New Course on “Data Activism” at King’s College London

Workshop at King’s College London on Amnesty International Decoders Initiative.

This academic year we’ve got a new graduate course on “data activism” at King’s College London, which I’ve been teaching this semester.

The course supports students to critically engage with emerging practices associated with data activism, drawing on perspectives from science and technology studies, (new) media studies and data studies. Along with other readings, it also incorporates materials from my forthcoming Data Worlds book.

There are several hands-on data activism workshops with external guests, which this year includes Amnesty International’s Decoders Initiative (which I’ve also just written about in Information, Communication & Society) and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap.

We’ve also been lucky enough to have a number of guest speakers, including:

The course outline, learning outcomes and illustrative readings are copied below. Further details can be found on the website of the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London here. Further readings from the course can be found here: https://www.zotero.org/groups/data_activism

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New paper: “Data witnessing: attending to injustice with data in Amnesty International’s Decoders project” in Information, Communication & Society

Information, Communication & Society have just published an article that I wrote on “Data witnessing: attending to injustice with data in Amnesty International’s Decoders project”. The article is open access and the abstract and full reference are copied below.

This piece would not have been possible without the time and input from the list of people mentioned in the acknowledgements section of the article, to whom I’m most grateful. You can find out more about the current work of Amnesty Decoders here.

Gray, J. (2019). Data witnessing: attending to injustice with data in Amnesty International’s Decoders project. Information, Communication & Society, 1–21. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2019.1573915

Data witnessing: attending to injustice with data in Amnesty International’s Decoders project

The concept of witnessing has been used to explore the construction of evidence and experience in settings of law, religion, atrocity, media, history and science. Recent research has examined how digital technologies may multiply the involvement of remote, non-present and unanticipated actors in the witnessing of events. This paper examines what digital data practices at Amnesty International’s Decoders initiative can add to the understanding of witnessing. It introduces the notion of ‘data witnessing’ with reference to four projects on (i) witnessing historical abuses with structured data from digitised documents; (ii) witnessing the destruction of villages with satellite imagery and machine learning; (iii) witnessing environmental injustice with company reports and photographs; and (iv) witnessing online abuse through the classification of Twitter data. These projects illustrate the configuration of experimental apparatuses for witnessing injustices with data. In contrast to accounts which emphasise the presence of an individual human witness at the scene, Amnesty’s data practices are conspicuously collective and distributed, rendering the systemic scale of injustices at a distance, across space and time. Such practices may contribute to research on both (new) media witnessing and data politics, suggesting ways in which care, concern and solidarity may be constructed, structured, extended and delimited by means of digital data.

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Abstract for “Fog of Finance? Visualising Offshore and the Aesthetics of Uncertainty” at MoneyLab #6, University of Siegen

Following is the abstract for our contribution on “The Fog of Finance? Visualising Offshore and the Aesthetics of Uncertainty” at the upcoming MoneyLab #6: Infrastructures of Money hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures and the University of Siegen. This is based on a collaboration between the Tax Justice Network, the University of Sussex, Density Design and the Public Data Lab. The MoneyLab #6 programme is available here, and the abstracts are available here.

Fog of Finance? Visualising Offshore and the Aesthetics of Uncertainty
Chris Anderson (University of Leeds)
Angeles Briones (DensityDesign Lab, Politecnico di Milano)
Jonathan Gray (King’s College London)
Daniel Haberly (University of Sussex)
Michele Mauri (DensityDesign Lab, Politecnico di Milano)
Tommaso Venturini (CNRS)


What can be learned from data practices to render offshore financial flows visible and actionable for advocacy, policy and public debate? How can data visualisations be used to narrate the scale and dynamics of offshore financial activity? How can they convey uncertainty without insinuating sublime unfathomability? How might the communication of what we know and what we don’t know about offshore finance both draw on, complement and modify existing visual cultures, practices and aesthetics of uncertainty? What might critical or inventive data practices for visualising offshore finance look like?

This paper explores the making of an Atlas of Offshore FDI as a collaboration between the Tax Justice Network, a network of researchers and research centres and the Public Data Lab. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is supposed to reflect bricks-and-mortar investments and “real” acquisitions by multinational corporations, and is often considered to be the backbone of globalization (Haberly & Wójcik, 2015). However, roughly two thirds of total global FDI is either from or in jurisdictions widely used as domiciles for shell companies and corporate inversions – most often for purposes of tax avoidance. Despite international action to address offshore tax avoidance and financial secrecy, there is still no publicly available dataset that allows for the FDI entering countries via particular offshore jurisdictions to be traced back to its ultimate origin. The Atlas of Offshore FDI aims to explore the scale and significance of this offshore activity, as well as to shed new light onto its contents, by creating the first publicly available database of global offshore investment.

The project explores combination and modification of visual practices for making sense of transnational economic activity and financial flows (Gray, Bounegru, Milan, & Ciuccarelli, 2016), as well as visual practices for representing uncertainty. While public data practices often emphasise and value the production of certainty (Anderson, 2018), this project considers what data projects may learn from diverse cultures for visually representing, managing and articulating uncertainty, including in physics (electron clouds), meteorology (weather conditions), statistics (confidence margins) and art history (landscape painting).

As well as reflecting on the prospects of critical data practice around financial flows (Gray & Bounegru, forthcoming), the paper situates the atlas project against broader debates around the knowability, unknowability and governability of transnational economic activity (Slobodian, 2018) and the infrastructural configurations of relations between markets, states and citizens (Roberts, 2011).

References

Anderson, C. W. (2018). Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gray, J., & Bounegru, L. (forthcoming). Introduction. In The Data Journalism Handbook: Towards a Critical Data Practice. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Gray, J., Bounegru, L., Milan, S., & Ciuccarelli, P. (2016). Ways of Seeing Data: Toward a Critical Literacy for Data Visualizations as Research Objects and Research Devices. In Kubitschko, Sebastian & Kaun, Anne (Eds.), Innovative Methods in Media and Communication Research (pp. 227–251). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Haberly, D., & Wójcik, D. (2015). Tax havens and the production of offshore FDI: an empirical analysis. Journal of Economic Geography, 15, 75–101.

Roberts, A. (2011). The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Slobodian, Q. (2018). Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Talk: “What Does Data Do? Making Data Public, Keeping Data Private and Other Data Worlds”, Privacy Camp 2019, Brussels

Notes from my contribution to a panel on “Reimagining Data Futures: Data and Agency” at Privacy Camp 2019 with Minna Ruckenstein (Consumer Society Research Centre, University of Helsinki), Mirko Tobias Schäfer (Utrecht Data School, University of Utrecht) and Stefania Milan (DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam), moderated by Imge Ozcan (Law, Science, Technology & Society, Vrije Universiteit Brussel).

Picture from Monique Mann.

Thank you so much for inviting me to join you today. I wish I could be there in person, but I’m happy to be able to “dial in”.

I wanted to start by stepping back and asking:

  • What is data?
  • What is datafication?
  • What can data do?
  • How might we intervene around it?
  • Who gets to shape the future of the “data society”?

It is important to keep asking such questions because the answers we give – about what data is, why it matters and what is at stake – can inform different kinds of responses and interventions, perhaps different kinds of data politics. Answering such questions involves empirical specification, conceptual elaboration and critical reflection (perhaps one of the areas where activists, organisations and researchers convened by Privacy Camp may work together).

There are many ways in which data and data infrastructures can become what the science and technology studies scholar Bruno Latour calls “matters of concern”.

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New Book Chapter: “Making Data Public? The Open Data Index as Participatory Device” in Good Data (Amsterdam, Institute of Network Cultures: 2019)

A book chapter on “Making Data Public? The Open Data Index as Participatory Device” co-authored with Danny Lämmerhirt has just been published in a new open access book on Good Data. The book is part of the Theory on Demand series of the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, founded by media theorist and activist Geert Lovink. You can find more about the book here and a direct link to the PDF is here.

The chapter draws on ongoing research around my Data Worlds book, research collaborations and experiments around doing participation with data (including with the Public Data Lab) as well as research, policy and advocacy work at the civil society organisation Open Knowledge International. Here’s the abstract:

The Open Data Index is a ‘civil society audit’ which strives to shape the availability and openness of public sector data from around the world. In this chapter we examine the social life of this project, including how it evolved, the changing visions and practices associated with it, and how it serves to assemble and involve different publics in the assessment of institutional practices and forms of datafication. Drawing on recent work on statactivism, data activism and the performative effects of numbers, rankings and indices, we look at how the index organises participation and data politics in specific ways, raising questions about not only making data public but also the making of public data. It plays two roles which are sometimes in tension: (i) conventionalising assessment to facilitate comparability, and (ii) reflecting the diversity of different interests, issues and settings involved in opening up public sector data. It also facilitates the creation of ‘enumerated entities’ as objects of concern in open data advocacy and policy. The Open Data Index may thus be viewed as a site where participation is both configured and contested, and where practices of valuation and enumeration are both conventionalised and brought into question.

The full reference for our chapter is:

Gray, J., & Lammerhirt, D. (2019). Making Data Public? The Open Data Index as Participatory Device. In A. Daly, S. K. Devitt, & M. Mann (Eds.), Good Data. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

The book is edited by Angela Daly, S. Kate Devitt and Monique Mann, and there are chapters on indigenous data sovereignty, “good enough data”, energy data, data journalism, communal data sharing, data ethics, data activism, accounting for network practices, designing with data and more.

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Table of contents and chapter previews for “The Data Journalism Handbook: Towards a Critical Data Practice”

As we announced last year, Liliana Bounegru and I are currently co-editing a new edition of the The Data Journalism Handbook which will be published on Amsterdam University Press next year.

As it says in the introduction, the book is “a collective experiment in accounting for data journalism practices and a collective invitation to explore how such practices may be modified”. This includes broadening accounts of data journalism projects to further explore their various settings:

The collection of chapters gathered in the book aim to provide a richer story about what data journalism does, with and for whom. Through our editorial work we have encouraged both reflection and a kind of modesty in articulating what data journalism projects can do, and the conditions under which they can succeed. This entails the cultivation of a different kind of precision in accounting for data journalism practice: specifying the situations in which it develops and operates. Such precision requires broadening the scope of the book to include not just the ways in which data is analysed, created and used in the context of journalism but also more about the social, cultural, political and economic circumstances in which such practices are embedded.

We’ve also proposed “twelve challenges for critical data practice”, drawing on Agre’s notion of “critical technical practice” which he describes in terms of having “one foot planted in the craft work of design and the other foot planted in the reflexive work of critique”.

Ahead of the book’s publication next year, and as part of the process of gathering feedback on its content and our editorial approach, we’re publishing online previews of several of the chapters. A working version of the full table of contents for the book is included below.

Beyond these online previews of chapters, if you’re interested testing out further material from the book in the context of teaching or training, please do get in touch. We’re particularly interested in hearing from those who are considering adopting it as on university or higher educational courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

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New project: What can citizen-generated data do? Research collaboration around UN Sustainable Development Goals

Yellow Bar Island Habitat Creation balloon mapping from July 2012,
Gena Wirth, Public Lab.

A new research initiative led by the Public Data LabKing’s College London and Open Knowledge International in collaboration with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and the UN Foundation will map and explore what “citizen-generated data” can do, with a particular focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It will be undertaken ahead of the World Data Forum in October.

The initiative will explore projects, practices and visions associated with citizen-generated data, including: What does citizen-generated data do? How is it imagined, created and used by different actors? What kinds of participation, experience, subjectivity and politics do citizen-generated data projects enable and engender?

It is informed by our recent work on “data infrastructure literacy”, “data worlds”, the “data city as public experiment”, experimentation around air quality data, as well as our previous research collaborations around how citizens and civil society groups can assemble data to attempt to change what is officially accounted for.

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Panel on “Data Worlds” at EASST2018

I’m co-convening a panel on “Data Worlds? Public Imagination and Public Experimentation with Data Infrastructures” at EASST2018 – the latest edition of the conference of the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology – which takes place on 25-28th July 2018 at Lancaster University, UK.

The panel is organised by several colleagues at the Public Data Lab, including Noortje Marres (University of Warwick), Carolin Gerlitz (University of Siegen), Tommaso Venturini (École Normale Supérieure Lyon) and myself.

We had a very interesting set of papers submitted in response to the CFP that went out in December, and further details about the panel (including talks and abstracts) are available here and copied below.

For more about this theme you can also refer to two recent open access articles on “Data Infrastructure Literacy” and “Data Worlds”.

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New Essay: “The Data City as Public Experiment?”

An essay on “The Data City as Public Experiment?” that I wrote with Noortje Marres (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick) has just come out in London Ideas, a new publication from the Centre for London. You can download a PDF of the piece here. The précis is as follows:

Cities have long been imagined as “machines for living”, and today’s data technologies carry the promise of making them more “intelligent” – more attuned to the lives of citizens; better able to ensure feedback and the re-adjustment of relations between people, environments, and institutions. How might data, and data culture, play a role in reshaping city life, for whom, and to what end?

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New Article: “Data Infrastructure Literacy”, Big Data & Society

An article on “Data infrastructure literacy” that I co-authored with with Carolin Gerlitz and Liliana Bounegru has just been published in Big Data & Society. The abstract and full reference for the article are copied below. The article is open access and you can download the PDF here.

Data infrastructure literacy

Jonathan Gray, Carolin Gerlitz, Liliana Bounegru

A recent report from the UN makes the case for “global data literacy” in order to realise the opportunities afforded by the “data revolution”. Here and in many other contexts, data literacy is characterised in terms of a combination of numerical, statistical and technical capacities. In this article, we argue for an expansion of the concept to include not just competencies in reading and working with datasets but also the ability to account for, intervene around and participate in the wider socio-technical infrastructures through which data is created, stored and analysed – which we call “data infrastructure literacy”. We illustrate this notion with examples of “inventive data practice” from previous and ongoing research on open data, online platforms, data journalism and data activism. Drawing on these perspectives, we argue that data literacy initiatives might cultivate sensibilities not only for data science but also for data sociology, data politics as well as wider public engagement with digital data infrastructures. The proposed notion of data infrastructure literacy is intended to make space for collective inquiry, experimentation, imagination and intervention around data in educational programmes and beyond, including how data infrastructures can be challenged, contested, reshaped and repurposed to align with interests and publics other than those originally intended.


Gray, J., Gerlitz, C., & Bounegru, L. (2018). Data Infrastructure Literacy. Big Data & Society, 5, 1–13.

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