Interview in New Internationalist on air pollution data practices

I was recently interviewed by New Internationalist co-editor Amy Hall for the cover story of its latest edition on air pollution. We spoke about a recent interdisciplinary research project at King’s College London on “Doing Participation with Air Pollution Data” also building on the Public Data Lab’s Save Our Air project. Here’s an excerpt:

Jonathan Gray is lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at King’s College London. He researches the politics of sensor data and its role in activism, including people using their own, lower-cost air-pollution monitors. Although the reliability of such monitors can be questioned, Gray says they are a useful tool for pointing out to authorities where there is a problem, as well as bringing the issue to life for a wider range of people. “Sensing devices can play many different roles in helping to bring the environment into social and political life. This is relevant not just from the point of view of noxious emissions from cars, but also climate change. The massive problem is trying to make a very intangible issue relatable.”

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Book Chapter “The Data Epic: Visualisation Practices for Narrating Life and Death at a Distance” in Data Visualization in Society (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press)

I’ve just had a chapter on “The Data Epic: Visualisation Practices for Narrating Life and Death at a Distance” published in a new book on Data Visualization in Society (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) edited by Helen Kennedy and Martin Engebretsen.

The book is open access and you can download the whole manuscript as as PDF here and you can find my chapter here.

Here’s the abstract for the book:

Today we are witnessing an increased use of data visualization in society. Across domains such as work, education and the news, various forms of graphs, charts and maps are used to explain, convince and tell stories. In an era in which more and more data are produced and circulated digitally, and digital tools make visualization production increasingly accessible, it is important to study the conditions under which such visual texts are generated, disseminated and thought to be of societal benefit. This book is a contribution to the multi-disciplined and multi-faceted conversation concerning the forms, uses and roles of data visualization in society. Do data visualizations do ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Do they promote understanding and engagement, or do they do ideological work, privileging certain views of the world over others? The contributions in the book engage with these core questions from a range of disciplinary perspectives.

Here’s the abstract and full reference for my chapter:

This chapter proposes the notion of the ‘data epic’, which is examined through two works of ‘cinematic data visualization’: The Fallen of World War II and The Shadow Peace: The Nuclear Threat. These pieces mobilize an aesthetics of distance to narrate life and death at scale, in past and possible global conflicts. While previous studies of quantification emphasize the function of distance in relation to aspirations of objectivity, this chapter explores other narrative and affective capacities of distance in the context of ‘public data culture’. The data epic can thus enrich understanding of how data are rendered meaningful for various publics, as well as the entanglement of data aesthetics and data politics involved in visualization practices for picturing collective life.

Keywords: Data politics; Data aesthetics; Data practices; Sociology of quantification; Distance; Scale.

Gray, J. (2020) “The Data Epic: Visualisation Practices for Narrating Life and Death at a Distance.” In H. Kennedy and M. Engebretsen (eds) Data Visualization in Society. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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New Article: “‘Fake News’ as Infrastructural Uncanny”, New Media & Society

An article by Liliana Bounegru, Tommaso Venturini and I on “‘Fake news’ as infrastructural uncanny” has just been published in New Media & Society. It builds on work that we did as part of the Field Guide to “Fake News” with the Public Data Lab. The article is open access and freely available on the web and in PDF format. The abstract is copied below.

‘Fake news’ as infrastructural uncanny

Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru, Tommaso Venturini

In this article, we examine how the social disturbance precipitated by ‘fake news’ can be viewed as a kind of infrastructural uncanny. We suggest that the threat of problematic and viral junk news can raise existential questions about the routine circulation, engagement and monetisation of content through the Web and social media. Prompted by the unsettling effects associated with the ‘fake news’ scandal, we propose methodological tactics for exploring (1) the link economy and the ranking of content, (2) the like economy and the metrification of engagement and (3) the tracker economy and the commodification of attention. Rather than focusing on the misleading content of junk news, such tactics surface the infrastructural conditions of their circulation, enabling public interventions and experiments to interrogate, challenge and change their role in reconfiguring relations between different aspects of social, cultural, economic and political life.

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New piece: “Is “another internet possible”? Inside Labour’s digital infrastructure plans” in Open Democracy

The following piece is cross-posted from OpenDemocracy, where it was published on 4th December 2019.

“The Physical Internet” visualisation from DensityDesign Lab undertaken by Beatrice Bazzan, Allegra Colombo, Martina Giordano, Gianluca Misto, Ludovica Piro, Irina Stojsic

The Labour Party’s recently launched manifesto and associated proposals contain the seeds of an egalitarian, progressive vision of the role that digital, data and knowledge infrastructures might play in contemporary life. While their proposals on broadband, tax, data, patents, platforms, AI and digital rights have largely been reported and evaluated separately, together they serve as a reminder that “another internet is possible”.

The past few years have seen a series of critiques of the exploitative capacities of digital technologies, such as “platform capitalism”, “surveillance capitalism” and “data colonialism”. Large technology companies such as the “big four” (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) proliferate devices and interfaces which gather data for advertising and targeting, facilitated by aggressive tax avoidance in countries where they operate.

Online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo promote exploitative and precarious “gig” work. The algorithms, tracking ecosystems and personalisation mechanisms of search and social media companies contribute to the commodification of public life, the polarisation of political debate, as well as new forms of discrimination and inequality. As new media scholar Richard Rogers frames the recent turn in public discourse, “instead of emancipatory, the web became authoritarian, with Shirky’s web supplanted by Morozov’s”.

In response to these developments, Labour have committed to taxing multinational corporations (“including tech giants”) in proportion to their economic activities by closing loopholes and changing rules which currently enable avoidance at a massive scale ($100 billion in avoidance for just six firms over the past decade, according to one recent report). The manifesto also proposes a new “Charter of Digital Rights” which would challenge algorithmic injustice, surveillance and support user rights for access and ownership to their data.

In addition to this agenda of redistribution, regulation and rights, Labour’s manifesto also contains proposals around alternative arrangements for the ownership, governance and control of digital and data infrastructures. Most prominent are the “free full-fibre broadband for all” proposals through the creation of a new “British Broadband” public service building on the successes of publicly owned networks around the world.

As internet studies and science and technology studies researchers have argued for many decades, digital infrastructures are not just neutral vehicles, but embody different kinds of values, politics and relations. Prioritising public access over private profits, publicly owned broadband networks challenge the long-standing assumption that “corporations necessarily provide connectivity”. British Broadband could commit to lowering environmental impacts by repurposing existing fibre, rather than laying new cables.

Taken together, Labour’s proposals for British Broadband and the Charter of Digital Rights suggest the possibility of changing not only the means but also the meaning of connectivity. With a shift from broadband as commercial service to broadband as a public commons comes the promise of reconfiguring relations between digital infrastructures and their users – for example, figuring the latter as networked citizens with expertise to offer rather than surveilled consumers from whom value can be extracted through transactional data.

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Book chapter: “What a difference a dataset makes? Data journalism and/as data activism”, Data in Society, (Policy Press, 2019)

A book chapter on  “What a difference a dataset makes? Data journalism and/as data activism” co-authored with Liliana Bounegru has just been published in a new book Data in Society: Challenging Statistics in an Age of Globalisation on Policy Press.

The preprint is available here and an excerpt from the introduction and full reference are copied below.

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New Chinese Translation of Public Data Lab’s “A Field Guide to ‘Fake News’ and Other Information Disorders”

I’ve just received a copy of a new Chinese translation of the Public Data Lab‘s “A Field Guide to ‘Fake News’ and Other Information Disorders” which has been published by the Quality News Development Association (優質新聞發展協會) in Taipei.

I’ve been told that a free digital copy is forthcoming, and in the mean time printed copies of the translation are available here and here. The original version is available under a Creative Commons Attribution license here (PDF) and all assets are on GitHub here. There’s also a Japanese translation available here.

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Book Chapter: “Computational Imaginaries: Some Further Remarks on Leibniz, Llull and Rethinking the History of Calculating Machines”, DIA-LOGOS: Ramon Llull’s Method of Thought and Artistic Practice (University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

I’ve just had a chapter published in a new book on DIA-LOGOS: Ramon Llull’s Method of Thought and Artistic Practice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). The book is edited by the philosopher Amador Vega; the artist, curator and theorist Peter Weibel (who also co-curated the Making Things Public exhibition with Bruno Latour); and media theorist Siegfried Zielinski.

The book draws on a major exhibition at the ZKM Centre for Art and Media (Karlsruhe, Germany) on the legacy of Ramon Llull, including in fields such as “literature, visual arts, music, philosophy, religion, and politics” (the brochure for the exhibition is available here).

My chapter is on “Computational Imaginaries: Some Further Remarks on Leibniz, Llull and Rethinking the History of Calculating Machines“. The chapter can be downloaded here, and the full reference is as follows:

Gray, J. (2018). Computational Imaginaries: Some Further Remarks on Leibniz, Llull and Rethinking the History of Calculating Machines. In A. Vega, P. Weibel, & S. Zielinski (Eds.), DIA-LOGOS: Ramon Llull’s Method of Thought and Artistic Practice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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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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