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New paper: Provenance, Power and Place: Linked Data and Opaque Digital Geographies

Heather Ford and I have a new commentary coming out in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. As places are ever-more augmented by digital content, and the internet becomes ever-more structured by linked data and the semantic web, we ask what this means for the ways in which people interact with everyday places. Specifically, we highlight our concern that non-specialists will have ever-less control over the cities and towns in which they live. 

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Full citation

Ford, H. and Graham, M. 2016. Provenance, Power, and Place: Linked Data and Opaque Digital geographies. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. doi:10.1177/0263775816668857 (pre-publication version here).

Abstract

Places are not only material but are also informational. Place is made up of memories, stories, information and histories. What is Johannesburg? It is a city of trees and buildings, concrete and sand. It is also constituted by a myriad statements made by multiple actors, some of which are represented by information in books, in census reports, in tourism leaflets and photographs (Graham et al., 2015). Today, much of that information is digital and available on the Internet. Spatial information is either digitized from analogue sources or in increasingly “born digital” (created as digital data rather than scanned or translated into digital formats) and can take a range of forms such as geotagged images on Instagram, hashtags on Twitter, annotations on Google Maps and Wikipedia articles, in addition to official data from government and corporate sources.

In addition to the enhanced ability of ordinary people to contribute to the digital representations of cities (Goodchild, 2007; Graham, 2013; Hacklay et. al., 2008), we have also seen a growing centralization in the control of platforms that mediate everyday life. Silicon Valley-based Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia have become the most-used websites and digital platforms in most countries, and some scholars (Introna and Nissenbaum, 2000; König, 2014; Morozov, 2013) warn of the dangers of increasing centralization and commercialization of the guiding forces of the Internet.

The power yielded by search engines, in particular, has come under increased scrutiny by researchers in recent years. Introna and Nissenbaum (2000: 1), for example, have shown how search engines “systematically exclude… certain sites, and certain types of sites, in favor of others”. Eli Pariser (2012) argues that search engines drive the construction of “filter bubbles” that only show users information that they agree with. Our increasing reliance on search engines like Google constitutes what Siva Vaidhyanathan (2012) refers to as an “outsourcing” of judgement to Google, particularly because search engines have become critical to the public health of the Internet (König, 2014). As place becomes increasingly digital and the digital becomes increasingly spatialized, Graham and Zook (2013) have shown that informational filter bubbles can manifest into material divisions and barriers.

The goal of this paper is to highlight a new problem. As digital data becomes increasingly abstracted into short data statements that can be shared and interconnected according to logics of “the semantic web” or “linked data, the concentration of power in the hands of search engines has been enhanced still further. We argue that the increased control of search engines over human knowledge has been garnered due to the loss of provenance, or source information, in data sharing algorithms. When the links between information and their sources are severed, users’ capabilities to actively interrogate facts about the world are significantly diminished. Paul Groth (2013) has noted that the loss of provenance information in semantic web projects is a significant challenge (c.f. Groth, 2013) but we explore the socio-spatial implications of this technological change by focusing on what the loss of provenance information means for how people experience and represent place.

We highlight the origins and consequences of the loss of provenance information in the context of the contemporary moment in which the web is being significant re-engineered. What first appears to be merely a simple engineering problem turns out to be indicative of the growing commercialization of the web, a problem that stems from the dominance of an epistemology that sees knowledge about the world as essentially reducible to depoliticized data that is natural and obvious, rather than what it actually is: a re-constructed representation that obscures the origins of information and, in so doing, reduces the ability of ordinary users to interrogate that data. Despite the promise of the move towards a more semantic web (Egenhofer, 2002) for more precise digital representations of place, there has been a parallel decrease in the capabilities of people to interrogate and control that data.

Further reading

Ford, H., and Graham, M. 2016. Semantic Cities: Coded Geopolitics and the Rise of the Semantic Web. In Code and the City. eds. Kitchin, R., and Perng, S-Y. London: Routledge. 200-214.

Graham, M. 2015. Why Does Google Say Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel? Slate.com Nov 30, 2015

Graham, M. 2013. The Virtual Dimension. In Global City Challenges: debating a concept, improving the practice. eds. M. Acuto and W. Steele. London: Palgrave. 117-139.

Graham, M. 2012. The Problem with Wikidata. The Atlantic Apr 6, 2012.

Pokémon Go and the Need to Critically Consider Augmented Realities

Pokémon Go is currently taking the world by storm. The game uses smartphones to overlay the material world with digital elements, encouraging users to travel around to different places in order to progress in the game.

The addictive gameplay has led to police departments warning people that they should be more careful about revealing their locations, players injuring themselves, finding dead bodies, and even the Holocaust Museum telling people to play elsewhere!

But I think the game is also worth noting because it offers a nice illustration of some of the themes that Matt Zook, Andrew Boulton, and I wrote about a few years ago in the following piece.

Graham, M., M. Zook., and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in Urban Places: contested content and the duplicity of code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3), 464-479. (pre-publication version here)

In the piece we note that there are four kinds of power that manifest in the coming together of material and virtual spatialities:

Distributed Power: The power of a distributed group of actors to influence what is and isn’t present in our augmented world. In other words, the augmented world is created in the way that it is not because of the decisions of a single actor, but from a network of people (often in opaque and untraceable ways). 

Communication Power: The fact that some actors have more power than others to control and use the digital layers of place. A street takes on very different meanings for those with and without access to digital content. 

Code Power: The ability for code and algorithms to impact how our augmented world are produced and brought into being. 

Timeless Power: The flattening of time. Because of the ways that many augmented digital layers are constructed, time in augmented spaces takes on different temporalities. Some digital layers are relatively static and timeless; others are live. 

These ways of thinking about power and augmented realities are important because digital augmentations are never imposed onto any sort of socially neutral space. There are existing social, economic, and political contexts that influence how people use these augmented spaces. Think for instance, of whether minorities might feel safe in all areas the game leads them to, or - for similar reasons - whether women can augmented their worlds in the same ways men can. 

As ever more of the world becomes augmented, and as ever more people augment their lives with digital content, I hope that we can use (and improve) these ways of thinking about the power-laden practices we bring our augmented worlds into being with.

The addictive gameplay has led to police departments warning people that they should be more careful about revealing their locations, players injuring themselves, finding dead bodies, and even the Holocaust Museum telling people to play elsewhere!

But I think the game is also worth noting because it offers a nice illustration of some of the themes that Matt Zook, Andrew Boulton, and I wrote about a few years ago in the following piece.

Graham, M., M. Zook., and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in Urban Places: contested content and the duplicity of code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3), 464-479. (pre-publication version here)

 

In the piece we note that there are four kinds of power that manifest in the coming together of material and virtual spatialities:

Distributed Power: The power of a distributed group of actors to influence what is and isn’t present in our augmented world. In other words, the augmented world is created in the way that it is not because of the decisions of a single actor, but from a network of people (often in opaque and untraceable ways). 

Communication Power: The fact that some actors have more power than others to control and use the digital layers of place. A street takes on very different meanings for those with and without access to digital content. 

Code Power: The ability for code and algorithms to impact how our augmented world are produced and brought into being. 

Timeless Power: The flattening of time. Because of the ways that many augmented digital layers are constructed, time in augmented spaces takes on different temporalities. Some digital layers are relatively static and timeless; others are live. 

These ways of thinking about power and augmented realities are important because digital augmentations are never imposed onto any sort of socially neutral space. There are existing social, economic, and political contexts that influence how people use these augmented spaces. Think for instance, of whether minorities might feel safe in all areas the game leads them to, or - for similar reasons - whether women can augmented their worlds in the same ways men can. 

As ever more of the world becomes augmented, and as ever more people augment their lives with digital content, I hope that we can use (and improve) these ways of thinking about the power-laden practices we bring our augmented worlds into being with. 

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.

Our paper at the Network Inclusion Roundtable: Geographies of Information Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa

Chris Foster and I have had the opportunity to participate in the Network Inclusion Roundtable: organised by IT For Change in Bangalore.

Our short paper, titled ’Geographies of Information Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa’ is available at this link.

The paper is a beginning to think about what connectivity means to inclusion in the ‘network society.’ Connectivity certainly isn’t a sufficient condition for inclusion and equity, and we need to ask whether it is a necessary one.

We point to connectivity as an amplifier: one that often reinforces rather than reduces inequality. We therefore need to move towards deeper critical socio-economic interrogations of the barriers or structures that limit activity and reproduce digital inequality. The categorisations developed in the paper offer an empirically-driven and systematic way to understand these barriers in more detail.