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Art as data-activism

The second day of the DATACTIVE closing workshop, hosted online by SPUI25, focused on artistic responses to datafication and mass data collection. The DATACTIVE team has interviewed many civil society actors from the field of digital rights, privacy, and technology activism. Artists take part in this field, but often they don’t figure as the core actors in what is being highlighted as data activism. In this event, we wanted to stage artistic interventions in particular, in order to tease out what artists do and can do, and what insights and further questions do they generate. In this event we spoke with Karla Zavala and Adriaan Odendaal from The Internet Teapot Design Studio, Manu Luksch, and Viola van Alphen, about their work and ideas:

The Internet Teapot Design Studio is a Rotterdam-based collaboration that focuses on speculative and critical design projects and research. Karla and Adriaan explained how their work is based on the idea that ephemeral data processes have material effects in the world, and that it is needed to focus on the conditions of their production. In order to bring in this focus with their audiences, Karla and Adriaan organize co-creation workshops. In these workshops they aim to create counter-discourses, critical practices, and algorithmic literacy. Part of their approach is working with so called ‘political action cards’, a way to design pathways through the datafied society. In this way, they stimulate creative responses and make people aware of processes of datafication and, for instance, machine learning. One example of such a creative response is participants writing a diary entree from the perspective of a biased machine vision system. By taking the position of the machine, they would imagining processes such as inputs, black boxes, and outputs. Through their workshop, their audience engages with major conceptual themes such as Digital Citizenry, Surveillance Capitalism, Digital Feminism.

Manu Luksch is an intermedia artist and filmmaker who interrogates conceptions of progress and scrutinises the effects of network technologies on social relations, urban space, and political structures. She talked about her work on predictive analysis and how through her work she tries to involve publics in matters of algorithmic decision making. She showed us a part ‘Algo-Rhythm’, a film that “scrutinizes the limitations, errors and abuses of algorithmic representations” . The film, which was shot in Dakar in collaboration with leading Sengalese hip-hop performers, addresses practices of political microtargeting. As she explained, the film is an example of how she frames her findings in a speculative narrative on the basis of observations and analyses. The film got translated in eight languages and has been included in curricula across schools in Germany, which shows how her work finds a place outside of the more classic art settings and operates as a societal intervention.

Viola van Alphen is an activist, writer, and the creative director and curator of Manifestations, an annual Art & Tech festival in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Viola showed us trailers of Manifestations, and explained how ‘fun’ is an important element for passing the message on an art and technology festival. She provided many examples of how artists try to materialize datafication and concerns around the digital economy. Some of these examples included a baby outfit with an integrated smartphone, data poker games, and candy machines that give candies in return for personal data. She also told us about her experiences of hosting the exhibition online in virtual worlds, and how artists typically managed to push the boundaries of the platform and be kicked off the platform. This, in turn, exhibits ‘the rule of platforms’, but how artists found counter measures via alternative self-hosted and decentralized servers. Other examples included 3D printed face masks that would confuse the Instagram facial recognition system, and a film that disclosed how corporations, including ones that sponsored the exhibition, take part in the weapon industry. For her, artists are important in making complex issues about datafication simple. They can boil them down to a key problem and make that sensible.

In the discussion, we touched upon a variety of issues. In our DATACTIVE workshop, we have talked about the question whether the context of datafication has changed over the last 5-6 years. This question is important to us, because the project started in the wake of the Snowden disclosures and questions about mass data collection and security were relatively new to the larger audience. The Internet Teapot Design Studio addressed how the practices of data tracing and identification are seemingly much more present in the public domain now. Adriaan mentioned how tactics of ‘gaming the system’ are present on social media, and not only amongst the typical tech activists. According to him, algorithmic awareness has become more part of public discourse, as shown by Instagram influencers talking about gaming the algorithms. Karla added how, during social protests in Colombia, tips were being shared about how beauty filters can be repurposed to prevent online facial recognition software to recognize people. They find it interesting to see user generated content emerging that is critical about algorithms.

In response the question about societal change, Manu pointed to the fact that datafication existed also before the digital, and that for years, fears to be outpaced by technological competition hindered data regulation. She stated that it is an urgent task to remind ourselves that data is not immaterial, and that it is not some substrate that we sweat out. She commented that, when looking back, the notion of the ‘data shadow’, a concept that has been used to explain our ‘data profiles’, was maybe an attractive but an ‘unlucky choice’. Data is rather an extension, that opens and closes doors. In other words, data has much more agency than being just a trace that we leave behind.
We also talked about the question whether the artists follow up with their audiences. All participants work on awareness raising. But are people really empowered on the longer term? According Viola, who regularly ‘tests out’ ideas for her exhibition with neighbors and friends, it is important to break out of one’s bubble. Art can touch individual people in their hart, and they might remember single art projects for years, but one needs to invest in speaking a variety of languages. Amongst her visitors are professionals, kids, refugees, and corporate stakeholders. Sustaining awareness is both a continuous and customized process.

The Teapot Design Studio does see communities emerging that keep in touch via social media after workshops. The studio can function as a stepping stone for people to get familiar with the topic, after which they might hopefully become interested in bigger events such as Ars Electronica or Mozilla Fest.

We concluded the event with the following question: If you were looking forward to the future, what methods are needed? What approaches would you teach art students? The Teapot studio stated that one shouldn’t be intimidated by tech in a material way. And also: Digital media is not new: people need to work on understanding what is the post-digital and what are its aesthetics. Manu advises people to take their time to become data literate, develop their sense for values (including values and skills associated to the analogue space and time), and never stop dreaming. Viola states that art projects need to be easy and digestible with only one headline. If people don’t understand it in one minute, they are off again.

There is much more to know. Watch the video of our event to hear Karla and Adriaan about what ‘teapots’ have to do with the internet, to understand how Manu has investigated the way legal regimes co-shape what is returned as ‘an image’ after doing FOIA requests in the context of CCTV surveillance, and to hear Viola reflect upon how robots can provide multi-sensory experiences and raise questions about war. The DATACTIVE team is looking forward to follow the work of the speakers in the coming years. Some of work discussed in the event is also accessible through our website.


The first day of DATACTIVE’s final event also featured a more condensed, albeit exciting panel dedicated to the intersections between data / art / activism. Next to the artists already mentioned above, we also had the opportunity to have a peek on the work of Joana Moll, a Barcelona/Berlin based artist and researcher whose work critically explores the way techno-capitalist narratives affect the alphabetization of machines, humans and ecosystems. Stay tuned for more info on this event in an upcoming post!

New article out: Understanding migrants in COVID-19 counting (Data & Policy)

DATACTIVE is proud to announce the publication of a new peer-reviewed article, co-authored by Stefania Milan with Annalisa Pelizza and Yoren Lausberg of the “sister” project Processing Citizenship (ERC no. 714463). It is open access and can be found following this link.

Abstract. The COVID-19 pandemic confronts society with a dilemma between (in)visibility, security, and care. While invisibility might be sought by unregistered and undocumented people, being counted and thus visible during a pandemic is a precondition of existence and care. This article asks whether and how unregistered populations like undocumented migrants should be included in statistics and other “counting” exercises devised to track virus diffusion and its impact. In particular, the paper explores how such inclusion can be just, given that for unregistered people visibility is often associated with surveillance. It also reflects on how policymaking can act upon the relationship between data, visibility, and populations in pragmatic terms. Conversing with science and technology studies and critical data studies, the paper frames the dilemma between (in)visibility and care as an issue of sociotechnical nature and identifies four criteria linked to the sociotechnical characteristics of the data infrastructure enabling visibility. It surveys “counting” initiatives targeting unregistered and undocumented populations undertaken by European countries in the aftermath of the pandemic, and illustrates the medical, economic, and social consequences of invisibility. On the basis of our analysis, we outline four scenarios that articulate the visibility/invisibility binary in novel, nuanced terms, and identify in the “de facto inclusion” scenario the best option for both migrants and the surrounding communities. Finally, we offer policy recommendations to avoid surveillance and overreach and promote instead a more just “de facto” civil inclusion of undocumented populations.

Data Activism Futures (29 June): the trailer

Teaser for the event ‘Data Activism Futures’ (June 29, 2021) which summarises the 5+ years of collective work on the DATACTIVE project (, funded by the European Research Council (grant agreement no. 639379). The video features Niels ten Oever (PhD alumnus), Becky Kazansky (PhD candidate), Guillén Torres (PhD candidate), Davide Beraldo (Postdoc), Lonneke van der Velden (Postdoc), and Stefania Milan (Principal Investigator). Event program at Produced by EngageTV (Amsterdam).

June 29-30: DATACTIVE final event

We are nearing the end of the ERC-funded DATACTIVE project and we have many accomplishments to celebrate!

For almost six years now, we have worked together to investigate the complex and multifaceted field of data activist imaginaries and practices. We have had a wonderful time bringing together academics, practitioners, hackers and artists from around the world. We have engaged in numerous interviews, focus groups, participant observation of activist events, and we have even developed our own open-source tools to support our research. Together, we have traced the evolution of a global network of data activists and tried to figure out how institutions are reacting to their mobilization. We have explored the various ways in which publics engage with surveillance regimes and how notions of risk articulate strategies to resist it. We have shed light on the workings of the algorithms that power big tech platforms and located how human rights considerations painstakingly make their way into the infrastructure of the internet. With the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also devoted our attention to the politics of counting in the first pandemic in a datafied society, the inherent forms of exclusion and the risks of techno-solutionism.

Throughout these six years, the ‘we’ of DATACTIVE has been neither static nor stable. DATACTIVE has been home to no less than 26 people in its core team, plus the many other research associates, interns, and collaborators who visited for period of time and enriched our work with their expertise and unique contributions.

Although the project is coming to an end, we are well aware that our work is not done. We will take our data-activist approach to research to other venues and groups, and continue asking critical questions wherever we will land.

But it is now time for thanks and celebrations! Please join us on Tuesday the 29th of June 2021 for the DATACTIVE closing event entitled DATA ACTIVISM FUTURES, to celebrate looking back and ponder about the future. We have our Principal Investigator Stefania Milan reflecting on five years of data activism, after which the PhD candidates will take central stage. Becky Kazansky will shed light on threat modelling within civil society and grassroots resistance to surveillance, Guillén Torres will present his work on institutional resistance to transparency efforts by citizens, and Niels ten Oever will take us through the politics of infrastructure. Guest speakers include Maxigas (University of Amsterdam), Fieke Jansen (Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University), Claudio (Algorithms Exposed), and Svitlana Matviyenko (Digital Democracies Institute). Davide Beraldo will engage in a discussion with artists Joana Moll, Manu Luksch, Viola van Alphen, Karla Zavala and Adriaan Odenzaal about how art can contribute to the data activism agenda by fostering critical data literacy

The DATACTIVE final event will be followed by a public roundtable discussion on ART AS DATA ACTIVISM scheduled on the next day, Wednesday the 30th of June 2021. Note that each event has its own separate registration process. Find more details below!


June 29th 13.00-17.30 CEST
The event is broadcasted live from Engage! TV studios and will takes place online. Sign up HERE


13.00-13.30 5 years of contentious politics of data: What changed? Stefania Milan in conversation with Lonneke van der Velden
13.30-13.40 Launch of DATACTIVE video pills
13.40-14.00 PhD projects pitches: Data activism as a form of…
14.00-14.40 Breakout rooms: Extended PhD presentations + Q&A
Data activism as form of:
1. Institutional resistance (Guillen Torres)
2. Resistance to surveillance (Becky Kazansky)
3. Politics of infrastructure (Niels ten Oever)


15.00-15.35 Art as data activism: A conversation featuring Joana Moll, Manu Luksch, ☕️ internet teapot l design & research studio (Karla Zavala & Adriaan Odenzaal), and Viola van Alphen. Moderated by Davide Beraldo
15.35-16.30 Research futures for data activism: A fishbowl discussion with practitioners, featuring Maxigas, Fieke Jansen, Claudio Agosti and Sanne Stevens
16.30-17.00 Data activism futures: Closing remarks. Stefania Milan in conversation with Linnet Taylor
17.00 Thank you & festive moment. Keep your favorite drink at hand!


From DATACTIVE: [Speakers] Stefania Milan (Associate Professor of New Media and Digital Culture, University of Amsterdam), Guillen Torres (PhD at DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam), Niels ten Oever (former PhD at DATACTIVE, now postdoctoral researcher at IN-SIGHT, University of Amsterdam), Becky Kazansky (PhD at DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam). [Moderators] Lonneke van der Velden (DATACTIVE, Assistant Professor Global Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam), Davide Beraldo (Senior Lecturer and postdoctoral researcher at DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam) & Niels ten Oever. [Co-organiser] Jeroen de Vos (DATACTIVE Project Manager, University of Amsterdam).

Guest speakers: Linnet Taylor (Global Data Justice, Tilburg University), Maxigas (People’s 5G Lab, University of Amsterdam), Fieke Jansen (DATA JUSTICE, Cardiff University), Claudio Agosti (Algorithms Exposed), Sanne Stevens (Justice, Equity and Technology Table), Joana Moll (Barcelona/Berlin based artist and researcher, Universität Potsdam and Escola Elisava), Manu Luksch (Artist in Residence at The School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London), Karla Zavala & Adriaan Odenzaal (☕️ internet teapot l design & research studio), and Viola van Alphen (Creative Director and Curator Manifestations@Dutch Design Week. Art, Tech, and Fun!).


June 30th 17.00-18.30 CEST
The event is hosted by Spui25 and takes place online. Sign up HERE

Art as form of political engagement is a proven formula, but what about art as form of data activism? Can art help us better understand and question the politics of everyday data flows? In the current context of datafication -the turning of every aspect of our lives into data points for further processing — artistic practice offers diverse ways to foster public engagement with data. From the early examples of the Net.Art movement to more recent artistic interrogations of automated decision making systems, the speakers in this panel will offer different perspectives on the role of art in questioning the power asymmetries created as a result of the use of data by governments, corporations and platforms.

Speakers: Manu Luksch (Artist in Residence at The School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London) Karla Zavala & Adriaan Odenzaal (☕️ internet teapot l design & research studio), and Viola van Alphen (Creative Director and Curator Manifestations@Dutch Design Week. Art, Tech, and Fun!).

Moderator: Lonneke van der Velden (DATACTIVE and Assistant Professor Global Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam)


DATACTIVE featured in the Horizon magazine

Stefania spoke to a journalist of the Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine, on ‘digital wellbeing’, data literacy and emerging data gaps.

Sometimes it can seem like we’ve uploaded our whole lives to the internet: bank accounts, social media posts, dating profiles, work emails – it’s all out there in that nebulous cloud of digital information that is the world wide web. The problems with this new digital way of life are well known. Social media is thought to produce echo chambers in which people aren’t exposed to healthy debates. Big tech companies make money from our personal data. Workers in the gig economy are paid a pittance to deliver groceries to the better off.

Read more online.



[BigDataSur] Pre- and post-pandemic open data: People expect, want, use data more than data custodians expect

by Miren Gutiérrez & Marina Landa (Universidad de Deusto)

What is the relevance of open data for ordinary people? Despite the terrible loss of life and increased social divides, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to explore the role of data in people’s lives at the local level here, in Euskadi (Basque Country in Basque).

To do that, Marina and I relied on participant observation of a three-day workshop, interviews with fifteen experts and open data reusers, and an analysis of 78 citizen projects that employ open data submitted to the Open Data Euskadi awards (an open competition) in 2015, 2018, and 2020. Data collection was conducted before the first wave and after the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, from November 27, 2019, to February 17, 2021, allowing us to make comparisons.

The questions we were asking were: “What do minders, reusers of, and experts on open data say about how open data should be?” “What does an analysis of 78 cases of re-utilization of open data from the Basque facility say about open data?” And “are there any disparities between what the data collected say before and after the COVID-19 pandemic struck Euskadi?” We look at each of these questions from the perspective of the transparency-participation-collaboration paradigm for open government.

The two main results were somehow surprising. Basically, people expect, want, and use open data more than the custodians of open data vaults expect or plan for. And although the pandemic has seen an increased interest in data and data visualizations, this interest preceded COVID-19.

We find that citizens are pushing for what we have called actionable open data, or data embedding the attributes that make them useful and usable. This includes integrating data literacy and citizens’ inputs and forming interdisciplinaryteams of people inside and outside the government.

The level of open data re-utilization, ten years after the launch of the Basque Government’s open data platform, was low when the pandemic struck. Unexpectedly, many people were captivated by Open Data Euskadi, and its daily data updates were the center of public debate. The discrepancies found in the datasets offered by the Spanish state’s Ministry of Health and Osakidetza –the independent Basque health system— resulted in heated debates on social media platforms.

Suddenly, infographics and charts were lingua franca; the collective motto during the confinement has been “let’s flatten the curve.” People were demanding more and better open data and publishing their own curves. In June, dozens of ordinary people and experts signed a manifesto in favor of “accessible public data for the construction of shared knowledge in times of the global pandemic.” The declaration argued that scientists, journalists, and citizens could help decision-makers if disaggregated data were accessible “in a structured, open, clearly linked, and a contextualized way.”

Except for some authors in critical data and urban studies, scholarship’s emphasis so far has been on top-down approaches to datafication. Most efforts to further the idea of open data participation and collaboration “are driven by traditional top-down administrative commands or directives practically without any input from members of the civil society,” says for example Kassen. Instead, we took a bottom-up approach to explore the role of open data in the lives of people.

Some of the exciting ideas emerging from this analysis include:

  • The analysis reveals tensions between a) the real conditions in which open data supporters within the administration work and the expectations and needs generated by the pandemic; b) the perceptions of a lack of curiosity on the part of citizens and the real interest exposed by the projects submitted to the Open Data awards; and c) the data literacy of people and the challenges of data agency.
  • Open data enthusiasts in the administration complain about lack of a) support, knowledge, or interest from politicians making decisions at the top; b) cooperation from other departments that oversee data collection; c) standardized systems; and d) mechanisms to integrate citizens’ inputs.
  • Data openers are not users, and discrepancies about what data are needed may emerge. “We do liberate open data in massive amounts, but we need civic knowledge to open what is needed,” said a civil servant.
  • Our analysis of the submissions to the Open Data awards supports the notion that citizens do not find everything they need in the open data vaults: only 15 of the 78 initiatives examined (19.2 percent) rely just on Open Data Euskadi’s datasets. And 28 of the 78 projects (35.9 percent) propose, explicitly or implicitly, that Open Data Euskadi offer new datasets to develop their idea.
  • Pandemic open data were offered in a non-systematic manner initially, and that it took some time before the Open Data Euskadi updates became regular. But some problems continued: the same information was not always available, the criteria were changed, and some of the data offered as authenticated previously were later modified, making comparisons impossible. Data journalists and activists –feeding maps and search engines with hospital occupation, nursing homes, and intensive care unit data in quasi real-time— had to make “continuous adjustments to the datasets” and even remove entire charts because a data type was no longer supplied. But the data visualization section was a favorite with their publics, “so we understand that it has helped people, or at least offered a better understanding of the pandemic.”
  • The perception that there is “more participation offers than (citizen) demand” is misplaced. 61 of the 78 initiatives were submitted by individuals, most of them with social purposes and not by for-profits or institutions for commercial purposes.
  • Not all the projects presented in 2020 were related to the pandemic. Only ten of the 33 ideas were explicitly proposed to address the situation provoked by COVID-19, and another two mentioned the pandemic as a non-essential variable.


Do not miss Gutierrez, M. and Landa, M. 2021. “From Available to Actionable Data: An Exploration of Expert and Reuser Views on Open Data.” Journal of Urban Technology (accepted on May 27, 2021).

Niels’ research featured in the New York Times

TL;DR: have a look at the piece in the New York Times that covers Niels’ work.

During the research Niels did for datactive, which culminated in his thesis and a recent paper in New Media & Society, he actively participated in the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF). The IETF is one of the main standards and governance bodies of the Internet. While working there Niels’ worked together with others such as Mallory Knodel and Corinne Cath, on addressing exclusionary language in technical standards. An important part of that work was publishing this document, which sparked an extensive discussion in the IETF that up to today has not been resolved. You can read more about it in the New York Times piece.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 and the New Normal in India’s Gig Economy

What’s the current state of India’s gig economy? This article explores the precariousness of gig work and the surveillance practices introduced during the pandemic, and details the newly introduced Social Security Code which covers platform workers.

by Titiksha Vashist & Shyam Krishnakumar


The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the rise of the platform economy, impacting both white and blue-collar workers in India. In the wake of the pandemic, workers were left without an income, social security, or safety nets in urban cities. Owing to this, India saw reverse migration from cities to rural villages and towns. Further, the pandemic has introduced and normalized new technological practices that have increased worker surveillance including body temperature surveillance, movement tracking, and deployment of automated facial recognition technology at work. These have added fresh concerns of privacy and agency to the previously existing structural issues.

The State of India’s Gig Economy

The gig economy is a crucial part of India’s ongoing digital transformation with consequences for the future of work and the platform economy. Gigs are temporary or short-term jobs hosted on digital platforms that connect employers and service providers. According to some estimates, India currently has 3 million gig workers. With growing cab aggregator apps like Uber and Ola, food delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato and home-service providers like Urban Company, India’s gig economy is projected to employ 6 million Indians by 2021. According to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, India’s gig economy will be worth $455 billion by 2022, making it one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy with an expected growth rate of 17% per annum. This estimate might have to be revised upwards in the post-pandemic period given the increased demand for e-commerce and digital services. However, unlike its western counterparts, gig work is not unknown in India. About 81% of India’s workers are engaged in the informal sector which is responsible for almost 50% of India’s GDP. It is common for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers in India to work contractually, for multiple employers over short-spans without any formal protection or security benefits.

White-collar platform gig work

For white-collar workers, the remote work regime of the pandemic reduced employer skepticism regarding the dependability of temporary employees and created new opportunities for freelancers. As the nature of work became remote, service-providers could now offer to work with greater flexibility for companies without tying themselves to one employer. The government and workers both see digital platforms as new avenues of job creation in India. As the economy slowed down during the pandemic and jobs became scarce, an estimated 56% of new employment was generated by gig platforms. According to the Economic Survey released in 2021, India has become one of the biggest flexi-markets owing to the increased dependence on e-commerce platforms. As online retail businesses grew, so did the cut in full-time employees, and increased hiring of freelancers to decrease overheads.

The precarity of blue-collar gig work

On the job no more

Now let us turn our attention to blue-collar gig work. With the onset of the lockdown, food delivery platforms Swiggy and Zomato fired approximately 2000 workers. Cab hailing platforms Ola and Uber let go of over 3000 workers. This accounted for 13%–25% of these platforms’ total workforce. Given these instances, it is difficult to estimate the benefits which digital platforms bring to the workforce in India. While Swiggy provided workers with 2-3 months of salary and promised career support, these benefits were not standard or assured and the job loss hit workers dearly. Owing to these costs at the time of the pandemic, several gig workers migrated back to their villages or townships given the lack of opportunity and security in urban cities. The on-demand nature of gig work makes it highly insecure. A 2020 report on worker conditions by Fair Work India evaluated 11 digital platforms in India across fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, management, and representation. Zomato, Swiggy, and Uber were rated worst on every parameter scoring a 1 on a scale of 10, while Amazon, grocery app BigBasket, home construction and renovation company Housejoy, and Ola scored 2 each.

The platform-driven economy poses key challenges to workers’ rights. Platforms are often designed to take away the bargaining power of workers using asymmetry of information, denial of market access, and partial benefits of technology. Studies show that contracts are often unfair and power imbalances favor the platform. Lack of working with a single organization means workers cannot demand better working conditions, unionize or file lawsuits, owing to their legal status being disadvantageous.

Who paid for that? Operating costs

Platform workers in India are predominantly paid a piece rate (per task), and are typically classified by the platforms as ‘independent contractors’, drivers or delivery ‘partners’. This hides the precariousness of gig work and the power asymmetry under the veneer of ‘entrepreneurship’. One major concern with a per-task pay is that workers do not benefit from labor regulations in India. During the pandemic, digital platforms were able to shift much of the operating cost onto workers. Drivers paid for fuel, auto insurance, and maintenance of vehicles. In the case of food delivery workers, the costs of personal protective gear and sanitary products were shifted onto the customer placing orders, with a lack of clarity on its distribution. In several cases, food delivery workers themselves paid for PPEs and hygiene products without adequate reimbursement.

Worker surveillance technologies and the New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exacerbated precarity in gig work but also created new concerns regarding technological tools deployed for monitoring, automated contact tracing, and other solutions created to aid state efforts to fight COVID. New forms of worker surveillance such as temperature reading, heart-rate, and oxygen saturation monitoring, and the use of thermal imaging cameras in the workplace are fast-becoming the new normal. These include biometric surveillance that reduces worker agency and consent, particularly reducing the ability to opt-out.  Collecting and publicly displaying body temperatures of chefs and delivery persons has become a routine practice for food-delivery platforms like Swiggy and Zomato.

Government agencies too are increasingly adopting wearable tech to track movement and time-worked (like Punjab’s sanitation workers) for public employees. In some cases, workers were reportedly made to pay to buy mandatory surveillance gear, and pay to maintain the monitoring equipment.

Such a tech-solutionist approach to battling the pandemic leads to a plethora of social and legal concerns including misidentification, collection of sensitive personal health data, violation of privacy and increased surveillance. These issues need more attention given the absence of an enforceable personal data protection law and clear redressal mechanisms in India.

India’s Social Security Code and the need for fresh policy

In 2020, India passed an updated version of the Social Security Code. The Bill mandated both the central and state governments to create a social security fund for unorganized workers, gig workers, and platform workers. Workers will also be protected by minimum wages, and women must be allowed to work in all categories with adequate protection requirements in place.

The bill clarifies that a security scheme for gig and platform workers will be funded through a mix of contributions from the central government, state governments, and aggregators themselves. Nine categories of aggregators have been created under the Bill and the government will soon announce the rate of contribution by each aggregator. This could range between 1-2% of their annual turnover. Finally, such contributions cannot exceed 5% of the amount payable by an aggregator to gig workers.

Moreover, the National Social Security Board will now be responsible for the welfare of gig workers to recommend and monitor schemes. The Board will include five representatives of aggregators, five representatives of gig workers and platform workers, the Director General of the Employees’ State Insurance Company, and five representatives of state governments.

While this is a positive step, the lack of state capacity, poor execution of social security and absence of a minimum wage in the Indian market creates complications. Moreover, capping the percentage of contribution by large multinationals makes the regulator appear to be too soft on these digital platforms. India still has a long way to go to organize and give adequate protection to its workers, especially in face of surveillance technologies, the precariousness of work, and the new normal created by the pandemic. It needs a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to regulate platforms given the rapid growth of the gig economy.


About the authors

Titiksha Vashist is a researcher working on the socio-political implications of technology in India. She writes on how the digital transformation is impacting Indian society and politics, with a focus on policy for technology. She holds a Masters in Political Science and International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Shyam Krishnakumar is a technology policy consultant and researcher whose work engages with emerging technology in the Indian context. Prior to this, he co-founded EduSeva, an ed-tech startup focussed on providing world class-education at the grassroots. Shyam is a Computer Science graduate and holds a Masters in Political Science with a specialisation in International Affairs. He runs the InTech Dispatch, a fortnightly on emerging tech and society in India.



[BigDataSur-COVID] podcast: “The world we want”

We are very happy to host for the first time a podcast in our series ‘COVID-19 from the Margins’/BigDataSur.

The world we want is a 30′ podcast created by three students at the University of Amsterdam in the framework of the course Digital Activism taught by Lonneke van der Velden, Maxigas and Stefania Milan. In this podcast, Gavin, Lucínia and Veerle discuss ‘other’ epistemologies and in particular the indigenous social philosophy of Buen Vivir (“good living”). The podcast discusses how and what Western democracies can learn from the ‘global South’ in terms of de-westernisation, the environment, and COVID-19. Furthermore, this podcast looks at the relationship between big data, media and the South.

Listen to or download the podcast.


About the authors

Gavin Ashcroft-Dinnning is an MA Film Studies student at the University of Amsterdam with an interest in Queer Theory and French Cinema. His work is focused on queer temporality and queer world-building in fashion films.

Lucínia Philip is an MA Film Studies student at the University of Amsterdam with an interest in South Korean cinema and pop culture. Her work involves the discussion and representation of (post-)colonialism, gender and sexuality in South Korean cinema.

Veerle Gieling is an MA Television and Cross-Media Culture student at the University of Amsterdam with an interest in representation studies. Her work involves intersectional representation research and a master thesis on the representation of Down Syndrome in Dutch media.