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Symposium on Big Data and Human Development - closing remarks

It has been an extremely rewarding two days at the Symposium on Big Data and Human Development that Eduardo Lopez and I organised. We had a full room of people from academia, government, and the development sector - all speaking about how we might better use big data in the contexts of development. 

There are many threads that we’ll try to tie up over the next few weeks (an edited book, some workshop reports, perhaps another conference next year, etc.). But in the meantime, it might be useful if I reproduce the notes that I used to sum up the event here. Those of you who attended, please do comment if you see that I omitted anything. Those of you who didn’t, please feel free to use this as a prompt to get involved. 

***

This has been a much-needed conversation at a moment in which we’re awash with hype about ‘big data’. 

We’ve learnt a lot about some of the potentials of big data: We’ve got new sorts of early warning signals. And – as we move from data to information to knowledge - we seem to be getting better at figuring out what to look for when it comes to disease tracking, or predicting things like student failure rates or corruption.

The fact that so much data comes from mobile phones has also created a specific opportunity to look at human mobility. And the relative democratisation of connectivity has important implications for deliberation and public participation at scales that have never before been possible.

But, with all that in mind, I want to pick up with areas that I think we still need to find ways to resolve as we all move forwards at this intersection of topics:

First, one theme that keeps coming up is that of data presences and absences really mattering. We have great data about some places, processes, people. But there are still big gaps - and, going forwards, we’ll really to address this head-on.  If we’re using data to deploy scarce resources or deliver essential services, but there are blank spots on our map - then what strategies should we be employing to deal not just with our known unknowns, but also our unknown unknowns? Some of this might entail really getting good about asking questions about outliers in our models: Where are they, who are they, when are they?

Second, another important theme is not just data presences and absences - but even within the presences, there is the question of open versus closed data. So, for instance –  many of us - me included - tend to use Twitter data to ask and answer a range of questions. And we do this because it is easily available and free and relatively straightforward to use.

But we should be careful that we don’t get into the sort of situation in which the tail wags the dog rather than the dog wags the tail - as my colleague Ralph Schroeder puts it. What sorts of questions are we prevented from asking because of a lack of open, available data sources? What sorts of questions or topics are we perhaps focusing too much energy on? And what sorts of questions do our data lend or not lend themselves to?

Third, and relatedly, we’re faced with some tension between issues of privacy, ownership, and control. How do we balance the desire to have more open data with best practices that prevent data leakage and still afford citizens with some control over their own data shadows?

There was an interesting discussion in the session that I organised with Richard Heeks at the DSA conference earlier this week about what we might learn from the literature on resource management – if we treat data as a resource.

And more broadly, are we happy with the current political-economy of development data? What current rights of access, control, and use should be rethought and challenged?

Fourth, how do we ourselves operate with maximum transparency - especially when we’re not just dealing with descriptive analytics, but predictive analytics, and even prescriptive analytics? If our research, and the data we use, impacts on real people in real ways - are we happy with the current scientific models of dissemination that we use - or do we need any sort of alternate strategies that better engage with the communities that are the users - or subjects - of development?

Fifth, what can, or should, we learn across contexts? Or specifically, what should we rethink and relearn in different places or contexts? What sorts of things aren’t transferrable? This is maybe where the repeated call throughout this conference for all of us to be thinking and collaborating in a multidisciplinary way comes in useful.  

Digital\\\Human\\\Labour  **Call for papers at the 2017 AAG meeting**

Call for Papers: Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting. April 5-9, 2017, Boston, MA

The proposed Digital Geographies Working Group of the RGS/IBG and the proposed Digital Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG would like to invite submissions to a series of paper sessions and panels for the 2017 meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston, MA. Reflecting the shared interests of these groups, and their mutual desire to facilitate conversations between a wide range of geographical scholarship, this call is for papers exploring specifically the various intersections of ‘digital’ and ‘labour’ in diverse meanings of both.

We will convene a concluding panel session, and encourage interested participants to submit abstracts for any of these three paper sessions:

The human labour of digital work

Discussant: Mark Graham

The spread of the internet to three and a half billion people around the world has significant implications for the human labour. It is now relatively straightforward to outsource business processes to anyone, anywhere, that has a digital connection. This session aims to bring together scholarship that explores the human labour of this digital work. Who carries it out? How does it effect the livelihoods of workers? What sorts of political and organisational governance regimes bring it into being? And what are the ethical, spatial, social, and economic implications of a world in which human labour is increasing disembedded into digital networks?

The digital labour of being human

Discussant: Gillian Rose

image

Digital technologies are now embedded in many aspects of everyday life in many places, mediating everyday experiences of embodiment, mobility, and communication.  It is clear that many of these mediations are reproducing existing ways and forms of ‘being human’, but it is also clear that new forms of (post)humanities are emerging, co-produced with, for example, VR headsets, big data, and social media platforms.  This session aims to bring together scholarship that addresses these monadic emergences.  What new forms of distributed agency, performative gestures and navigational orientations could and should be mapped?  What are their temporalities and spatialities, and what hierarchies of power and difference do they enact?

The algorithmic labour of being

Discussant: Jim Thatcher

image

Alongside the rise in access to internet technologies and the quotidian uses of said technologies, has come an entwined rise in the analysis and manipulation of digital information through algorithms. Just as new technologies introduce interfaces, mediations, and affordances to (re)produce representations of self, so too do the algorithms which sort, select, and present information constrain what can be done and known through the use of said devices. Similarly, even as the very real geography of the labor of digital work shifts and extends across the globe, algorithms increasingly insert themselves betwixt and between laborers, customers, and corporate interests, altering traditional employment relations through the mediation of technology. Building from the themes of the previous two sessions, this session aims to bring together research on the many ways in which algorithms and quantification function in the world. Questions of interest include, but are not limited to: What sorts of new spatial relations are possible through the algorithmic mediation of labor relations? Where is the work of algorithms done? What are the historical roots of this process? What new forms of knowledge and power have been enabled (and constrained) by these systems?

If you have any additional questions, please contact Jim Thatcher (jethatch@uw.edu), Mark Graham (mark.graham@oii.ox.ac.uk) or Gillian Rose (gillian.rose@open.ac.uk).

For consideration of inclusion, please submit abstract to jethatch@uw.edu by October 15th, 2016.  Please format your abstract in a text file of no more than 250 words, including a title, your name, institutional affiliation and email address in the document.

Power, politics and digital development (our DSA 2016 sessions)

We’ve pulled together a fantastic group of papers for the upcoming DSA meeting in Oxford:

Convenors

  • Richard Heeks (University of Manchester) email
  • Mark Graham (University of Oxford) email
  • Ben Ramalingam (Institute of Development Studies) email

Short Abstract

Covers the broad intersection of power, politics and digital development including both directionalities - the impact of power and politics on design, diffusion, implementation and outcomes of ICT application; and the impact of ICT application on power and politics - and their mutual interaction.

Long Abstract

Digital Dividends" - the 2016 World Development Report - finds the benefits of digital development to be unevenly distributed, and identifies emergent “digital ills”. The cause in both cases is inequalities of power in economic and political arenas including vested interests, digital monopolies, lack of citizen voice vis-a-vis the state, and other factors.

This panel invites papers at the broad intersection of power, politics and digital development including both directionalities - the impact of power and politics on design, diffusion, implementation and outcomes of ICT application; and the impact of ICT application on power and politics - and their mutual interaction.

We welcome work anywhere along the spectrum from the micro-exercise of power within individual ICT4D initiatives through the politics of national ICT-using organisations and institutions to global Internet governance. Other topics for papers might include but are not limited to:

- The organisational politics of ICT4D

- Digital resources as foundations of power in development

- Reproduction and transformation of power and inequality through digital development

- Digital development discourse as a source and reflection of power

- The institutional logics that conflict and contest to shape digital development

- How national and international ICT policies address and express issues of power

Papers

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Internet: Chronicling the Shift from Circumvention to Connectivity

Author: Deniz Duru Aydin (University of Oxford)  

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the evolution of Internet-related U.S. foreign policy and development agenda from Internet freedom to today’s Global Connect Initiative. The reasons for this policy shift are analyzed within the broader global context such as Snowden revelations and the recently adopted SDGs.

Configuring the users adapting the system: participation and ICT4D in Afghanistan

Author: Melanie Stilz (Technical University Berlin)  

Short Abstract

Participation is still almost exclusively defined from a donor perspective. How can those offering their help and resources enable participation by those receiving the support? In this paper I examine how “participation” is interpreted and executed in ICT project in the Afghan education sector.

Critical Agency in Digital Development

Author: Tony Roberts (United Nations University) 

Short Abstract

This paper uses critical theory to extend Sen’s capability approach and to argue that key to digital development should be enhancing people’s critical-agency i.e. their ability to critique and act upon any power and political constraints on their development.

Digital Politics, Institutional Logics and Development

Author: Richard Heeks (University of Manchester) 

Short Abstract

This paper illustrates, explains and draws conclusions from the six patterns that emerge from growth of digital politics in the global South; patterns of Copy, Spread, Curve, Boost, Shift and Hybrid between dominant competitive and subordinate cooperative institutional logics.

Digital technologies, power, and intermediaries in Myanmar and India

Authors: Elisa Oreglia (SOAS University of London)  
Janaki Srinivasan  

Short Abstract

Digital technologies that can disintermediate markets are now common in Myanmar and India and yet intermediaries and traditional practices still dominate rural markets. We explore the resilience of intermediaries and how digital technologies reinforce, and more rarely challenge, existing power hierarchies.

From Open Data to Empowerment: Lessons from Indonesia and the Philippines

Author: Michael Canares (World Wide Web Foundation)  

Short Abstract

Using case studies in the Philippines and Indonesia, this paper explains how and why open data can affect the spaces, places, and forms of power and how it provides avenues for citizens to exert efforts to reclaim its space in decision-making, agenda-setting, and meaning-making.

Identity, transparency and other visibilties: A liquid surveillance perspective of biometric technologies

Author: Shyam Krishna (Royal Holloway, University of London) 

Short Abstract

This paper studies ‘Aadhar’ – India’s national biometric digital identity program under a ‘liquid surveillance’ lens exploring surveillant power and associated politics of the project which seeks a seeming trade-off between citizen privacy and its modernist and developmentalist purpose.

Institutional isomorphism and organized hypocrisy in aid information management systems (AIMS): Case of Indonesia

Author: Kyung Ryul Park (LSE )  

Short Abstract

The study highlights the complexity of aid information management systems (AIMS), and explains its implementation and shutdown. By doing an in-depth qualitative study in Indonesia, it shows that AIMS is not mainly driven by a search for managerialistic gain, but motivated by external pressures.

Points-of-presence: Cloud giants in the datacenter-periphery

Authors: Rupert Brown (Prodiga Research)   

Short Abstract

We show the incursion of the big three cloud providers into African networks and illustrate flows and caches between regional peers. An investigation of Bandwidth-delivery and Security-ownership shows shadow technology, with services and instances, sidestepping local and national control.

Political Power and Digital Payments in a Government Social Social Cash Programme

Author: Atika Kemal (Anglia Ruskin University UK)   

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the effects of political power on the design and implementation of digital payments in a government social cash programme in Pakistan. It adopts an interpretive case study methodology to collect primary data through qualitative methods.

The Dialectics of Open Development

Authors: Yingqin Zheng   
Becky Faith (Institute of Development Studies)   

Short Abstract

This paper aims to provide a critical literature review on open development, explore the ideological assumptions, political foundations and economic forces behind open development, examine the challenges and unintended consequences, and consider the dialectics of boundaries in openness.

The Digital Politics of Development and Anonymous Online Power

Author: Brett Matulis (University of Leicester) 

Short Abstract

Development is an inherently political act that is both promoted and disputed through online media. With the rise of the “darknet” and anonymous digital activism, we are witnessing an important shift in power relations and a new phase in digital political resistance to development projects.

The Networkers of Outrage: a Demographic Survey of Indonesian Twitter Activists

Author: Lukas Schlogl (King’s College London) 

Short Abstract

This paper explores Twitter protest during a nationwide political controversy about Indonesia’s local direct elections. Drawing on novel survey data, it analyzes geo-demographic and socioeconomic determinants of political Twitter use and evaluates Twitter’s impact on Indonesia’s democracy.

The Struggle for Digital Inclusion: Phones, Healthcare, and Sharp Elbows in India

Author: Marco Haenssgen (Nuffield Department of Medicine) 

Short Abstract

I use an India-wide household panel to explore healthcare marginalisation among digitally excluded and included groups in rural areas. I find that phone diffusion creates a struggle that sharpens the elbows of those who are able to use the devices—provided the health system permits such use.

Unique Identification Number To A Billion Indians: Politics Around Identity, Data Sharing And Analytics

Authors: Ranjini Raghavendra 
Shirin Madon (LSE) 

Short Abstract

The paper focusses on issues of Identity, Data Sharing and Analytics within the world’s largest social identity programme namely Aadhar, in India.

What is Free about Free Basics?

Author: Jenna Keenan-Alspector (University of Colorado - Boulder) 

Short Abstract

Investigating how industry giants leverage power and increase inequalities, further straining the resources of the poor; a new ‘digital ill’ has risen: the emergence of the drug dealer of mobile broadband, Free Basics.

Historicizing Big Data and Geo-information

I was asked by my colleague and friend Oliver Belcher to act as a discussant in a session that he put together at the 2016 meeting of the Association of American Geographers: ‘Historicizing Big Data and Geo-information’.


The session contained a set of truly excellent and provocative talks by Louise Amoore, Matthew Hannah, Patrick McHaffie, and Eric Huntley. I’ve now had a chance to type up my discussant notes (although apologies for the hastily-put-together nature of the text).

I think that this has been a much-needed set of papers at a moment in which we’re awash with hype about ‘big data’. We hear that we’re at a significant moment of change; that there’s a big data revolution that will transform science, society, the economy, security, politics, and just about everything else.


And so, it’s important that these sorts of conversations are brought together. To allow us to think about continuities and discontinuities. To allow us to think about what is and what isn’t truly new here. And to do that in order to hone our responses as critical scholars.

One way to start - perhaps - is to recognize, as all of the papers in this session have, that while ‘big data’ may not be new, we’re in, have been in, or at least have long been moving towards, what Danny Hills refers to as an Age of Entanglement. I think it is maybe useful as a starting point for me to quote him here.


He says “We are our thoughts, whether they are created by our neurons, by our electronically augmented minds, by our technologically mediated social interactions, or by our machines themselves. We are our bodies, whether they are born in womb or test tube, our genes inherited or designed, organs augmented, repaired, transplanted, or manufactured. We are our perceptions, whether they are through our eyes and ears or our sensory-fused hyper-spectral sensors, processed as much by computers as by our own cortex. We are our institutions, cooperating super-organisms, entangled amalgams of people and machines with super-human intelligence, processing, sensing, deciding, acting.”

In other words, while big data may not be new, we do now undoubtedly live in a digitally infused, digitally-augmented world. One in which we’re entangled in complex digital ecosystems; hybrid complex ecosystems in which it is increasingly hard to disentangle agency and intent.


Why’s my phone telling me to go left and not right? Why is the supermarket creating some personalized economic incentives for me and not others? Why is the search engine prioritizing some knowledge and not others? As researchers, it is hard to address questions like these because there is often no straightforward way of knowing the answers. Do we look to the code embedded within algorithms? Do we look to the people or institutions who created the algorithms? Do we look to the databases? Do we look to the people who manage the databases? Or do we look to the people, processes, and places emitting the data?

What today’s talks have all usefully done is point to the fact that we need to be addressing some combination of all of those questions. 


So, let me just pick up with a few general reflections and concerns about what the histories of big data mean for the futures of big data - that emerge from listening to these talks. Like all of the speakers, what I’ll especially focus on here is what geography can bring to the table.

First, is a thought about our role as geographers. Many geographers, me included, spend a lot of time thinking about the geographies of the digital; thinking about how geographies still matter.


We probably do a lot of this to counter some of the ongoing, relentless, Silicon Valley narratives of things like the cloud. Narratives that claim that - provided they are connected - anyone can do anything from anywhere at any time. So, we end up spending a lot of our energy pushing back: arguing that there is no such thing as the cloud. That there are just computers. Computers all in other places.

But I wonder if we’re missing a trick, by not also asking more questions about the contextual, specific, but likely present ways in which some facets of geography might actually matter less in a world of ever more digital connectivity. Not as a way of ceding ground to the breathless ‘distance is dead’ narrative - but in a critical and grounded way. Are there any economic, social, and political domains is distance, or spatial context actually becoming less relevant? 


Second, when we speak about big data, or the cloud, or the algorithms that govern code-spaces, we often envision the digital as operating in a black box. In many cases, that is unavoidable.

But we can also draw more on the work from computational social science, critical internet studies, human computer interaction, and critical GIS. In all of those domains, research is attempting to open the black boxes of cloud computing; of big data; of opaque algorithms. Scholars are asking and answering questions about the geographies of the digital. Where is it; who produces it; who does it represent; who doesn’t it represent; who has control; to whom is it visible.


There is much more that clearly needs to be done, and this work needs to be relentless, ongoing, and - of course - critical. But, one hope for the future is to see more cross-pollination with those communities who are developing tools, methods, and strategies to empirically engage with geography in a more data-infused world. So, yes – there are black boxes. But those boxes are sometimes hackable.

Third, and relatedly. A key critique of ‘big data’ - that I see - in the critical data studies community, is the one about correlative reasoning (in other words, if your dataset is big enough, you no longer need theory; no longer need to understand context; and can just look for correlations in the dataset). And relatedly a lack of reflexivity within those data practices of data analysis. But I wonder if we aren’t also overplaying our hand a little here. Some big data practitioner work does stop at correlations, but a fair amount of it can be quite reflexive and aware of its limitations.


These researchers are still building or doing multi level models, social network analytics, community detection models, influence analysis, predictive analytics, and machine learning. My point here, is that whilst a lot of ‘big data’ work is undoubtedly naïve, let’s also not underestimate the power that those with access to the right datasets, the computing resources to analyse those datasets, and the methods to analyse those datasets - have.

My broader point is that we really need to find the balance of not understating and not overstating the work being done by governments and corporations in the domain of big data. Yes, some big data practices out there are naïve and dumb. And yes, some are terrifyingly precise in the ways that they can anticipate human behavior.


To get that balance, I think we need a few things. The first is to pay attention to what has been called the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: That, the amount of energy required to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than required to create it. Let’s make sure our energy is wisely spent.

To get the right balance, it also seems clear that all of us need to not just try to better understand the nuances of key techniques and methods being employed.  But also to think about what we can specifically add to the debate as geographers – and on this latter point, this is something that I think the papers in this session did very well.


Fourth, when thinking about the political economy of data, it’s becoming ever more clear that we need a full throated response to reclaim our digital environments (a point that Agnieszka Leszczynski has been forcefully making). Privacy and security scholars and activists have been especially vocal here. But let’s again think about what our role as geographers can be in this debate.

The way in which my colleague Joe Shaw and I are thinking about this is (and – my advertising pitch here is that this is something we’re speaking about in three sessions we’ve organized on the topic on Friday morning) - is to argue that we need to translate some of the ongoing ‘right to the city’ debate into the digital sphere. The point being that if places we live in are bricks, mortar, and digital data - we need to think about rights of access, control, and use - in our digitally-infused world.


This is just one type of intervention; and I’m sure that building on the foundations of critical historicisations of big data can offer us fertile ground for reimagining what we actually want our data-infused futures to look like.

Fifth, something that I saw, and really appreciated, in all of the papers was a forceful reflection on how data are always political. Too often data, and especially ‘big data’, gets presented as a neutral and objective reflection of the object of its measurement. That big data can speak for themselves. That, big data are a mirror of the world around them. What a lot of today’s work has done is reflect on not just how data reflect the world, but also how they produce it; how they drive it. As we tread deeper into Danny Hills’ ‘Age of Entanglement’, this is something we’ll need much more of.


As Trevor Barnes, in the last session mentioned, the best kinds of papers leave you hungry for more detail – and a few more things I would have loved to have heard more about are:

From Louise –a bit more about what our vision of the cloud enables beyond the cloud; the cloud in many ways can make some facets of the cloud – or life - perceptible – the cloud being deployed to study life online. But how much of the cloud vision is about moving beyond the cloud – being deployed to study life offline; to study the facets of life that aren’t directly emitting digital data shadows? Also, the empirical work you spoke about sounds fascinating – and I hope the questions give you some more time to bring out ways in which you’ve gone behind the algorithms – and underneath the cloud – to look at how these knowledges are created.


From Matthew – it was interesting to see how some of our contemporary concerns about the power of big data to aid the surveillance powers of the powerful – are far from new. So what might protests against contemporary regimes learn from the earlier moments you spoke about? There are many of us who want to opt out; is this now less possible because of the more encompassing nature of contemporary data collection regimes?

From Eric - I wonder if the idea of the ‘world inventory’ in the 80s; the details of it; what it means in practice, were similar to large tech firm like Google’s vision of a world inventory of geospatial information today. Does a world inventory now mean something significantly different from what it used to?


From Patrick - You didn’t use the term ‘smart city’. But I wonder if you’ve looked into any so called ‘smart city’ initiatives – and if you could say more about how we should we should be honing our inquiry into the so-called ‘smart city’ based on what you’ve learnt here; based on what we know about the visions that brought the Cartographatron into being?

For all of us – scholars in this field – I wonder if we’re all speaking about the same thing in this session when we talk about ‘big data’. Are we taking about datasets that are a census rather than a sample of a population. Are we just using ‘big data’ as a proxy for ‘digital data’? Are we using that term to refer to the whole contemporary apparatus of data trails, shadows, storage, analysis, and use? Are we using it to refer to digital unknown unknowns – the digital black box? Is the term actually helping us as short-hand for something else? Or do we need more precise language if we want to make sure we’re genuinely having a conversation?


And finally, for all of us, I want to ask why this seems to continue to be such a male dominated field? In two sessions, seven speakers, and two discussants, we had only one female speaker. Are we reproducing the gendered nature of earlier computational scholarship? One of the dangers of telling these histories – is that it can end up being white men speaking about white men. This is not a critique of the organiser, as I know Oliver is well attune to these issues, but rather a question about how and why we might be re(producing) masuclinist knowledges.

So, to end – I want to again thank Oliver and the speakers for putting together this session on historicizing Big Data. We need more conversations like this; and we need more scholarship like this. And this is work that will have impacts beyond the boundaries of geography.


We know that we can’t go backwards; and I think the goal that many of us have is a more just, more democratic, more inclusive data-infused world. And to achieve that, one thing we all need to be doing is participating in ongoing debates about how we govern, understand, and make sense of our digitally-augmented contexts.


And perhaps one thing that we can all take away from this session is that if we want to take part in the debate - to influence it – we’ll need to understand big data’s history if we want to change its futures.