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

7AAVBCS4 Data Activism

The UN has declared a “data revolution”. Countries, countries and commentators around the world argue that data is “the new oil”, and have set up new programmes to exploit it. But who stands to benefit from this vast proliferation of digital data in society? What is rendered into data and how, and who decides? How are different actors challenging and contesting processes of datafication, and exploring alternatives to surveillance and the dominance of a small number of big platforms? How can data be used to render issues visible, and to mobilise, energise and institutionalise action around environmental, social, economic and political initiatives?  This module provides an introduction to the research and contemporary practices of “data activism”.

The module will introduce various practices of “making things public” and “keeping things private” through interventions around data infrastructures. But this is not just a straightforward story of balancing transparency and privacy. Data activism is an important and emerging site of knowledge politics and experimentation around the role of information in society. Journalists, NGOs and civil society groups use various forms of digital data to draw attention to their causes (from inequality to climate change), by telling stories and making different kinds of evidence and experiences with data. This includes both creatively using, questioning as well as providing alternatives to data from public institutions and platforms. Data can be used not only to quantify and analyse issues, but also to assemble publics to address them. Activists also challenge surveillance, commodification and discrimination by drawing attention to systems for mass data collection, analysis and algorithmic classification, and by exploring the use of encryption tools and alternative infrastructures.

Data politics can be very obvious, such as in the way in which different sources of information are put to work in governing collective life. The politics of data can also be more subtle, such as in the everyday practices of classification and quantification facilitated by the digital devices around us. While the bias of the data is easy to assert, it can be much more difficult to observe. Information systems hide their political attachments, not necessarily maliciously, but simply because it allows them to more effectively perform their tasks. Data activism arises precisely from the desire to expose (and if possible rebalance) the power asymmetries inherent in information systems. It seeks to promote spaces for deliberation around data infrastructures; to investigate the conditions of their production; to explain the constraints they generate; and to propose alternative ways of redistributing their social consequences.

Through a series of readings, seminars and participatory workshops with external guests this module will explore how data activism seeks to change our perspective on data and to shift our attention from particular information systems to the broader socio-technical arrangements that shape collective life.

Learning Outcomes

– Gain a solid grounding in recent social and cultural research around data activism and the politics of data (including open data, data journalism, citizen data and associated fields);
– Obtain experience in studying and developing data projects – including gathering, analysing, visualising and intervening around data through participatory group work with external guests;
– Learn how to study data activism and the politics of data, drawing on a combination of digital methods, content analysis and experiments in participation.

Illustrative Readings

Baack, S. (2015). Datafication and Empowerment: How the Open Data Movement Re-Articulates Notions of Democracy, Participation, and Journalism. Big Data & Society2(2), 2053951715594634. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951715594634

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bruno, I., Didier, E., & Vitale, T. (2014). Statactivism: Forms of Action between Disclosure and Affirmation. Partecipazione e Conflitto7(2). Retrieved from http://siba-ese.unisalento.it/index.php/paco/article/view/14150

Dencik, L., Hintz, A., & Cable, J. (2016). Towards Data Justice? The Ambiguity of Anti-Surveillance Resistance in Political Activism. Big Data & Society3(2), 2053951716679678. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716679678

Desrosières, A. (2002). The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. (C. Naish, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dijck, J. van. (2014). Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data Between Scientific Paradigm and Ideology. Surveillance & Society12(2), 197–208.

Gabrys, J., Pritchard, H., & Barratt, B. (2016). Just Good Enough Data: Figuring Data Citizenships Through Air Pollution Sensing and Data Stories. Big Data & Society3(2), 2053951716679677. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716679677

Gray, J. (2016). Datafication and Democracy: Recalibrating Digital Information Systems to Address Societal Interests. Juncture23(3). Retrieved from http://www.ippr.org/juncture/datafication-and-democracy

Gray, J. (2018). Three Aspects of Data Worlds. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy. Retrieved from http://krisis.eu/three-aspects-of-data-worlds/

Gray, J. (2019). Data Witnessing: Attending to Injustice with Data in Amnesty International’s Decoders Project. Information, Communication & Society, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1573915

Jasanoff, S. (2017). Virtual, Visible, and Actionable: Data Assemblages and the Sightlines of Justice. Big Data & Society4(2), 2053951717724477. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717724477

Milan, S., & van der Velden, L. (2016). The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society2(2), 57–74. https://doi.org/10.14361/dcs-2016-0205

Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pybus, J., Coté, M., & Blanke, T. (2015). Hacking the Social Life of Big Data. Big Data & Society2(2), 2053951715616649. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951715616649

Raley, R. (2013). Dataveillance and Countervailance. In L. Gitelman (Ed.), “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: MIT Press.

Ruppert, E., Isin, E., & Bigo, D. (2017). Data Politics. Big Data & Society4(2), 2053951717717749. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717717749

Schrock, A. R. (2016). Civic hacking as data activism and advocacy: A history from publicity to open government data. New Media & Society, 1461444816629469. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816629469

Taylor, L. (2017). What Is Data Justice? The Case for Connecting Digital Rights and Freedoms Globally. Big Data & Society4(2), 2053951717736335. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717736335

Thornham, H., & Cruz, E. G. (2016). Hackathons, Data and Discourse: Convolutions of the Data (logical). Big Data & Society3(2), 2053951716679675. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716679675

Velden, L. van der. (2015). Forensic Devices for Activism: Metadata Tracking and Public Proof. Big Data & Society2(2), 2053951715612823. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951715612823


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