If you’re currently around in Barcelona and interested in open data, citizen data and related topics then I’ll be joining people from the EU H2020 funded Making Sense project for an informal meetup at the bar of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (Montalegre, 5, 08001 Barcelona) at 7pm on Wednesday 7th December 2016.
Three hundred years after the death of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and seven hundred years after the birth of Ramon Llull, Jonathan Gray looks at how their early visions of computation and the “combinatorial art” speak to our own age of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.
Each epoch dreams the one to follow” wrote the historian Jules Michelet. The passage was later used by the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin in relation to his unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project, which explores the genesis of life under late capitalism through a forensic examination of the “dreamworlds” of nineteenth-century Paris.1 In tracing the emergence of the guiding ideals and visions of our own digital age, we may cast our eyes back a little earlier still: to the dreams of seventeenth-century polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
There was a resurgence of interest in Leibniz’s role in the history of computation after workmen fixing a leaking roof discovered a mysterious machine discarded in the corner of an attic at the University of Göttingen in 1879. With its cylinders of polished brass and oaken handles, the artefact was identified as one of a number of early mechanical calculating devices that Leibniz invented in the late seventeenth century.
The database gave a fascinating insight into both the more recent digital practices as well as the longer history and development of one of the world’s biggest and best known human rights advocacy organisations. The Urgent Actions database can be understood as a form of “data witnessing” – about which I’ll be writing more in the coming months.
I’ll be speaking at the event alongside Professor Geoffrey Bowker (School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine), who is one of the pioneers of the social study of information infrastructures.
If you’re interested in how digital methods can be used to study or tell stories with data infrastructures, then we’d love to see you there. Further details about the theme are available on the Digital Methods Initiative wiki (excerpt copied below).
The contemporary world is held together by a vast and overlapping fabric of information systems. These information systems do not only tell us things about the world around us. They also play a central role in organising many different aspects of our lives. They are not only instruments of knowledge, but also engines of change. But what kind of change will they bring?
Contemporary data infrastructures are the result of hundreds of years of work and thought. In charting the development of these infrastructures we can learn about the rise and fall not only of the different methods, technologies and standards implicated in the making of data, but also about the articulation of different kinds of social, political, economic and cultural worlds: different kinds of “data worlds”.
Beyond the rows and columns of data tables, the development of data infrastructures tell tales of the emergence of the world economy and global institutions; different ways of classifying populations; different ways of managing finances and evaluating performance; different programmes to reform and restructure public institutions; and how all kinds of issues and concerns are rendered into quantitative portraits in relation to which progress can be charted – from gender equality to child mortality, biodiversity to broadband access, unemployment to urban ecology.
The slides are available here. For reference, below is a summary of the main points and links to some of the things that we mentioned in the talk. We’ll be writing up something on this topic in due course.
We’d like to continue to develop an agenda looking at how data journalists and digital researchers can work together – particularly through the data sprint format. If you’re interested in this, please do get in touch.
Tommaso Venturini (King’s College London), who will be talking about sprinting with data as means to engage different publics around data infrastructures – including the fantastic Climaps project, his work with Bruno Latour and a preview of some material from his forthcoming book on controversy mapping;
Sabine Niederer (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), who will be talking about “reclaiming data” with the Citizen Data Lab – including through participatory design sessions, visualisation initiatives and digital methods for mapping cities.
This is a fantastic opportunity for me to develop the research agenda that I’ve been working on around the politics of data – including at the University of Amsterdam and the médialab at Sciences Po earlier this year. This includes a book project on Data Worlds; several associated papers and research projects; and a new initiative engaging researchers, civil society groups and public institutions around public data infrastructures.