New Network on “Programming as Social Science” (PaSS)

What is the role of software programming in the social sciences? My colleague Phillip Brooker (University of Bath) and I have recently been working together to set up a new initiative to advance both critical reflection and what Philip Agre describes as “critical technical practice” around programming in the context of the social sciences. If you’re interested in joining the network, you can sign up here. Further details are copied below.

This is an interdisciplinary network for researchers interested in software programming both as a research device and an object of study, particularly around the methodological innovations happening through social science usages of digital data. It aims to support the cultivation of “critical technical practice” (Agre, 1997) around the research, development and use of code – informed by developments in digital methods, digital sociology and emerging teaching formats. PaSS draws on research in Science and Technology Studies, New Media Studies, Software Studies, Ethnomethodology, Human-Computer Interaction and associated fields to look at how programming practices can not just be studied, but also critically leveraged for teaching and research. The PaSS mailing list is a low traffic list for news, announcements and discussion around programming in the context of social research.

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Book Chapter: “Ways of Seeing Data” in Innovative Methods in Media and Communication Research (London, Palgrave Macmillan)

A book chapter that I co-authored on “Ways of Seeing Data: Towards a Critical Literacy for Data Visualizations as Research Objects and Research Devices” has just been published in Innovative Methods in Media and Communication Research (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

It was written with Liliana Bounegru (University of Groningen / University of Ghent), Stefania Milan (University of Amsterdam) and Paolo Ciuccarelli (Density Design, Politecnico di Milano).

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Piece in Open Democracy: “How Could a Global Public Database Help to Tackle Corporate Tax Avoidance?”

The following piece was originally published in Open Democracy to coincide with the release of a new research report co-authored with Alex Cobham (Chief Executive, Tax Justice Network) and Richard Murphy (City, University of London) looking at the current state and future prospects of a global public database of corporate accounts. It was also cross-posted on the Tax Justice Network blog, Open Knowledge International’s blog and the Institute for Policy Research blog.

Shipyard of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam, 1750. Wikipedia.

The multinational corporation has become one of the most powerful and influential forms of economic organisation in the modern world. Emerging at the bleeding edge of colonial expansion in the seventeenth century, entities such as the Dutch and British East India Companies required novel kinds of legal, political, economic and administrative work to hold their sprawling networks of people, objects, resources, activities and information together across borders. Today it is estimated that over two thirds of the world’s hundred biggest economic entities are corporations rather than countries.

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Talk: “Data Work: Bridging Data Journalism and Digital Sociology”, Aalborg University Copenhagen, 7th February 2017

I’ll be giving a talk with Liliana Bounegru on “Data Work: Bridging Data Journalism and Digital Sociology” at the Techno-Anthropology Lab of Aalborg University Copenhagen on 7th February 2017. If you’re around in Copenhagen and interested in data journalism, digital sociology and/or digital methods, you are welcome to join us! Full details in the abstract and poster below.

Data Work: Bridging Data Journalism and Digital Sociology

How does the data society present new opportunities for understanding collective life? What are the implications of new genres of “data work”? This talk examines two emerging fields that utilise digital data, tools and methods in order to explore new ways of knowing, learning about and performing the world: data journalism and digital sociology. After surveying their respective forms of “data work” it goes onto suggest what they might learn from each other, and how to stage productive encounters between them – focusing on recent experimentation looking at the socio-technical fabric of political life around the US elections, and how this might be leveraged in order to support collaborations between data journalists and digital researchers around upcoming European elections.

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Piece on “Datafication and Democracy” in IPPR’s Juncture

The following piece was originally published in Juncture, IPPR’s journal of politics and ideas, on 21st December 2016.

Digital information systems have come to play a central role in how we organise and imagine collective life in the 21st century. The limits of our world are demarcated by electronic equipment scanning the movements of the clouds and space debris above us and the oceanic currents deep below. Within this comparatively narrow band around the surface of the Earth where life is possible – which geologists call the ‘critical zone’ – ever more activity is registered, connected, facilitated and mediated by digital technologies, resulting in vast reserves of data. In addition to the familiar genres of enumerating people, resources, space and time which have been institutionalised for centuries (through official statistics or accounting practices, for example), the digital infrastructures and devices that surround us proliferate data as a result of their every interaction.

These processes of ‘datafication’ – or ways of seeing and engaging with the world by means of digital data – are not just limited to the neutral representation of phenomena: data can also actively participate in the shaping of the world around us. The very act of generating data can change behaviour, albeit in sometimes unexpected ways and with unintended consequences, as we see, for example, in the dynamics created by league tables and performance metrics, rankings, indexes and indicators. Economic sociologist Donald MacKenzie wrote that financial models are not just like cameras that depict behaviour within markets, they can also act as engines that change them.[1] The same is doubtless true of the quantitative appraisal of life in the workplace, in the classroom, in the home, on the street.

Data not only refers or designates: it can also stage, guide and enact social life in different settings. Historians and sociologists of statistics argue that classificatory practices at public institutions have brought new social categories into existence. Today, computers and algorithms play a role in the grouping and ordering of society. Information brokers propose new ways of classifying society drawing on the automated analysis of large volumes of data from different sources – proposing consumer profiles such as ‘credit crunched: city families’, ‘ethnic second-city strugglers’ and ‘rural and barely making it’.[2] Such emerging forms of ‘data work’ can have huge social, political, economic, environmental and cultural consequences.

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Call for Papers: “Digital Methods for Public Policy”, International Conference on Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 28-30th June 2017


I’m involved in organising a panel on “Digital Methods for Public Policy” at the International Conference on Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 28-30th June 2017.

If you’re interested in using digital methods for policy research, then you’re welcome to apply. Further details about the panel can be found on the conference website, in this PDF and copied below. The deadline for abstracts is 16th January 2017.

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Open Data and Citizen Data Meetup in Barcelona, 7th December 2016


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.

Another good reason to come along is to catch one of the last days of this interesting looking exhibition at CCCB on The Thinking Machine: Ramon Llull and the “ars combinatoria” to mark 700 years since the birth of Llull (if you’re interested in this area, I also coincidentally recently wrote an article on Llull’s legacy for the Public Domain Review).

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Piece on “Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination” in the Public Domain Review

The following piece was originally posted on the Public Domain Review on the 10th November 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.

Leibniz calculating machine
Drawing of Leibniz’s calculating machine, featured as a folding plate in Miscellanea Berolensia ad incrementum scientiarum (1710), the volume in which he first describes his invention — Source.

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.

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Analysing Amnesty International’s Urgent Action Database

Amnesty International Urgent Action Outcomes

Amnesty International have just published the results of a data sprint about their historical database of Urgent Actions, which I coordinated as part of the Digital Methods Initiative Summer School 2016. A selection of outcomes published by Amnesty International can be found here. A selection of further materials from the Summer School project can be found here.

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.

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Digital Methods Winter School 2017 on “Data Infrastructures: Database Stories, Dumps and Query Driven Narratives”, University of Amsterdam, 9-13th January 2017


I’m involved in co-organising the 2017 edition of the annual Digital Methods Initiative Winter School which is on the theme of “Data Infrastructures: Database Stories, Dumps and Query Driven Narratives”.

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).

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