Towards a sustainable data ecosystem

After struggling for a bit to frame this blog post introducing my project, I found inspiration recently from this great blog by Sophie Leguil (@SLeguil) – ‘When is a wildflower not a wildflower…’ – an argument for for the benefits of natural vegetation and wildflowers over managed, artificial meadows. They argue that “… these sown annual meadows are the Victorian flower bedding of the 21st century… they are not sustainable, require intensive labour, and don’t provide the same ecosystem services as native vegetation… Instead of placing us with the ecosystem (whether it is an urban or rural one), we are once again conquering it”. This language they use to describe overly managed ecosystems mirrors my instinctive reaction to many open data initiatives, particularly around city data. These initiative are usually well meaning, and have often led to really useful and organic re-uses of data. But something about them often feels sterile, or of being more suited to commercial extraction than to benefiting any community.

The logics of extraction is often embedded into the way data is captured and used, complete with a language that often turns to extractive metaphors like ‘data mining’. This link between physical and more abstract extractions is introduced by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson in their paper ‘On the multiple frontiers of extraction: excavating contemporary capitalism‘, where they state “It is not only when the operations of capital plunder the materiality of the earth and biosphere, but also when they encounter and draw upon forms and practices of human co-operation and sociality that are external to them that we can say that extraction is at stake”. This framework is helpful for assessing the immediate negative impacts of some data-driven activities, but also helps describe the ways in which these activities shape our environment and create foundations for further extraction.

This is what I’m exploring in my fellowship – looking at the ways data is produced, used and extracted within the South West – what are the direct and indirect impacts of this mode of data production, and what alternatives can we imagine / work towards? There’s lots of excellent and inspiring work around this topic, and as well as exploring this existing work I’m hoping that the regional focus will add an extra interesting dimension. To that end I’m hoping to produce a set of interviews with people exploring their connections to a regional data ecosystem. If the question is ‘how can we develop a data ecosystem as a public good?’ – there are several themes to explore;

  • What does good mean in this context? What good things do we see today, and what can we imagine in the future? What actions are possible now?
  • Where do our current data ecosystems break down? Where is data extracted and removed from the public sphere?
  • If we consider some data as forming part of the public commons, who forms the public? How are control and power distributed in different models of data production, who benefits and who is excluded?
  • Why is data actually important? By considering things with a focus on data and technology, how does that help / hinder our understanding of the changes required for a just and sustainable society?