Framing data witnessing

A new article in Media, Culture & Society by Heather Ford and Michael Richardson builds on and extends the notion of “data witnessing” that I developed in studying Amnesty International’s data practices. The article focuses on framing data practices and the production of epistemic authority in the case of the Airwars project. Here’s an excerpt:

Examining Airwars in this context of changing practices, we build on the existing scholarship on witnessing to extend and develop the concept of ‘data witnessing’, which Gray (2019) defines as witnessing that is ‘collective, mediated, distributed across space and time, and accomplished with the involvement of a plethora of both human and non-human actors’ (p. 986). Coining the term to describe ‘how situations can be accounted for and responded to with data’, Gray (2019) examines Amnesty International’s Decoders projects of translating human rights archives into structured data to show how the collective analysis of data through microtasking, design workshops and custom-built user interfaces constitutes a distinct approach to witnessing injustice (p. 974). Reflecting on those practices, Gray shows how witnessing can become ‘a collective accomplishment which enables concern and solidarity to be extended across space and time, as opposed to the “thereness” of singular personal experience’ (p. 987). In his account, data witnessing produces diverse kinds of media objects – databases, maps, visualisations, algorithms – but also enables a variety of different approaches to injustice. While Gray’s conception of data witnessing is powerful, it does not explain how particular witnessing accounts might obtain and sustain authority.

In this article, we argue that certain data witnessing accounts can have greater purchase than other accounts because of the ways in which they are framed within information ecosystems dominated by data logics. […]

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