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).

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”.

In policy and advocacy we find what have been called “data imaginaries”. These imaginaries matter. As Sheila Jasanoff puts it imaginaries can be construed as:

“collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology”.

And imaginaries leak. There are many different kinds of stories, narratives and imaginaries about data in society, including news stories, films, pop culture references and public debates about hackers, leakers, journalists, investigators, spooks, corporations. (Consider, for example: Aaron Swartz, Black Mirror, Cambridge Analytica, the Matrix, Mr Robot, the Panama Papers, Spotlight, Snowden, Tron, Wikileaks and the Wire..)

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with” – Donna Haraway, Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, String Figures, So Far”

Many of these narratives focus on: “making data public” on the one hand (through, e.g., transparency, data liberation and what Sandra Braman calls “data as a resource”) and “keeping data private” on the other hand (through e.g. privacy and data protection).

These narratives highlight vital aspects of contemporary information politics, but they do not exhaust the roles of data in contemporary societies. Data does more than simply designate different aspects of the world. And data politics can do more than making data public and keeping data private.

To draw attention to and illustrate other aspects of information politics, I’ll briefly discuss several aspects of my ongoing work on data worlds (drawing on a recent article “Three Aspects of Data Worlds”).

Firstly one can consider data worlds in terms of horizons of intelligibility. Data does not only designate, but it also enacts, performs, articulates, participates and brings things into being. Data makes things intelligible – whether through making populations for policy-makers or audiences for advertisers. Contemporary data activist practices can be read as interventions towards intelligibility, whether of police killings, human rights violations, land conflicts, migration deaths, pollution, carbon emissions, or tax avoidance. This includes through the creation of what Helen Verran calls “enumerated entities” – or the numbers which come to life and come to matter in different situations. Data politics can also be ontological politics.

Secondly, one can consider data worlds in terms of the organisation of relations. Data can not only represent aspects of the world, or make things intelligible, but it can also assemble, enable and enact relations between people, states, markets, things, environments – enrolling people individually and/or collectively as platform users, commodities, debtors, community members, reporters, monitors, sensors, experts, co-investigators and otherwise. For example, in one recent case I’ve been studying Amnesty International’s Decoders Initiative as a form of “data witnessing”, which assembles machine learning algorithms, social media data, satellite imagery and volunteer networks in different countries in order to attend to situations of injustice. Attending to who and what data brings together can inform and inspire not only critique but also alternative practices, including suggesting ways in which care, concern and solidarity may be constructed, structured, extended and delimited by means of digital data

Thirdly, one can consider data worlds in terms of transnational coordination. Data worlds can provide the background against which things become seeable, sayable and doable with data across borders, whether we’re talking about austerity and fiscal discipline, multinational taxation, climate change or migration. Data worlds can be enlisted in the service of extractivism or emancipation; solidarity or subjugation across borders. Data worlds can be understood in relation to histories of statistical coordination in the nineteenth century, colonialism, neoliberalism, the emergence of international institutions and multinational corporations, transnational civil society and big technology companies.

We’re currently in a moment where platforms are becoming a dominant form for organising data and data flows in particular ways (according to what Helmond calls the “double logic” of “decentralizing platform features and recentralizing platform ready data”). And of course, this is not limited to large technology companies: the notion of “government as a platform” has led several states (including the UK) to explore how public information can be made programmable and transformed into a resource for private sector innovation, drawing on emerging models in the tech industry. Yet the techno-political form of the platform does not exhaust the kinds of knowledge, sociality and politics that we see in contemporary data societies.

Attending to such different perspectives – on what data is, what data does and how it can be involved in making things intelligible, organising relations and coordinating things across borders – may help to inform and enrich analyses and interventions around the role of data in collective life. In the current moment and for many reasons we need not only urgent action, but also ambition and imagination. We may aspire not only to regulate platforms, but also to break them up, bring them into public ownership or support entirely different kinds of data infrastructures.

Data politics is not just about data. We are not our “data selves”. The dominant forms of platforms and data infrastructures are not the only ones. Other data worlds are possible. As if we look carefully we may find seeds of inspiration for other data futures already around us.

Research, references, resources and examples that this talk draws on

– Gray, J. (2016). Datafication and Democracy: Recalibrating Digital Information Systems to Address Societal Interests. Juncture, 23, 197–201.

– Gray, J. (2018). Three Aspects of Data Worlds. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy.

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

– Gray, J., & Bounegru, L. (forthcoming). What a Difference a Dataset Makes? Data Journalism And/As Data Activism. In J. Evans, S. Ruane, & H. Southall (Eds.), Data in Society: Challenging Statistics in an Age of Globalisation. Bristol: The Policy Press.

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

– Gray, J., Lämmerhirt, D., & Bounegru, L. (2016). Changing What Counts: How Can Citizen-Generated and Civil Society Data Be Used as an Advocacy Tool to Change Official Data Collection? CIVICUS and Open Knowledge International.

– Lämmerhirt, D., Gray, J., Venturini, T., & Meunier, A. (2018). Advancing Sustainability Together? Citizen-Generated Data and the Sustainable Development Goals. Open Knowledge International and Public Data Lab.

Back to posts