Our emerging project definition of ‘big data’ is data that is incrementally larger than anything people have had to deal with before, in a given field.
Lynette Taylor (2013) “Big Data in the Developing World”

 “Raw Data” is both an oxymoron and a bad idea.
— Geoffrey C. Bowker, Memory practices in the Sciences

 A simple twitter search for the #data hashtag today will provide the user with a real-time glimpse of the evolving nature of data and its social ramifications. “Big”, “semantic”, “open” and “mobile”, are only some of the conditions of data today.  After interacting with these terms, it quickly becomes clear that data does not appear to be neutral nor natural and that, as a cultural construct, the study of data requires new critical approaches to chart and explore its human and social implications.

In this sense, the book “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron (2013) recently published by MIT Press and edited by Lisa Gitelman — Professor of English and Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University — could not be more timely. The book contains “eight episodes in the history of data” by a number of renowned scholars concerned not only with the digital, but also the pre-digital condition of data. The introduction to the book, written by Gitelman and Virginia Jackson recognizes that “the new millenium has arrived as the era of Big Data”, and that there is “a seismic shift in the contemporary conception and use — the sheer existence — of so much data” (2). This new era requires critical explorations on the generation, protection and interpretation of data (12).

The authors address a number of relevant questions concerning data today. For example, they recognize that the ”aggregative nature” of data has a rhetorical power, and the the power within this aggregation is relational “based on potential connections: network, not hierarchy” (8). They also relate the study of data — Gitelman actually recognizes this as an emerging field that we may call “data studies” — to previous debates on ordering and sorting things out, stating that “the imagination of data is in some measure always an act of classification, of lumping and splitting, nesting and ranking” (9). The ordering of data and its graphic mobilization brings forth additional debates on the logic of databases and visualizations.

The essays contained in Gitelman’s book outline a rich horizon for future research. Perhaps one of these research agendas should focus on the study of how people and communities actively construct and contest different conditions of data: In other words, an anthropology/ethnography of data. This means considering data as a disputed human dimension of technology and knowledge. This line of research could concern itself with various topics including, for example, the politics of hackatons (hacking marathons) in developing countries, comparative and cross-cultural studies on different national histories of data and its relationship to society, “data friction” (Edwards, 2010) and institutional tensions related to open data, the emerging economy of data, new coding cultures, etc.

Indeed, one of the impressions the user may have while browsing through the real-time stream of #data hashtags in Twitter, is that people and communities all over the world are intensely engaged in the interpretation, harnessing and exploitation of all sorts of data. Consider the recent celebration of “Open Data Day 2013“:

 

Hackaton as part of Open Data Day in Romania (2013)

 

Open Data Day (ODD) 2013 is a clear example of a transnational, deterritorialized community/movement acting towards the construction and consolidation of the notion of “open data”, as it relates to practices of open government and democracy.

Indeed, the 2013 edition of ODD — which was held only a few week after “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron was published  — reveals an emerging global context of data activism, as the power of open collides with the potential use of data in transparency, collaborative and civic participation processes, both in low and high income countries.

The result of ODD celebrations are quite varied and take place in various cities and cultural contexts. For example, hackers in Vancouver built  a web dashboard of real-time rental housing issues in the city, while in Oakland a map of Head Start programs was created. Several cities around the world worked on updating the Open Data Census, which captures the state of open data in governments around the globe.

 

Open Data Day in Korea (2013)

The next five years will probably bring forth a number of important developments in the field of open data. Various global movements working towards the Post-2015 development goals have recognized open data and open government as one of the key elements in a renewed agenda for global human development. Increased educational opportunities for data analysis expand possibilities for data literacy, which in turn guarantees the amplification of these debates in other areas of society. Books, like “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron (2013) give shape to the emerging scholarly field of “data studies”, not only stemming from media-related educational institutions, but also from more traditional disciplines.

All of these processess signal an exciting future for the emerging condition of  data and the fields that study and interpret this worldwide, cross-cultural phenomena.

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Top Photo: A bullet through an apple (1939)  —  Strobe photograph by Harold E. Edgerton. In Gitelman (2013), Jimena Canales proposes that “the instantaneity of each photograph guaranteed that these images could be studied as temporal and spatial data — easily transformed into mathematical (x, y, z, t) coordinates” (Photograph: Source).

 

References:

 

Gitelman, Lisa (2013)
“Raw Data” is an Oxymoron
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: The MIT Press (January 25, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0262518287
ISBN-13: 978-0262518284

2 Responses to The Condition of Data (1)

  1. [...] A simple twitter search for the #data hashtag today will provide the user with a real-time glimpse of the evolving nature of data and its social ramifications. “Big”, “semantic”, “open” and “mobile”, are only some of the conditions of data today. After interacting with these terms, it quickly becomes clear that data does not appear to be neutral nor natural and that, as a cultural construct, the study of data requires new critical approaches to chart and explore its human and social implications.  [...]