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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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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Interview on new edition of Data Journalism Handbook

As Liliana Bounegru and I are preparing the manuscript of the Data Journalism Handbook: Towards A Critical Data Practice (forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press), here is the full transcript of an interview we did about the book with the European Journalism Centre in December 2018, selections of which were published here and here.

Why another Data Journalism Handbook

We were really lucky with the previous edition, which seemed a good fit for the moment in 2012. It has been widely translated and adopted as a core text on data journalism courses and trainings around the world. We designed it to age well, providing not just practical guidance on how to work with data, but also a diverse snapshot of the hopes and practices of data journalists at that particular moment in time.

The field of data journalism has travelled a long way since 2012. Not just because of more sophisticated technologies, but also because the social, cultural, political and economic settings of the field have changed. We’ve seen not only major initiatives like the Snowden leaks and the Panama Papers, but also debates and controversies around the role of data, platforms and digital technologies in society. Lots of tough questions have been raised about what data journalism is, who it is for and what it might do in digital societies.

Rather than just having a narrower focus on data practices, we take a broader look at these questions and consider what we might learn from them. In parallel to doing the first edition of the handbook, we’ve also gone through our graduate studies and into universities where we’ve been researching these kinds of questions about the societal implications of digital data, methods and platforms. The new edition of the book is our attempt to make sense of the field of data journalism and its changing role in the contemporary world, thinking along with a diverse mix of practitioners and researchers.

A lot has changed since 2012 in the data journalism landscape, what does it mean for the book and for you as editors?

To use a metaphor: there was a time when the number of readily available books in the world was small enough that it was not considered crazy for a librarian to try to build what they could consider a pretty comprehensive collection of books. Their acquisitions policy could just be: “whatever we can get our hands on”. In 2012, it might have not have seemed so crazy to, for example, have a go at making a list of data journalists and their projects from around the world. One very practical consequence for us as editors is that we cannot kid ourselves about our partiality: can only hope to cover a comparatively small number of the projects, practices and themes in this ever-growing field, and it was a difficult job to decide what to focus on in the book.

Also, as we’ve mentioned above, there have been many debates and controversies about the role and status of data journalism, which we’ve sought unpack and address in the book, as well as examining its relation to other developments. Since 2012 we have seen the rise of questions about the societal implications of technology precipitated by actors, events and issues as diverse as Snowden, Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping, the Syrian civil war, Cambridge Analytica, Gamergate, #metoo, #IdleNoMore, Black Lives Matter, strikes and walkouts from tech workers, Uber riots, the European refugee crisis, Facebook’s News Feed algorithms, “fake news” and misinformation, the Gab platform and the rise of far-right populism and extremism. Several chapters in the book suggest how data journalists might attend to and position themselves in relation to such phenomena.

In 2012, there were not so many resources for learning data journalism. Now there are plenty more. How will this book be different from other data journalism resources out there?

There are indeed now so many useful resources (and there were too in 2012) – from practical tutorials and MOOCs on tools, code, visualisations, design and machine learning techniques, to “behind the scenes” blog posts and commentaries. Such resources will continue to evolve and are “best served fresh” from a variety of different sources.

The new edition of the book takes a step back from this more “hands on” material, and provides space to reflect on different aspects of contemporary data journalism practice. We have felt such a need for such a book when teaching data journalism on several courses – and in particular to complement more practical materials with practitioner perspectives as well as research perspectives from fields such as science and technology studies, media studies, internet studies and journalism studies. This provides a richer context for introducing data journalists’ particular blend of methods and approaches for working with data – examining not just the “how” but also the “what”, “where”, “when”, “why” and “for whom”.

How did you personally fall into data journalism? What fascinates you about it?

We both have a professional background in this area, and met at a data journalism conference which Liliana organised in Amsterdam in 2010. At that time Jonathan was working at an NGO called Open Knowledge International and particularly interested in data visualisations and the politics of public data (also going back to early 20th century experiments such as the Isotype Institute), at the same time as pursuing his graduate studies in London. Liliana was leading data journalism activities at the European Journalism Centre, at the same time as undertaking graduate studies at the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam (where she later became Managing Director).

We were both fascinated by emerging practices around how the world is accounted for through data – not just through established institutions such as national statistics bodies, but also through experimental and inventive modes of storytelling and participation with data in journalism and civil society. Such data practices would not just produce accounts of the world through data, but they’d also have to assemble publics for their work. We were also interested in how such projects would aspire to attend to collective life at scale, including environmental, social, political, economic and cultural dynamics beyond the to-and-fro of talking heads.

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