assistant Director of the lungometraggio ‘Yãmĩyhex: as mulheres-espírito’ (Sueli e Isael Maxakali, 2019).

Paula C. P. Silva is a designer and doctoral student in Education at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. She has been developing ethno-design works and research among the Tikmũ’ũn since 2015. She is part of the Maxakali research group “Humm Yĩkopit (Asking the Earth),” of the Água Boa Territory, and of the “Study and Research Group on Indigenous Intercultural School Education” (GEPEEI). She has experience in graphic design projects in the areas of corporate internal communication, visual identity, and indigenous editorials.

Sueli Maxakali is a filmmaker, photographer and artist. A strong tikmũ’ũn leader, she made the films When the yãmiy come to dance (2011), Kõnã’ãg xeka: Dilúvio Maxakali (Pajé Filmes, 2016) and Yãmiyhex: women-spirit. She has participated in important film festivals throughout Brazil, such as, Tiradentes Cinema Exhibition, Olhar de Cinema and Cine Kurumin, presenting and commenting on tikmũ’ũn audiovisual productions. Together with other women in her village, she produced a book of photographs, entitled koxukxop. Sueli is also an indigenous teacher and researcher, teaching, singing, and translating songs and stories of the yãmĩyxop.

Isael Maxakali is a filmmaker and visual artist. He holds a BA in Indigenous studies from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. In his films, he reveals aspects of the traditional culture of the Maxakali—their stories, songs, ceremonies and rituals, as well as the choices that these people have been making to live in a modern world. Isael works with his wife and filmmaker Sueli Maxakali. Together, with the help of the elders and shamans in their village, they record many aspects of their culture and help preserve and disseminate the values ​​of the Maxakali way of life.

Ana Maria R. Gomes received her PhD in Education at University of Bologna, Italy. She was a post-doc at the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Currently, she is Professor at the Faculty of Education, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, in the PhD program Education Program for Knowledge and Social Inclusion. She is also the coordinator of the Intercultural Training Course for Indigenous Educators from 2008 to 2011 and currently part of the teaching team on Socio-Environmental Knowledge (Social Sciences). She researches cultural practices and learning in different socio-cultural contexts, ethnography, cosmopolitics, and sustainability.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Data Cudgel or how to Generate Corona-Compliance in Israel

By Alex Gekker & Anat Ben-David

With the rapid unfolding of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Israel was one of the first states outside East-Asia to impose involuntary surveillance measures as a means to combat the virus. Crucially, the government utilized the country’s permanent state of exception to bypass the parliament and deploy a hitherto classified anti-terrorism tool developed by its internal security service (Shin Bet) to track the location of coronavirus patients, identify infection-chains and notify citizens who have been in close proximity to an identified patient to self-quarantine. Despite the marked similarity to the Snowden revelations in terms of scope and granularity of data available to secret services on individuals, the extreme measures undertaken by the Israeli government were met by a legal battle ensued by a small group of activists and civil society organizations, but not by a public outcry. Rather, the majority of Israelis were willing to compromise their right to privacy for the technological protection offered against the virus, and expressed high levels of trust in the Shin Bet, even as the latter was often reluctant to take up the mantle. In this essay we draw on historian Daniel Rosenberg’s notion of “data before the fact” to reflect on how various uses of (big) data in Israel have led to compliance and confusion for the people involved.

Rosenberg suggests that data came to be a historically recognised category that is “given” (“data” means “that which is given” in Latin and thus not questioned or interrogated. Only the results coming from the data are. Recently, with the rise of massive data collection and machine learning techniques, data has further changed meaning, but retained that historically grounded sense of objectivity. This joins the tendency of computers being seen as “accurate” and “unbiased”— consider how Facebook claims that no user privacy is breeched because no humans are involved in seeing one’s personal details. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and David Berry suggest that computer software becomes ingrained in the very language and metaphors of how we think about “thinking” today. Various data dashboards, including in combating Corona, cement the data-reflected reality rather than being tools for discussing alternatives. In the Israeli case, the discussion of possible responses to COVID-19 and their implications became entangled with the computerised data gathered on the disease’s spread, in a way that limited potential objections to the measures imposed. We show this across three distinct episodes.

Shin Bet Surveillance

After a publication by investigative journalists, the Shin Bet’s surveillance system was exposed. Called simply “the Tool” it has been in operation since 2002 and used for continuous trawling collection of all available cell-phone data from every mobile device in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Officially used for counter-terrorism and previously (officially) used only targeted surveillance on specific individuals and in relation to a case, the Tool has nonetheless been employed for digital contact tracing across the entire land and marketed as an emergency extreme measure that is a “magic bullet” solution. Specifically the “Tool” allowed avoiding the need to deploy a voluntary digital contact tracing apps as done by other democratic states. Nonetheless such a civilian, Bluetooth-based phone app was developed, failed and re-developed again to a minimal reception by the Ministry of Health. One of the central arguments against adopting this latter, privacy preserving option, was due to the fact that the Shin Bet is collecting all data anyway. Yet, being a secret government agency, the Shin Bet is reluctant to share the specifics of the data collected. Early reports indicate a 5% wide margin of error. Out of 71 thousand people required to self-quarantine based on the tool’s data in the first week of July alone, about 22 thousand appealed, claiming to be false positives, and 60% of those appeals were accepted. Overall, the data presented of the effectives of the tool was lacking, included repeated numbers in different categories, and was unreliable. Nonetheless, the appearance of efficiency supported by seemingly impressive numerical data has led to a continuing adaption of the tool instead of other alternatives.

National Compliance Index

Another use of numerical data to create compliance rather than support policy was through the deployment of a “national index”, in cooperation with renowned behavioral economist Dan Arieli’s Kayma company. The index was developed by Kayma as a single entrant to an urgent tandem presented by Israel’s National Corona Response Centre. Despite potential financial and practical concerns, the company was selected to monitor various “commercial and civilian data sources” in order to track how compliant the population is with Covid regulations. Prominent on various platforms—including on the main page of the country’s most-read news website—and asking citizens to self-report on “compliance” such as hand-washing or mask-wearing, the index generates a variety of dashboard statistics, while being extremely opaque in its data sources. As in the previous case, the numerical data, information visualizations and dashboards derived from the index were available to the citizens only in their final, “ready-made” state, such as “what is the level of compliance to the lockdown in your home city compared to other cities”? discouraging reflection and encouraging the very thing they were supposedly measuring – compliance.

Lack of Ministry of Health Data

Many of the unclarities above could have been addressed – or at least mitigated – by clear and transparent reporting of Covid-19 infections and transmissions data by the governmental body responsible, Ministry of Health (MoH). Yet, despite repeated requests, throughout the first month of pandemic the data was published by the ministry’s spokesperson as cropped images on the ministry’s Telegram channel. This required a dedicated manual input of the information by volunteers to keep track of the official numbers. Even later, with a new updated data dashboard, users could not receive numerical information and moreover each new version overwrote the previous one. Data scientist Dan Bareket who kept those previous versions manually has shown that there are gross differences between those older and newer versions.

Those episodes come together to showcase how data can be wielded as a cudgel rather than a precise tool: collected through undisclosed means and used to create popular compliance, suppressing discussions of measures or alternatives.


About the authors

Alex Gekker is Assistant Professor in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He writes about how sociotechnical systems are designed to influence users, and his research touches upon maps and surveillance, quantification, the datafication of society, the experience economy, and interface critique. He has co-edited two Open Access books, Time for Mapping: Cartographic Temporalities (Manchester University Press, 2018) and Playful Mapping in the Digital Age (Institute of Network Cultures, 2016). In the past he has worked in a variety of media positions, as journalist, editor, and spokesperson.

Anat Ben-David is Senior Lecturer in the department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University of Israel.