Closing Fellowship, Sharing sensewithDATA

As a group Annie Legge, Natasha Nicholson, Pete Quinn Davis and I have put together a website to share data thoughts at Starting with the theme of data sensemaking (in more concrete and abstract forms), the site has two main parts. There’s a long form panel discussion between the four of us on several data ‘burning questions’, and a resources/library/bibliography section with interesting links.

At the moment the burning questions we’ve discussed have been “What does a bright / dark data future look like?” and “How can system mapping data become a springboard for collective action?”. In the resources section there are all kinds of links, but in particular Annie has led putting together a collection relating to sensemaking and system mapping. Over the next few weeks we’re hoping to expand that even more.

What drove my work?

When applying for a fellowship, the underlying contradiction I was looking to explore was some way to reconcile the tension between frames of Data Pessimism vs. Data Optimism. I find these viewpoints understanding but unsatisfying – how can we find a way to communicate the human side of data, the way that it can help us flourish, without accepting the default extractive logics behind so much data work?

Pessimism: The ways in which data is collected and used is primarily driven by profit and control motives. The entities with the power to shape our digital experiences don’t have our best interests in heart, how can anything transformative and human be born from this foundation?

Optimism: But transformative things are happening, there are data developments that would have been unthinkable until recently, communities are being connected in new ways and we have an almost infinite access to some kinds of knowledge. And these transformations are happening organically with people connecting with other people and volunteer communities.

And then there’s a kind of second axis of Idealism / Pragmatism – the world is a difficult pace and every collective effort involves some decisions about what moral lines we set and how we organise as a group. Can you reconcile radical organising with parliamentary politics? Does the positive scientific impact of Google Earth Engine negate other monopolistic tendencies?

For me when thinking about these spectrums it’s appealing to focus on certain kinds of data that are Concrete, Collective, and Digital.

Concrete: Data where it’s use is intuitively understandable. Perhaps you can imagine a a pre-internet alternative. Questions about the way specific platforms create more abstract collections of metadata through surveillance are important – but they lead to arguing on ground that is controlled by those platforms, which can be obscuring.

Collective: Not directly individual data, not necessarily public data either. Data that might be personal, but is shareable or relates to a community. Focusing on this strata of data helps avoid getting into the (also important) areas of personal privacy or government transparency.

Digital: Despite wanting to think about ‘Concrete’ data, it’s important to include the special properties of digital data in our thinking. Infinite replication and freedom of access are properties that distinguish modern data, and can be the catalyst for transformative changes. In other words overfocusing on the concrete aspects makes it harder to escape pessimism, while overfocusing on digital leads to an unhelpful techno optimism.

How did we end up here?

Over the winter Annie Legge, Natasha Nicholson, Pete Quinn Davis and I linked up, as a result of the internal sharings where we presented our current state of thinking. That helped to identify some mutual interests. It’s interesting that it took this spark for us to re-connect (+ also Annie who actually made the initial effort to set up a group), when we’d spoken to each other before. Something about the nature of the sharings helped with this – it felt like we were communicating in a way that was both structured enough to convey our thoughts well without being over polished or finalised. Interesting that it took ~8 months to get there, I wonder where we would have ended up in the original plan for a more intensive 3 months.

Having conversations as a group really helped me to formalise some thoughts. We tried to think of different ways to expand and share this process more publically, and settled on trying to set up a virtual panel discussion, where we’d have a mix of synchrounous and asynchronous disucssions and format that into a long read which we could publish online. From there we put together the website an dcollaborated on the content you see there.

It’s of course been a really tough year, and I found myself struggling in the latter half of the fellowship. I felt underwater, and I was finding it hard to think of how to do an interesting and meaningful public sharing. Working as a group was a real antidote to this feeling – particularly, it helped me to reassess the purpose of the fellowship. I went back to the original briefing document, and the goal of creating something that would spark thought and conversation and help guide development of future prototypes. I hope that, with, we’ve done something like that.