Justice or Just us?  “Data Justice” and the big questions #Manchester

The newspapers and webfeeds are full of stories of the (un)intended consequences of the increased “datafication” of society, and the ways in which people are sorted, silenced and discriminated against by ‘algorithms.’ It is rich terrain for academics and activists (the two beasts need not be totally distinct), and today at the University of Manchester around 30 people got to hear from two people who are working on the field of ‘data justice’.

The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research and the Environmental Sustainability Team hosted a lunchtime (but without lunch L ) seminar on these thorny questions.
First up was Prof Richard Heeks from the Centre for Development Informatics.  He explained that the work he conducts had got a start with an AHRC funded project which asked the key question “Whose Right to the Smart City?”

With the increased amount of information being collected and collated (the so-called three Vs – velocity, volume and variety) means that cities are coming to have ‘data twins’ – where a digital simulacrum is used for planning and – increasingly  experience (think Bluetooth proximity sensors beaming you time and location sensitive info and adverts).

All this raise the questions of who is, in the “twin”, absent, marginalised.  This is a problem everywhere, but perhaps especially in the ‘Global South’.

Heeks pointed to two recent papers which are top of my post-thesis reading pile

Heeks then laid out the conceptualisation of what data justice actually means in practice.  Here’s one of the intriguing conceptual maps.  They’re reminiscent of Giddens’ mid-80s modernity diagram thingies (yes, I know, I should get out more).


(I’ve lifted this from Heeks 2017, page 11)

As well as structural questions, there are also the so-called ‘three freedoms’ around visibility (which is a double-edged sword: sometimes you’d want to be invisible from the state!), engagement (who gets to be involved not just in the generation but also the analysis and distribution and re-use of data) and non-discrimination.

Heeks then briefly outlined four pro-data-justice initiatives – Kota Kita, Map Kibera, Our Pune, Our Budget and Transparent Chennai.

Interestingly (well, there was a lot of very interesting things) there’s no evidence of a ‘small data’ cycle – where data is recycled locally to improve local decision-making and lives.  Looks like big data has a big head-start…

There were several questions.  One was ncredibly perceptive and well-made (Cough.  Cough). How will those who are currently benefittng from data injustice (governments, large corporations making a killing, other actors) respond to the calls for data justice?  Will they set up confusing/astroturfy groups? Will they smear justice proponents?  What else? It’s worth investigating (gizza post-doc)

Heeks said it was an important thing to study, and pointed out that digital has already been disruptive, with unexpected consequences “we’re hearing voices we didn’t hear before.”

The second speaker was Julian Tait, CEO of Open Data Manchester (supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond), which was founded in 2010.  He mentioned a fascinating event coming up on Satuday May 19 – “Joy Diversion

Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.

Joy Diversion

Saturday, May 19, 2018, 12:00 PM

The Federation
Federation Street, Federation House M4 2AH , GB

31 Members Went

In association with Open Street Map UK CIC.Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.Often viewed as a functional place of work, retail and l…

Check out this Meetup →

He explained what Open Data Manchester does, and among other things, pointed to disturbing trends in surveillance. For example, in Utrecht, the technology is allowing “pre-emptive policing”  (and the movie Minority Report did get a mention in the Q and A!).

See recent Grauniad article –
‘Living laboratories’: the Dutch cities amassing data on oblivious residents

More prosaically, but equally sinister is the potential of a lift that can read your mobile devices ID being able to tell your weight and your propensity for taking the stairs or not. Insurance companies, diet companies, etc would love that info…

All in all, a useful event exposing us to new trends in 21st living which will probably overlap and imbricate with climate change until the final civilizational collapse and general Mad Max warlordism thing…

Mental note to self – try to get an academic article published with the title “Last night a DJ saved my life….” Where DJ stands for Data Justice…

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