Starting in November, we would like to welcome three additions to the DATACTIVE team. We will have Sander van Haperen, Zhen Ye and Tomás Dodds Rohas (left-to-right) each joining us for a couple of months to strengthen the team making the most out of our final year of research.
Please find the individual profiles below (and on our team page).
Sander van Haperen is postdoc fellow at DATACTIVE. He studies the development of social movements, with a particular interest in leadership, governance, and digital networks. His research advances computational methods, drawing on social media, complexity, and network analysis, as well as qualitative inquiry.
Zhen Ye is a student assistant at DATACTIVE. She is currently enrolled in Media Studies as a Research Master student at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests focuses on (gendered) digital labour on social media platforms.
Tomás Dodds Rojas is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. His research is concerned with how newsmakers are appropriating digital technologies and how these innovations are transforming the infrastructure, temporality and form of the newsmaking process.
On October 23-25, Stefania will be in Tel Aviv to take part in the international workshop “Algorithmic Knowledge in Culture and in the Media” at the Open University of Israel. The invitation-only workshop is organized by Eran Fisher, Anat Ben-David and Norma Musih. Stefania will present a paper on the ALEX project, DATACTIVE’s spin-off, as an experiment into algorithmic knowledge.
Unpacking the Effects of Personalization Algorithms: Experimental Methodologies and Their Ethical Challenges
Stefania Milan, University of Amsterdam
With social media platforms playing an ever-prominent role in today’s public sphere, concerns have been raised by multiple parties regarding the role of personalization algorithms in shaping people’s perception of the world around them. Personalization algorithms are accused of promoting the so-called ‘filter bubble’ (Pariser 2011) and suspected of intensifying political polarization. What’s more, said algorithms are shielded behind trade secrets, which contributes to their technical undecipherability (Pasquale 2015). Against this backdrop, the ALgorithms EXposed (ALEX) project, has set off trying to unpack the effects of personalization algorithms, experimenting with methodologies, software developments, and collaborations with hackers, nongovernmental organizations, and small enterprises. In this presentation, I will reflect on four aspects of the ALEX project as an experiment into algorithmic knowledge, and namely: i) software development, illustrating the working of the browser extensions facebook.tracking.exposed and youtube.tracking.exposed; ii) experimental collaborations within and beyond academia; iii) methodological challenges, including the use of bots; and iv) ethical challenges, in particular the development of data reuse protocols allowing users to volunteer their data for scientific research while individual safeguarding data sovereignty.
The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) organized a workshop about Infrastructures and Inequalities. Here Niels presented his recent work on an experiment to inscribe legal and ethical norms into the Internet routing infrastructure. The conference helped to further concept of infrastructure, that continues to gaining traction in the fields of geography, media studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies.
The topic of the Kyiv Biennial this year is ‘the Black Cloud’. The title reminiscences the contaminated cloud that traveled over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster and invites us to reflect on the role of technology. At the Kyiv Biennial, the critical media scholar Svitlana Matviyenko organized a two-day symposium with the title ‘communicative militarism‘. Here Niels spoke about the evolution of power and control in the Internet architecture, the political economy that shapes it, and the threats and opportunities that lie ahead. Other speakers at the symposium were Geert Lovink, Clemens Apprich, Svitlana Matviyenko, and Asia Bazdyrieva
Most of the DATACTIVE team will be in Bremen for the DATAPOWER 2019 conference. Hit us up on twitter if you would like to meet! Below you can find the abstracts to the papers we will be presenting.
Plus, on Saturday, we’ll lead the invitation-only post-conference workshop “Everyday Data”. More info about that project will follow soon!
What feminist theory of datafication emerges from contemporary data activism? (S. Milan)
Data activism articulates critical interpretations of datafication, wiring them in a myriad of sociotechnical practices that directly question mainstream rituals such as the quantification of human existence, the blanket monitoring of citizens, and the institutional rhetoric of transparency. While in its early days data activism leveraged mostly cypherpunk and/or techno-positivist narratives, these increasingly make room for feminist and postcolonial interpretations of the consequences of datafication for individuals and communities. But what does it mean to be a feminist in the age of datafication? This paper asks what feminist theory(ies) of datafication emerges from contemporary data activism. Grounded on a rich body of qualitative data gathered over the period 2015-2019 and consisting of over 200 semi-structured practitioner interviews and extensive participation in activist events, the paper investigates the co-constitution of feminist data activism projects and their material counterparts, namely apps, websites, and artistic interventions. It looks at projects like Chupadatos (“the data sucker”), by the Latin American organization Coding Rights, which questions gender-based discrimination and anti-feminist narratives encoded in tracking and dating apps (https://chupadados.codingrights.org/en/). Similar to Wajcman (2010) and Costanza-Chock (2018), this paper finds that the relationship between data/fication and gender is situated and fluid. Feminism and intersectionality emerge as fruitful venues to rethink gender-based discrimination and the sociotechnical reproduction of the gender binary. WATCH THE PRESENTATION HERE.
Costanza-Chock, S. (2018). Design Justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination. Retrieved from https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/costanza-chock?version=c5860136-8a6c-424b-b07c-9c8c071615b0
Wajcman, J. (2010). Feminist theories of technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 143–152.
From Data Politics to the Contentious Politics of Data (D. Beraldo, S. Milan)
This article approaches the paradigm shift of datafication from the perspective of civil society. Looking at how individuals and groups engage with datafication, it draws upon the notion of data politics as defined by Ruppert, Isin and Bigo (2017), and complements it by exploring the “contentious politics of data”. By contentious politics of data we indicate the multiplicity of bottom-up, transformative initiatives interfering with and/or hijacking dominant, top-down processes of datafication, by means of contesting existing power relations and narratives, or by re-appropriating data practices and infrastructure for purposes distinct from the intended. Said contentious politics of data is articulated in an array of practices of data activism, taking a critical stance towards datafication and massive data collection. Data activism is characterized by the role of data as mediators, deployed as part of an action repertoire or as objects of struggle in their own right. Leveraging social movement studies and science and technology studies, this paper is illustrated with qualitative data collected in the framework of a multi-year project exploring the politics of big data from the perspective of civil society. It argues that data activism manifests itself along two continuums: data as “stakes” (that is, as issues/objects of political struggle in their own right) versus data as “repertoires” (or modular tools for political struggle), and individual practice versus collective action. The emergence of a political data subject in the realm of the civil society might lie at the intersection of these two dimensions.
Infrastructures of Anticipation: exploring emergent civil society strategies (of resistance) to pervasive surveillance and data exploitation (B. Kazansky)
As the ubiquity of surveillance and data exploitation have increasingly impacted the work of civil society actors, there has been a turn to specific practices to help anticipate surveillance and data related problems. These practices, which I term ‘anticipatory data practices’, help cut through the uncertainties that surround how surveillance is conducted and data is exploited. My paper offers a case study exploring these emergent practices, as part of the larger DATACTIVE project looking into the ‘politics of big data according to civil society’. I draw on ethnographic data from 50 interviews with civil society actors across transnational networks of coordination, along with extensive participant observation and the analysis of secondary data from a corpus of technical materials. I will show in particular at how ‘anticipatory data practices’ give rise to new forms of infrastructures which bring civil society actors together across diffuse configurations to collect, analyse, and track data in order to anticipate and prevent future surveillance-related events. These infrastructures respond to a desire for better structured and more collective practices, opening up new ways for civil society actors to work with each other, with data, and with possible futures. However, while offering up exciting new possibilities, these emergent practices also raise a number of critical questions. Here I highlight two: first, there is a worry that engaging in an anticipatory dynamic can lead to an escalation in the surveillance-resistance dynamics at play. Second, there is a concern over what is seen as an adoption of data-driven logics and techniques from other sectors. What might be lost from civil society work with the increased emphasis on data? I will explore these questions in my presentation.
Playing with data and its consequences (M. Gutierrez, S. Milan)
The fundamental paradigm shift brought about by datafication alters how people participate as citizens on a daily basis. “Big data” has come to constitute a new terrain of engagement, which brings organized collective action, communicative practices and data infrastructure into a fruitful dialogue. While scholarship is progressively acknowledging the emergence of bottom-up data practices, to date no research has explored the influence of these practices on the activists themselves. Leveraging the disciplines of critical data and social movement studies, this paper explores “proactive data activism”, using, producing and/or appropriating data for social change, and examines its biographical, political, tactical and epistemological consequences. Approaching engagement with data as practice, this study focuses on the social contexts in which data are produced, consumed and circulated, and analyzes how tactics, skills and emotions of individuals evolve in interplay with data. Through content and co-occurrence analysis of semi-structured practitioner interviews (N=20), the article shows how the employment of data and data infrastructure in activism fundamentally transforms the way activists go about changing the world.
(Re-)assembling data publics? Cases from open data, data journalism and data activism (J. Gray, L. van der Velden, L. Bounegru)
The concept of “data publics” (Ruppert, 2015) has been used to describe the making and gathering of publics around data. Taking this concept as a starting point, in this paper we ask: What are data publics? Are there different kinds of data publics? What assembles them and holds them together? What does the concept do? How might it open up space for thinking about data politics?
Drawing on a range of different empirical vignettes from our previous and ongoing research on open data, data journalism and data activism, we aim to situate, conceptually unpack, critically explore and empirically specify the notion of data publics. We explore the ways in which data publics are assembled, configured, invited to act and act in ways other than expected. Drawing on perspectives in STS and media studies, we examine some of the different ways in which data publics are enrolled as witnesses, auditors, investigators, innovators and sensors, including through issues such as surveillance, climate denial, air pollution, and devices such as data portals, indexes, repositories, forums, kits and apps.
Ruppert, E. (2015). Doing the Transparent State: Open Government Data as Performance Indicators. In R. Rottenburg, S. E. Merry, S.-J. Park, & J. Mugler (Eds.), A World of Indicators: The Making of Governmental Knowledge Through Quantification (pp. 127–150). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Citizen engagement with superior audit institutions: the possibilities of citizen generated data (G. Torres, D. Lämmerhirt)
Superior Audit Institutions (SAI) oversee fiscal activities and the compliance of other government agencies. As independent bodies, their accounts provide key information in tackling corruption (OECD 2018). In past decades citizen-led ‘social audits’ or ‘ground-truthing’ were developed to propose alternative ways of evaluating, and to close ‘accountability gaps’.
Recently, some SAIs started to invite citizens to participate in auditing. Throughout Latin America, for example, different mechanisms allow citizens to join SAIs by suggesting specific audits, making particular complaints about suspected violations, joining the yearly planning of audits to be conducted, or following-up the recommendations produced by the SAI.
Despite substantive attention to the practices of social audits, little attention is paid to how these practices relate to traditional auditing. Literature suggests different conditions enabling cooperation or take-up of citizen-generated data by government (McElfish, Pendergrass, Fox 2016). Instead of regarding citizen data as mere resource, authors emphasise that data-intensive citizen-state cooperation must inquire the politics defining what can be known and audited (Oettinger 2009). The paper builds on these debates asking: What conventions and standards do Superior Audit Institutions develop to engage with traditional and non-traditional types of data? How do these conventions and standards interplay with the practices of citizen auditing?
This paper presents literature and empirical cases of SAI-citizen cooperation to explore the role that CDG could play within collaborative audits between civil society and governmental institutions. I focus particularly on how agreed practices of CDG interplay with the standards that SAIs establish to secure the robustness of their audits.
Decolonising Data. Undoing the South (M. Halkort, M. Lim, T. Lauriault, S. Milan)
The Global South, once only a footnote in critical data studies, has become a “hot” topic of late. Papers emphasizing ‘a view from the South’ are proliferating at conference, workshops and events, broadening our understanding of the intersectional dynamics of data capitalism across the globe. Yet this renewed interest is not without risks, as it can easily subsume a wide range of locally specific dynamics and under one discrete geographical and onto-epistemic location, assigning the South once more a status of exceptionalism that merely reifies, extends and reconfigures structures of modern colonial thought. Against this backdrop, this proposed panel attempts to critically interrogate the multiple intersections, turbulences, interdependencies, and circulations shaping the political economy of data, both within and between “North” and South” that distribute logics of dispossession, exploitation, subalternity and domination – all master signifiers of colonial power relations – across markets, platforms, data practices and infrastructural domains. Putting empirical and theoretical contributions from a series of case studies into conversation with one another, this panel endeavours to reveal manifestations of data power that have so far remained hidden or insufficiently discussed. Moderated by Stefania Milan, the conversation in this panel includes, but not limited to, new faces of subalternity in big data sets of dead and missing migrants in the Mediterranean (Monika Halkort), post-colonial mapping Canada’s North, Ireland and the decolonisation of First Nations Data in Canada (Tracey Lauriault), decolonised practices of counter-mapping and data activism in Southeast Asia (Merlyna Lim). What brings this diverse range of experiences together is their commitment to re-think power asymmetries in planetary data infrastructures and computation from the view point of the border. The border here does not refer to a geopolitical location, but rather to an onto-epistemic disposition: a commitment to thinking between disciplines by building on concepts, ideas, practices and modes of questioning that have been denied proper recognition in academic thought.
Together with the Mercator working group, DATACTIVE had the pleasure of joining the DMI (Digital Methods Initiative) summer school to work on a special project: Facebook’s Anatomy. As a form of data-activism in-practice, this project was devoted to try and dissect the working mechanisms of the Facebook user interface, split into a more qualitative, visual language/psychological analysis of the front-end and a more quantitative analysis of the back-end. The analysis tried to track the ‘coming to life’ onboarding process, and the way in which users are gently nudged and persuaded to enter more personal data through explicit performative steps (think drop-down menus and text bars). This was measured against the role of language and colour/placement design formatting in this onboarding trajectory on the one hand. On the other, this sequence of events was matched with the growth of the data that is inferred from these explicit actions and implicit input (like IP-address, browser, operating system for instance).
Our tentative findings are presented using the slides below. This Facebook Anatomy project has sprung out of the minds of the Mercator working group and has been reworked into a DMI research print which accommodated 15 participants. DATACTIVE was represented by Guillen, Davide & Jeroen.
On July 12-14 Stefania will be at X in Mountain View, in Silicon Valley, as one of the invitees to Sci Foo. Science Foo is a series of interdisciplinary conferences organized by O’Reilly Media, Digital Science, Nature Publishing Group and Google. It is an “unconference focused on emerging technology, and is designed to encourage collaboration between scientists who would not typically work together”. Stefania plans to propose a session on ‘decolonizing data’.
On July 8-11, Stefania will be in Madrid for the annual conference of the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). She will present some preliminary findings of her new research on feminist and postcolonial theories of change in data activism; participate in a roundtable on Big Data from the South, featuring Monika Halkort, Patricia Peña, Emiliano Treré, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Meijas; take part in a roundtable on smart cities, in conversation with Matthew Bui (Annenberg at USC), and participate in the launch of ‘Hybrid Activism’ (Routledge, 2019) by Emiliano Treré.