Talk: “Ways of Seeing Data: Towards a Critical Literacy for Data Visualisations as Research Objects and Devices”, University of Amsterdam, 14th January 2016

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Yesterday I gave a presentation on “Ways of Seeing Data” at the Digital Methods Winter School Mini-Conference at the University of Amsterdam.

The presentation was based on a forthcoming publication co-authored with Liliana Bounegru, Stefania Milan and Paolo Ciuccarelli in which we propose a heuristic framework for advancing critical literacies to read, understand, create and work with data visualisations.

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New project on the Politics of Data at the University of Amsterdam

I’m part of a new research project called DATACTIVE: The Politics of Data According to Civil Society at the University of Amsterdam. The project is funded by the European Research Council and led by Stefania Milan who specialises in the study of social movements and their technologies.

The three main research questions of the project are as follows:

  1. How do citizens resist massive data collection by means of technical fixes (re-active data activism)?
  2. How do social movements use big data to foster social change (pro-active data activism)?
  3. How does data activism affect the dynamics of transnational civil society, and transnational advocacy networks in particular?

I will largely focus on the second question, building on my research on the politics of public information – including on open data, data journalism, data activism and transparency after the “digital turn”. This will incorporate a combination of empirical, historical and theoretical research to critically study and contribute to rethinking the politics of data.

This research will also inform my work to advance a more ambitious civil society agenda around reshaping data infrastructures as Director of Policy and Research at Open Knowledge.

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Making Climate Negotiations Public

This piece was originally published in Open Democracy on 9th December 2015. It was co-authored with Tommaso Venturini and Rufus Pollock.

COP21 negotiations in Paris

World leaders are currently gathered in Paris in order to coordinate action around climate change. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of our planet will depend on what they decide.

But how much will the rest of us learn about the circumstances of these decisions to determine our collective fate? Will the deliberations be made public – so that civil society groups can hold decision-makers democratically accountable for their commitments? Or will what happens in Paris effectively stay in Paris?

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Interview for The Guardian on Why Open Data Doesn’t Mean Open Government

I was recently interviewed for a piece in The Guardian about “Why open data doesn’t mean open government”. Here’s the section of the interview from which the article quotes:

It is critical to remember the distinction between ‘open data’ and ‘open government’. Open data is a way to remove legal and technical barriers to using digital information. This data can be used by civil society groups, journalists or civic hackers in the service of public interest campaigning, reportage or civic tech projects.

But publishing open data is of course not sufficient for open governments or open societies. It is just one ingredient in the mix – and no replacement for other vital elements of democratic societies like robust access to information laws, whistleblower protections and rules to protect freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of assembly. And it isn’t just autocratic regimes who neglect these other elements. Just look at the recent treatment of whistleblowers and leakers, or concerns around the UK government’s proposals for amending FOI laws.

While some governments may see open data initiatives as an easy way to demonstrate their democratic credentials, at Open Knowledge we are interested in advancing a more ambitious, progressive civil society agenda around open data. We are interested in going beyond the disclosure of existing datasets as open data – towards looking at how civil society groups might be able to change what is measured in the first place. If one can compare official data collection to photography, we’re interested in not only who has access to the pictures, but what the camera captures and (when it comes to personal information for example) what it doesn’t capture.

For more on the distinction between open data and open government see, for example, Harlan Yu and David Robinson’s paper on this topic for the UCLA Law Review.

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New Report: “Open Budget Data: Mapping the Landscape”

Open Budget Data

How might changing the way that information about public money is organised, circulated and utilised in society shape the character of democratic engagement and political accountability in decision-making about public funds?

How are ideals from the open data movement gaining traction amongst advocates and practitioners of financial transparency, to what end, and with what consequences? What are the politics of the emerging issue of open budget data?

In order to begin to address these and other questions I led work on a research report on “Open Budget Data: Mapping the Landscape”, undertaken as a collaboration between Open Knowledge, the Global Initiative for Financial Transparency and the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam.

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Animated GIF of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Analysis of Still Life”, 1929-30

Animated GIF of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Analysis of Still Life” (1929-30), Bauhaus-Archiv, Museum für Gestaltung, Berlin.

Kandinsky's Analysis of Still Life, 1929-30

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A Data Revolution for Whom?

This piece was originally published in Open Democracy on 10th July 2015.

The growing availability of digital data and data technologies has led many civil society groups, governments, and international organisations to talk of a “data revolution”. But what kinds of political projects, models of citizenship and forms of action will such a data revolution enable? And whom will it ultimately serve?

Following debates about open government amongst political actors from the White House to Wikileaks, you could be forgiven for thinking that the critical political question around digital data generated by states is what information is disclosed to whom.

Leakers, hackers and whistleblowers transgress disclosure rules to bring caches of data to the masses, arguing that the sunlight of public scrutiny should be allowed to shine in on documents which were previously dark.

In parallel, the concept of “open data” has gained significant traction amongst transparency activists and amongst politicians in some of the world’s most powerful nations. Advocates of open data often focus on how information is released, arguing for legal and technical modes of disclosure which enable everything from new kinds of computational analysis to glittering ecosystems of web services and applications.

But a politics of public information predominantly focused on the transparency, disclosure and “opening up” of official information risks overlooking several critical parts of the bigger picture – including what information is generated, who uses it to what end, and how it organises collective life.

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Talk on “How is Data Made? From Dataset Literacy to Data Infrastructure Literacy”, Web Science 2015, University of Oxford

Today I gave a talk titled “How is Data Made? From Dataset Literacy to Data Infrastructure Literacy” as part of the Data Literacy Workshop at ACM Web Science 2015 hosted at the University of Oxford.

Drawing on a comparison between data and photography that I made in an article for the Guardian several years ago, the talk focused on the development of critical literacies for data. In particular it argued for going beyond literacies with datasets, towards literacies around data infrastructures as socio-technical systems – including looking at questions of what is measured and how.

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Talk on “The Politics of Open Data: Past, Present and Future” at Data Power conference, University of Sheffield, 22nd June 2015

I’m giving a talk today on “The Politics of Open Data: Past, Present and Future” at the Data Power conference at the University of Sheffield. The slides and abstract for the talk are copied below.

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Talks at “Policy-Making in the Big Data Era” conference, University of Cambridge, 17th June 2015


On Wednesday I will give three papers at the Policy-Making in the Big Data Era conference at the University of Cambridge.

One paper will argue for a broadening of the politics of public information from a focus on the disclosure of datasets to the reshaping of data infrastructures. Another will look at the use and potential of network analysis and network mapping in digital journalism. The last one will look at ongoing empirical work to map the politics of open data on digital media, concluding with some reflections on the value of digital methods for policy research. Abstracts for all three papers are copied below.

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