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Algorithms Exposed (ALEX) @MediaLiteracy Challenge

The ‘ALEX’s angels’ team, consisting of a team of five with DATACTIVE, medialab SETUP and user experience designer from ‘KO nieuwsgierig‘, made it to the next round of the MediaDiamond Challenge with their pitch to work on a game for young adults to facilitate critical engagement with social media personalisation algorithms. The game would build on the logic of algorithm inquiry also used in FbTREX and YtTREX. They get to October 20th to work on a renewed proposal.

More information:

MediaWijzer, the media literacy organisation in the Netherlands

Algorithms Exposed, the DATACTIVE PoC trajectory to bring-to-market knowledge and software for personalisation algorithm research

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DATACTIVE at DATAPOWER

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.
Cited works
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.

References

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.
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“Spotting Sharks”: new Working Paper by Jeroen de Vos

We are happy to announce the ALEX’s Competitor analysis, published as part of the DATACTIVE Working Paper Series, by Jeroen de Vos:

Vos, J. de (2019) “Spotting Sharks: ALEX’s Competitor analysis”, DATACTIVE Working paper series, No 2/2019 ISSN: 2666-0733.

(DOWNLOAD THE PAPER HERE)

Abstract
This paper summarizes the output of the competitor analysis for fbTREX conducted as part of the market research for the project Algorithms Exposed (ALEX). fbTREX is a browser plugin that allows harvesting publicly available data on the users Facebook timeline, and its development is currently hosted by the Algorithms Exposed initiative – an effort to facilitate repurposing personal social media data to allow the scaling of systematic empirical inquiry for academic, educational or journalistic purposes. The desk research is enhanced by several interviews and aims to: 1) create initial insights into existing potentially competing organisations; 2) analyse market potential present in a specific field; 3) situate the current understanding of fbTREX in the context of bringing a product to market; and 4) and help prioritize the next step. This research should be read as an intermediate product, which can provide valuable insights to both partners and competitors. Algorithm Exposed is funded by the ERC Proof of Concept grant [grant agreement number 825974].

About Algorithms Exposed
ALEX, a short-cut for “Algorithms Exposed. Investigating Automated Personalization and Filtering for Research and Activism”, aims at unmasking the functioning of personalization algorithms on social media platforms. From an original idea of lead developer Claudio Agosti, ALEX marks the engagement of DATACTIVE with “data activism in practice”—that is to say, turning data into a point of intervention in society. Link to the website.

About the DATACTIVE working paper series
The DATACTIVE Working Paper Series presents results of the DATACTIVE research project. The series aims to disseminate the results of their research to a wider audience. An editorial committee consisting of the DATACTIVE PI and Postdoctoral fellows reviews the quality of the Working Papers. The Series aims to disseminate research results in an accessible manner to a wider audience. Readers are encouraged to provide the authors with feedback and/or questions.

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two new articles out

We are happy to announce the publication of two new open access contributions:

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YouTube Algorithm Exposed: DMI Summer School project week 1

DATACTIVE participated in the first week of the Digital Methods Initiative summer school 2019 with a data sprint related to the side project ALEX. DATACTIVE’s insiders Davide and Jeroen, together with research associate and ALEX’s software developer Claudio Agosti, pitched a project aimed at exploring the logic of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, using the ALEX-related browser extension youtube.tracking.exposed. ytTREX allows you to produce copies of the set of recommended videos, with the main purpose to investigate the logic of personalization and tracking behind the algorithm. During the week, together with a number of highly motivated students and researchers, we engaged in collective reflection, experiments and analysis, fueled by Brexit talks, Gangnam Style beats, and the secret life of octopuses. Our main findings (previewed below, and detailed later in a wiki report) pertain look into which factors (language settings, browsing behavior, previous views, domain of videos, etc.) help trigger the highest level of personalization in the recommended results.

 

Algorithm exposed_ investigasting Youtube – slides

 

 

 

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Facebook’s Anatomy, DMI Summerschool II.

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).

Find the wiki documenting the research here.

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.

 

PRESENTATION_The Anatomy of Facebook (1)

 

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Stefania at Science Foo

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’.

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Guillén at the Global Conference for Transparency Research 2019

Last week, Guillén was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to present part of his PhD project on the sociotechnical obstacles faced by data/information activists in Mexico and the strategies they develop to overcome them. His talk, “Institutional Resistance to Datafication-from-below”, was part of the pannel “Civil Society Experiences”, in which researchers and practitioners from México, India and the UK reflected around how the legal frameworks of transparency are experienced by engaged citizens.

Below you can find the abstract of his presentation. Get in touch with him if you’d like to discuss!

Governmental transparency through Freedom of Information Laws has become a standard in modern liberal democracies. Although the connection between transparency and political accountability has been thoroughly questioned, research seems to confirm that access to public sector information is a key (albeit not sufficient) factor fostering citizen empowerment. However, a recent trend in Latin America, denounced by both practitioners and academics, consists of governments, who in paper state their support for transparency, implementing various kinds of strategies to hinder the process of accessing public sector information, curbing governmental transparency. While a considerable body of research on transparency’s performance in many countries around the world has focused on its drawbacks and challenges, and there is even a specific set of literature looking particularly at the factors that affect governmental responsiveness to FOI requests, the attention of scholars has mostly been set on what happens within institutions, while the experiences of politically engaged citizens have received less study. In this paper I chose a different path, focusing on how Mexican information activists experience and make sense of delays, denials and obstacles during the process of accessing Public Sector Information through the Freedom of Information Law. Thus, I attempt to switch the attention from the evaluation of transparency policies through indexes that measure the achievement of policy goals, to the embodied experience of the communities involved in policy performance.

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Stefania at IAMCR in Madrid

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.