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Student/volunteer needed for development of the plugin Facebook.tracking.exposed

As part of the spin-off project on algorithmic personalization, the DATACTIVE team is looking for an enthusiastic volunteer who would like to engage in qualitative market research for the development of the facebook.tracking.exposed tool, a browser plugin that allows users to “re-appropriate” Facebook timeline data for research purposes. The position starts halfway February for two days a week (flexible) for a period of one month with possibility of extension should both parties be interested. If interested, please contact project manager Jeroen de Vos before Tuesday February 5th, he can be reached at jeroen@data-activism.net

More information: DATACTIVE, ALEX (coming soon: algorithms.exposed)

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Stefania at CPDP & PrivacyCamp in Brussels

Stefania will be in Brussels to take part in the Privacy Camp and in the Computer, Privacy and Data Protection (CPDP) conference, in Brussels at the end of January.

At Privacy Camp, on January 29, Stefania will join Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Utrecht Data School), Minna Ruckenstein (University of Helsinki) and DATACTIVE former postdoc Jonathan Gray (now at Kings’ College, London) for a discussion on Reimagining Data Futures: Data and Agency.

At CPDP, Stefania will join a panel on “Data is (Political) Power!” (Wednesday 4pm) organised by IViR & ASCoR (UvA), with Daniel Kreiss (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Julia Reda, EU MEP, and Jennifer Childs (ICO). On Friday, she will also contribute to an amazing session of the artistic program, entitled Micro-Targeting and Tactical Fiction, featuring Manu Luksch (!).

Check out the CPDP program!

 

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Good Data Book launch on January 24

For the past few months we worked in a new collective DATACTIVE publication: Data for the Social Good: Toward a data-activist research agenda. It will be one of the chapters in the forthcoming Good Data book, edited by Angela Daly, Kate Devitt and Monique Mann, and published by the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam within their “Theory on Demand” series.

Our text builds upon the Data for the Social Good two-day focused encounter we organised in November 2017 (read the report here). During the first day of that event last year we discussed with Charlotte Ryan, Lorenzo Pezanni, Jeff Deutsch and Nico Para about the ways in which research and activism intersect in projects which rely on data. On the second day, we were joined by a diverse group of researchers and activists for a workshop exploring what a data-activist agenda would look like (seriously, read the report here!).

In Data for the Social Good: Toward a data-activist research agenda, we took that conversation and expanded it two fronts. First, we grounded theoretically our take on what it means to be a (data) activist, which implied clarifying what data activism means in the first place, as well as briefly revising the origin and evolution of engaged research. Secondly,  we reflected more deeply upon the ethics of collaborative investigations, paying particular attention to the power relations between the actors involved throughout the process.

The Good Data book will be launched in Amsterdam at 5pm of the 24th of January, at the cultural centre Spui25. It includes 20 different chapters exploring what good data practices are, from manifestos to smart city reflections (and nope, not a single reference to blockchain).  Both the editors and DATACTIVE will be around to discuss more about how to use data for good rather than evil, so join us if you’re interested in knowing more (or getting the book)!

Cheers!

DATACTIVE

 

 

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ALEX @DMI winterschool

Between the 7th and 11th of January, Claudio Agosti, Davide Beraldo and Jeroen de Vos from the ALEX / DATACTIVE team took part in the annual Digital Methods Initiative’s Winter School. This was the perfect occasion to kick-off a project related to the development and application of facebook.tracking.exposed, a browser extension developed in order to expose the functioning of the secretive Facebook’s News Feed algorithm and adopted by the Algorithms Exposed (ALEX) project.

The ALEX project pitch collected quite some interest, with about 15 people coming together for a hectic as much as a fun week of collaborative thinking, experimenting and analyzing. Given the many possibilities of exploring and the variety of available skills, the group split into 2 subgroups: one has been busy with the creation of brand new ‘bots’, with the experimental interest in assessing the role of emotional engagement and friendship making in the Facebook timeline algorithm; the second group has been working on an existing dataset related to last year’s Italian national elections.

You can take a deeper look at what has been done and the insights that have been collected in the Winter School’s project wiki (TBA) and in the final presentation. Here is a bullet-point summary of the main findings:
• a bot’s life is a dangerous life… you gotta be smart not to be Facebook-killed
• being a bot is not that boring though… many new bot friends are ready to connect to you
• love wins over hate… consistently love-reacting posts seems to trigger more content on the timeline than consistently “angry”/negative reactions
• tell me what you liked, I tell you what you’ll see… selectively liking posts from different political orientations will affect the political issues you will see on your future timeline
• and lastly, and this is controversial… centre-left wing bots are more prone to be exposed to controversial content than far-right wing bots.

Many thanks to the organizers of the Winter School and, of course, to all those who contributed to the Algorithms Exposed group: Iain Emsley, Fatma Yalgin, Hannah Vischer, Victor Pak, Claudio Agosti, Mathilde Simon, Victor Bouwmeester, Yao Chen, Sophia Melanson, Hanna Jemmer, Patrick Kapsch, Giovanni Rossetti, Davide Beraldo, Giulia Corona, Leonardo Sanna, Jeroen de Vos.

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Announcing the Magma project

By Vasilis Ververis, DATACTIVE

Magma aims to build a scalable, reproducible, standard methodology on measuring, documenting and circumventing internet censorship, information controls, internet blackouts and surveillance in a way that will be streamlined and used in practice by researchers, front-line activists, field-workers, human rights defenders, organizations and journalists.

In recent years, a number of research fellows, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers as well as a larger research community, have been working in high-risk contexts, which creates the need to consider their qualitative and quantitative research data as highly sensitive. Albeit their competitiveness and high qualification in their respective areas (social and political science, usability, law, political economy analysis), they can rarely claim to have a specific expertise or extensive experience when it comes to networks services and systems, telecommunication infrastructure, applied data analysis of network measurements, internet censorship, surveillance and information controls.

Ideally, researchers working with various network measurement tools and frameworks such as the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), should have qualified technical help and assistance, thus enabling them to develop appropriate testing methodologies, suiting exactly their research environment and needs.

Magma aims to build a research framework for people working on information controls and network measurements, facilitating their working process in numerous ways. As such, this framework will enable them to properly structure an activity plan, make informed choices regarding the required tools (including ethical and security aspects) and analyze the data produced by such tools.

Through Magma, we wish to provide our expertise and experience in network measurements, internet censorship research, assessment of ISP network, surveillance probing and data analysis in order to:

  • Asses the risks by providing, implementing and maintaining technologies demanded by researchers on front-lines and areas where the need of operational security, anti-surveillance and censorship circumvention is of paramount importance.
  • Provide tailored technical assistance, developing at the same time appropriate testing methodology for network measurements, evaluation and analysis of data and reports that correspond to the respective research questions.
  • On a long-term basis, build a scalable and reproducible methodology for collecting, evaluating and analyzing data and reports’ self-defense for front-line researchers, front-line activists, field-workers, human rights defenders, organizations and journalists, by keeping exact documentation.

Below, we list some examples of potential future research around internet censorship, information controls and surveillance, mainly based on conducting networks measurements and analyzing its results:

Egypt: Media censorship, Tor interference, HTTPS throttling and ads injections?

A study on Tor network and media websites blockages, network bandwidth throttling and malicious network packet injections that contained malware and advertising content.

OONI Data Reveals How WhatsApp Was Blocked (Again) in Brazil

A study to determine how WhatsApp has been blocked after a judge’s court order all over the country of Brazil.

Understanding Internet Censorship Policy: The Case of Greece

An extensive large scale research analyzing the policies and techniques used to block content deemed illegal by a state identifying transparency problems, collateral damage and the implications of over or under blocking.

Identifying cases of DNS misconfiguration: Not quite censorship

A study on a non-malicious technical issue that leads to the interference and non-accessibility of a regional news media outlet throughout several different networks and countries.

To this respect, we would like to hear from all of you who are interested in researching information controls and internet censorship, and are intrigued to better understand how to work with network measurements and analyze data from various data sources and OONI reports.

We wanted to keep this post as concrete and terse as possible to encourage both technical and non-technical entities and individuals to get in touch with us, even if they are currently engaged in an undergoing project. The results of this collaboration will help form a complete guideline handbook expressed by the needs of the communities that work, or conduct research, in this field.

Please use any of these communications channels to get in touch with us.

 

Vasilis Ververis is a research associate with DATACTIVE and a practitioner of the principles ~ undo / rebuild ~ the current centralization model of the internet. Their research deals with internet censorship and investigation of collateral damage via information controls and surveillance. Some recent affiliations: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany; Universidade Estadual do Piaui, Brazil; University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.

 

This post is co-published with the Magma Project

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new article: Playing with data and its consequences out in First Monday

The January 2019 issue of First Monday includes an article by research associate Miren Gutierrez and PI Stefania Milan on the consequences of engagement with data. The article is entitled “Playing with data and its consequences” and is the lead article of the issue. Check it out!

Abstract. 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.

Citation: Gutierrez, Milan and Stefania Milan (2019). Playing with data and its consequences, First Monday, Volume 24, Number 1 – 7 January 2019, https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/9554/7716
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i1.9554

 

2019

A year in review

2018 has been a good year for DATACTIVE. We take the opportunity of the turn of the year to review what we accomplished and what remains to do.

We advanced with data collection, and are almost done. Just to mention one, we are close to 200 interviews, and the material is extremely rich.

We organized two exciting events, the July workshop and the Big Data from the South, and a hackaton.

Collectively we delivered over 40 talks.
We published a dozen between papers and book chapters, including an article for Policy & Internet, two for the International Journal of Communication (here and here), three contributions in a special issue of XRDS on anonymity. We released a special issue on data activism of the peer-reviewed journal Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy. Many more contributions are in print. In January alone, an article on the consequences of engaging with data will appear on First Monday; a collective book chapter will be released in the context of the collection on Good Data; the special issue of the journal Policy & Internet on internet architecture & human rights will see the light of day.
The DATACTIVE blog, the critical communities debate and the Big data from the South blog are thriving; our work was mentioned in several media outlets in a variety of idioms.
In July we were awarded a Proof of Concept grant of the ERC to work on the Algorithms Exposed project (ALEX). Stay tuned for further developments, including a brand-new website which will soon become available at the URL algorithms.exposed.
And most importantly, we continued learning from each other and from the many activists we encountered during fieldwork, and we continued experimenting with a different way of doing and being academia (among others, see  here and here).

With less than two years to the end of the grant, we will now dedicate ourselves primarily to data analysis and writing. ALEX will keep some of us busy, and will allow us to expand our team hiring a couple of developers and collaborating with NGOs. To start with, next week we will seize the opportunity of the forthcoming of the Digital Methods Winter School to advance with software development. We can anticipate we will use the forthcoming EU Parliament election as one of our test cases, so if you are interested in collaborating to a research on the effects of algorithmic personalisation please get in touch.

Yours truly, the DATACTIVE team
Photo: CovaContro

Civic resistance to environmental failures from the South (of the North…): The AnalyzeBasilicata initiative

By Anna Berti Suman – Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT)

 

During the Workshop ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, we discussed how the ‘South’ is much more than a geographical connotation. The South exists every time a person is discriminated, basic services are denied, surveillance is secretly performed at the expenses of those at the margins, land, but also data, are grabbed for the sake of profit, people are forced to daily live with environmental contamination, and so on. In this sense, maybe the South is not geographical at all, if we think that all these situations can well occur in the North as in the South of the world. This contribution tells a story ‘from the South’: the South of Italy (yet a country generally considered as part of ‘the North’), and a situation embedding the South through denial of rights and resource appropriation. But it also tells a story of hope, of civic resistance that can make a change, speaking to individuals, collectives, and even to institutions, with a tireless critique of the status-quo.

The case is that of ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’ (in Italian ‘Analizziamo la Basilicata’), founded in 2015 by the Italian association ‘COVA Contro’ and aimed at tackling the environmental mismanagements in a Southern Italian region, Basilicata, known for having a 40% of the population at risk of poverty. The region is also sadly known as “the Italian Texas” for the intense oil exploitation and its incidence on local residents. The ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’ initiative started as a campaign and quickly obtained a vast social uptake, manifested in the generous financial support from concerned citizens. Through crowdfunding, AnalyzeBasilicata managed to buy the necessary instruments to collect sample in numerous areas of the region and run chemical tests at the premises of Accredia, the Italian single body for scientific accreditation. The results of the test fuelled investigations that were subsequently published on the online magazine Basilicata24. The initiative currently strives to make publicly accessible the data from the measurements on its website as well as the sources of funding to support such measurements. In addition, the organization has barely any organizational structure, devoting all the resources obtained from crowd-funding to the measurements.

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Photo: Basilicata24

The collective’s workflow is structured as follow: when the AnalyzeBasilicata team identify an environmental problem, they run a cross-check or alterative measuring on the interested area; if they find a discrepancy between the official data and their measurements, they either first publish the news on their blog and then file a formal notification to the competent environmental agency or to the public prosecutor office, or, in alternative, they first notify the problem to the relevant institutions and then reach the public.  The choice of one or the other strategy depends on the matter at issue, its sensitivity and public concern. In general, the response from the concerned citizens is higher than the interest and follow-up from the responsible institutions [1]. The collective works either spontaneously or in response to a request from a group of concerned citizens. Rarely, they are approached by institutions requesting measurements [2]. The individuals running the tests are, for the majority, not experts in environmental monitoring. However, they trained themselves, and benefit from the help of experts on how to collect sampling and analyse data [3].

Examples of the actions launched by the COVA Contro Association and AnalyzeBasilicata regard to the correlation between the ENI and INGV extractive operations in the region and the seismic status of Val d’Agri, Basilicata. The collective interestingly mentioned the Aarhus Convention when denouncing the lack of transparency and public participation on the matter to the Italian environmental protection agency, ISPRA, to the Italian anti-corruption agency, ANAC, to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and to the National Anti-Mafia Directorate. The reliance of the local collective’s discourse on entitlements deriving from an international legal body is particularly relevant as it demonstrates how the local needs to ‘rely on the global’ to strengthen its arguments, yet resting strongly grounded in the local dimension.

Another timely intervention of the collective is represented by the analysis performed in the area of Policoro, Basilicata, where the civic monitoring, originally looking for traces of trihalomethanes in drinking water (which were instead found under threshold), discovered traces of two halogenated compounds that are recognized to have carcinogenic effects. The tests were run as cross-check of those performed by the competent authorities. The organization lamented the unfulfilled duty of public authorities to ensure that drinking water are preserved free from pollutants, thus including not only the substances provided by the Italian legislative decree 31/2001 but all substances possibly noxious to human health. This way the collective showed to be aware of the legal framework and to ground its claim on institutionally recognized legal entitlements, partially covered by the right to live in a healthy environment. The organization demanded a legal intervention by asking for the definition of clear maximum thresholds for the presence of the toxic carcinogenic compounds in drinking water. This approach is also particularly noteworthy as it shows that civic resistance still need to ‘use’ the system, while resisting it, and the appeal to legal provisions seems a way to find a form of recognition in the establishment.

Photo: CovaContro
Photo: CovaContro

The founder of AnalyzeBasilicata, Giorgio Santoriello [4], affirmed that the trigger for the launch of the initiative was the distrust towards the data provided (often scarce or difficult to access) by the environmental agency responsible for the territory. Santoriello described how the agency was unequipped and lacking personnel. From a first stage of ‘shadowing’ what the agency was doing to monitor the environmental conditions of the area, they started performing the monitoring themselves, comparing the two and identifying discrepancies. The first accreditation, according to Santoriello, was the social support from the concerned citizens through financial support and follow-up on media. Despite being critical towards the established way of environmental monitoring in Basilicata, the collective has always been willing to cooperate with the prosecutor offices, environmental agencies and politicians to shed light on the malfunctions of the environmental governance system in the region. This ‘open’ approach is also worth of reflection: the collective challenges the system, but it is ready to engage in a dialogue with established institutions in view of the ultimate goal, i.e. the improvement of environmental protection in Basilicata.

Despite relying on legal norms, Santoriello seemed to suggest that the laws on transparency and public accountability, as well as those on civic access to environmental information and participation in environmental decision-making, are insufficient to concretely enforce citizens’ rights. First, they would be too soft, not providing for actual sanctions. Second, their enforcement in courts would require high financial resources that often citizens’ organizations lack. Thirdly, they are often applicable only in cases of plain violations, and not in the daily subtler instances of citizen’s misinformation or of inaccessible information. Santoriello identifies in citizen-run technologies a light of hope to tackle the problem of poor environmental monitoring or hidden environmental data. He considers nowadays more pressing than in the past the need to use technology to draw the link between environmental pollutants and human health. Santoriello stresses the centrality of having ‘doubting’ citizens that crosscheck the environmental information received as a way to improve environmental monitoring, to ensure the respect of fundamental rights and to promote accountability.

Overall, this accountability outcome seems resulting of a combination of the following elements: distrust towards environmental (mis)management generates a civic initiative based on citizen-run technologies; the collective gains credibility (activists obtain scientific accreditation for their measurements); by cross-checking institutional data, the group manages to demonstrate substantial deviation from a proper environmental management; the collective obtains attention of larger sections of society; they justify their actions based on norms but simultaneously discard them; ultimately, though just a ‘drop in the ocean’, a push towards more transparency and accountability is activated.

 

 

Anna Berti Suman – is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (The Netherlands), investigating forms of environmental monitoring ‘from below’. Anna has work and research experience in environmental crimes (Ecuador) and water conflicts (Chile); Anna is pro-bono environmental lawyer for Greenpeace International.

 You can reach her at: a.bertisuman@uvt.nl

 

 

[1] Call performed on September 24, 2018, with the founder of ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’, Giorgio Santoriello.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ibidem.

 

 

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Stefania at the Me, We And The Machine Institute of theory and practice, December 13

On December the 13th, Stefania will speak on data activism at the Me, We, and The Machine Institute of theory and practice. Organized by the Mumbai-based civil society organization Point of View in Amsterdam, Me, We And The Machine is a seven-day residential institute that dives deep into two questions:

• How does technology shape and influence sexuality, gender and rights?

• How do sexuality, gender and rights inform and shape technology?

Read more.