Monday, 27 March 2017

Introducing Veillance and Transparency: A Critical Examination of Mutual Watching in the Post-Snowden, Big Data Era

by Vian Bakir, Martina Feilzer and Andrew McStay

This Special Theme examines veillance (mutual watching) and transparency in the context of big data in a post-Snowden period. We propose that today we live in a techno-cultural condition of increased and normalised transparency through various veillant forces. We interrogate the technical, social, economic, political, legal, ethical and cultural implications of this situation.

Veillance is Steve Mann’s (2013) term for processes of mutual watching and monitoring by surveillant organizations and sousveillant individuals. The latter refers to: the capacity for people to monitor from a position of minimal power; but also monitoring by those who are participating in the activity being watched or sensed (from life-logging to using mobile phone cameras for monitoring police at demonstrations).

The past decade has seen an intensification of veillant forces from all quarters (state, commercial, civil society, citizens), leading to questions of whether resistance is possible or desirable.  For instance, Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing in June 2013 exposed governments’ secret mass surveillance, storage and real time analysis of ordinary citizens’ digital communications (content and metadata). Increasingly too, use of big data analytics and machine learning is applied by commercial organisations to understand people in ever more intimate ways and to target marketing communications.

Accepting the inevitability of surveillance, and the rapid growth of sousveillance, Mann and Ferenbok (2013) envisage a state of equiveillance, where there is equality between surveillant and sousveillant forces, leading to a transparent society.

Yet, transparency does not always take an equiveillant form. For instance, liberal transparency is, historically, an enlightenment norm that opens up workings of power for public inspection, an exemplar being journalism acting as the Fourth Estate. Radical transparency opens up not just public processes but also the private lives of citizens for inspection. Next, where radical transparency is enacted without citizens’ knowledge or consent, we enter the situation of forced transparency where resistance to surveillance is tantamount to guilt, and where choice, control and autonomy is denied (McStay 2014). An exemplar of forced transparency is intelligence agencies’ bulk data collection that, pre-Snowden, ensued without citizen knowledge or consent; post-Snowden the now familiar meme used to justify forced transparency is ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’.

While a balanced condition of mutual watching may be unrealisable in practice, this Special Theme critically examines a range of veillant forces, resistances and tensions, seeking to understand these operations across three key debates in the context of big data post-Snowden.

The first set of debates query how useful theories of veillance and transparency are in explaining practices of mutual watching in the post-Snowden, big data era. Dan McQuillan’s analysis of algorithmic paranoia dismisses Mann’s concept of veillance as the wrong sort of metaphor for the forms of seeing introduced by big data algorithms. Critiquing the idea that equiveillance captures our contemporary condition of mutual watching, Clare Birchall advances the notion of shareveillance in her discussion of subjectivity, open data (that governments willingly share with citizens) and closed data (such as that collected by intelligence agencies). Focusing on the pre-crime assemblage, Peter Mantello advances the notion of ikeaveillance: ‘a do-it-yourself, voluntary opt-in approach to algorithmic governance’ that contributes to the pre-crime assemblage. Piro Rexhepi focuses on peripheral political spaces to query the ability of sousveillance to destabilise and disrupt what she terms sur/violence (such as drone strikes killing people via metadata identification).

The second set of debates that we examine concern norms, ethics, regulation, resistance and social change around veillance and transparency. Anthony Mills and Katherine Sarikakis examine journalists’ experiences with surveillance in non-Western and Western countries, finding that investigative journalists have been intimidated through surveillance; but that they fight back through often-fraught cooperation with hacktivists, and through self-directed protection of communications and sources. Lina Dencik, Arne Hintz and Jonathan Cable examine British social justice activists’ resistance to state surveillance, arguing that this should be connected to broader social justice agendas.  Focussing on advertising and the net rise in empathic media (namely, technologies that track bodies and react to emotions and intentions), Andrew McStay advances and problematizes the notion of emotiveillance: the use of biometrically sensitive technologies to infer peoples’ emotions.  Focusing on regulations and rights, Yvonne McDermott-Rees observes that implementation of the EU-created right to data protection faces challenges in an era of ubiquitous veillance practices and big data.

Our third set of debates centre on whether post-Snowden veillance and transparency discourses and practices adequately educate and engage people on abstract, secretive surveillance practices, or the possibilities and pitfalls of sousveillance. We present innovative engagement tools and interactive art including Evan Light’s Snowden Archive-in-a-Box; Derek Curry and Jennifer Gradecki’s Crowd-Sourced Intelligence Agency; and Benjamin Grosser’s Tracing You.  Yuwei Lin reflects on her experiences of teaching privacy and surveillance to media arts practice university students in the UK. Ben Brucato considers efforts by journalists and activists to construct databases that document and measure killings by US police, examining how they exemplify the new transparency.  Steve Mann highlights the need for bottom-up transparency in computer engineering, arguing that scientists have the right and responsibility to be able to understand the instruments they use to make their discoveries: he posits that veillance is important not just in human-human interaction (such as people watching other people) but also in terms of Human-Computer Interaction.

Through these three debates, this Special Theme shows that the veillance field is multi-perspectival, and characterised by tension. We argue that to understand contemporary data transparency, modern watching, sensing and data analytics, we need to examine all the various forms of veillance (not just surveillance). While it remains to be seen whether we will ever see Mann’s equiveillance in practice, we call for continued critical, technical, legal, political, educational and artistic intervention into the veillance field.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Introduction to the special issue on Environmental Data

By Jennifer Gabrys

Big Data research often focuses on particular datasets and types of data. From analysing data from the Twitter ‘Firehose’ to scraping data from websites, the practices of Big Data typically engage with social media, extended databases, and any number of data infrastructures about individual online activity. Environmental data, on the other hand, presents a somewhat different set of dynamics for considering how these long-standing and already considerably sized datasets are now becoming even bigger and more pervasive.

Environmental data is generated through a wide range of technologies and practices, from satellites to sensors and from sustainability reporting to eco tweets. The special issue, ‘Practicing, Materializing and Contesting Environmental Data’, addresses the specific ways in which environmental data is now amassing in multiple ways, while also discussing the implications of these new forms of data for addressing environmental problems.

Contributions to the special issue include articles on the situated and material engagements with environmental data. Emma Garnett analyses air quality modelling practices and the specific ways in which data is stabilised through affective attachments to data. Yanni Loukissas draws attention to the overlooked place attachments that characterise datasets at the Arnold Arboretum. Ingmar Lippert suggests that data gathered for corporate sustainability reporting can often counteract the very objectives of achieving sustainability that this data is meant to enable. And Tahani Nadim also takes a critical view when discussing how earth observation satellites work through a seemingly comprehensive, yet distanced, view of environments and environmental problems.

Additional contributions to the special issue especially focus on the ways in which contestations expressed through environmental data can generate new political possibilities. Brooke Singer accounts for her data-related environmental art practices, and the ways in which different forms of political engagement emerge through these practices. Kim Fortun et al. consider the role that critical data designers play in shaping environmental data and data repositories, and the strategies these designers adopt in order to facilitate public encounters with government datasets. And Jennifer Gabrys et al. discuss how air pollution data gathered through citizen sensing practices and technologies can shift the forms of evidence that are accounted for when dealing with the effects of the fracking industry. Data stories, as Gabrys et al. suggest, can present a way not just to contest official accounts made with environmental data, but also to figure new data worlds.

This special issue makes the case for attending to these multiple forms of environmental data within wider discussions of Big Data. Many of these practices shift the usual subjects and relations that might characterise Big Data, while also demonstrating different material arrangements of data. At the same, the contestations that unfold with and through environmental data can at once reveal the particular contours of environmental problems, while also suggesting new forms of engagement and political possibility.

The ‘Environmental Data’ special issue, including full text of papers in the issue, can be accessed at

Sunday, 29 January 2017

BD&S Editor Evelyn Ruppert speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

BD&S Editor Evelyn Ruppert recently spoke at two events at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. In her talk, ‘Enabling digitally inclusive societies’, she drew on her research on citizen rights and data to discuss how the internet  impacts social cohesion - an increasingly pertinent theme for the WEF, which this year has put digital technology and its impact on economies and societies worldwide at the heart of its programme. Her talk was part of an Ideas Lab session, ‘The Science of Social Cohesion', organized by the European Research Council (ERC). Evelyn joined 8 other ERC grantees as part of a delegation to the WEF led by ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon.

Referring to her ERC project ARITHMUS, she argued that  fostering citizen engagement in how the internet works and rights to the data that it generates are key to making digital societies inclusive 
rather than divisive and controlling. While expanding access to the internet is usually regarded as an answer to ending a digital divide, she argued it is also necessary to provide openings for people to be not merely users and consumers of the internet, but digital citizens with the power to shape what it should be.  

At another invited session Evelyn joined a panel of business leaders and human rights lawyers to discuss the timely question, ‘What if Privacy Becomes a Luxury Good?’ Organised as a partnership between the WEF and TIME Magazine, the session involved a discussion of the implications of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ for societies. The panel addressed how digital devices are monitoring and compiling personal data and the uneven consequences this has for privacy.  The session was live streamed and can be viewed here.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Introducing the Critical Data Studies Special Theme

by Andrew Iliadis (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) and Federica Russo (University of Amsterdam)

Big Data science, along with its methodologies and practices, has reshaped the landscape of the natural and social sciences. Much has been written about the benefits of Big Data’s contributions to advancing research, training, and encouraging engagement at the intersection of computation and society. Much less has been said about the existing and potential harms caused by Big Data. As the product of multiple sites of work, layered analytic techniques, experimental practices, and various competing discourses, Big Data must remain open to cultural, ethical, and critical challenges.

The Big Data & Society Critical Data Studies (CDS) special theme brings together established and emerging CDS researchers who seek a critical engagement with Big Data in various contexts, including food and agriculture, policing and governance, finance, environmental regulation, philosophy, statistics, epidemiology, and geography. Each of the articles focus on what Rob Kitchin has called “data assemblages”—apparatuses that contribute to or generate Big Data science, including systems of thought, forms of knowledge, finance, political economy, governmentalities and legalities, materialities and infrastructures, practices, organizations and institutions, subjectivities and communities, places, and the marketplace where data are constituted.

This project grew out of the Society for the Philosophy of Information’s Seventh Workshop, “Conceptual Challenges of Data in Science and Technology” (2015, University College London). 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Editor Evelyn Ruppert keynote speaker at Big Data in Asian Society workshop in Singapore

Evelyn joined researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore from 27-28 October to discuss the issues, challenges and meanings of Big Data in Asian societies. She delivered a keynote on 'Data Politics' and participated in discussions with researchers from India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and United States.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Introducing special issue on Spatial Big Data

by Ate Poorthuis

In our most recent special issue Agnieszka Leszczynski and Jeremy Crampton have drawn together an engaging series of articles on Spatial Big Data and Everyday Life. The theme explores what it means to encounter, experience and study the spatial dimension of big data. The issue looks at what it actually means to explicitly think about spatial big data and then examines what the effects of this type of data are on the everyday lives of people.

In their introductory article, Leszczynski and Crampton make clear that ‘spatial’ should be thought of as more than just the geographical reference itself (e.g. coordinates or addresses) that plays such a dominant role in (geographic) academic research. Instead, they call for work that goes beyond both this fixation on the geotag – on the precise location on the Earth’s surface where a data point happens to be produced, as well as the emphasis on only social media content. The contributions to the special issue do exactly this – from a wide variety of angles.

For example, Alvarez Leon analyzes how geographic information is commodified through the use of technology (e.g. APIs). He illustrates this by looking at how Google Street View produces a series of copyrighted digital landscapes, merged together in a virtual navigable environment and discusses how the issue of individual privacy is intertwined within this process. Cockayne’s contribution switches from economic value to the affective value of Big Data, connecting to recent discourses on the attention economy. As he argues, Bay Area startups and tech firms not only produce economic value but are also effective at capturing user attention (i.e. affective value). Going beyond economic analysis and studying the systems at work in this attention economy, will help further our understanding of the many dimensions of Big Data production.

Expanding the notion of big data beyond the singular further, Straube uses the analogy of the stack, borrowed from information technology itself, to give us a useful framework to think through the many layers, technologies and actors involved in Big Data. Also exploring the multiplicity of Big Data is Wilmott’s contribution, which uses ethnographic walking interviews in Sydney and Hong Kong to analyze the quotidian, lived experience of spatial big data. Interestingly, she shows that Big Data is not the totalizing process it is often portrayed as, but is just as often incomplete, erroneous or simply missing. Finally, Thatcher reminds us that the data points – objects – in many Big Data studies are ultimately produced by people and thus warrant attention to subject positionality. To bring back this understanding, he argues for ‘a reseating of the reflexive, self-eliciting subject’ in research with and on spatial big data.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Highlights from the 2016 #SMSociety - International Conference on Social Media & Society

After a year of planning and preparations, it’s hard to believe that the 2016 International Conference on Social Media & Society is now officially part of the history. But what amazing three days they were. Now, in its 7th year, the 2016 Conference was held from July 11-13 at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. The conference was organized by the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University (Canada) and co-hosted by the Big Data & Society Journal (BD&S) along with the Centre for Creative & Social Technologies (CAST) at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Thank you to all Volunteers, Attendees, Presenters, Program Committee, Partners, our keynotes, Dr. Susan Halford (Web Science Institute, University of Southampton, UK) and Dr. Helen Kennedy (University of Sheffield, UK), and everyone who made this year's conference a huge success! Let’s do it again! Mark your calendar, the 2017 International Conference on Society Media & Society will be in Toronto on July 28-30, 2017. (CfP will be released later this fall.)

In case you missed the conference this year (or just want to relive some highlights), here is a list of online resources for you:
Also not to be missed, here is a list of blog posts by the conference attendees:

~2016 #SMSociety Organizing Committee
Anatoliy Gruzd, Philip Mai, Marc Esteve Del Valle, Ryerson University, Canada;
Jenna Jacobson, University of Toronto, Canada; 
Evelyn Ruppert, Dhiraj Murthy, Ville Takala, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK;