On September 26, 2017, Public Knowledge convened a Creative Research Workshop about the politics of “data” in the Bay Area. A group of artists, designers, librarians, engineers, teachers, researchers, writers, and nonprofit workers met in SFMOMA’s Koret Education Center to reflect on disparate efforts to measure injustice and to make that information public. Everyone in the room engaged digital network mapping technologies in some way, although with different modes of inquiry, convictions, and goals.
The purpose of the event was to start building connections for Burak Arikan’s forthcoming Civic Data Solidarity project. Curator Deena Chalabi had brought Arikan into the Public Knowledge initiative early on for his work on mapping power through networks. This event was designed to be the first conversation of many, exploring the potential of thinking across data sets in the pursuit of collective action.
Participants represented a range of viewpoints from public and private sectors. The group of academics included: Peter Brantley, librarian at the University of California, Davis, and affiliated researcher at CITRIS, UC Berkeley; Lindsey Dillon, professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz and cofounder of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI); Aphid (Abram) Stern, artist and PhD student, film and digital media, UC Santa Cruz; and Lindsay Weinberg, PhD candidate, history of consciousness, UC Santa Cruz.
Cyd Harrell provided a window into city government from her experience as a civic designer, formerly with Code for America and now at 18F at San Francisco’s General Services Administration. Additionally, the event included two representatives from Google: Audrey Davenport, ecology program lead, and Anne Less, real estate and workplace services strategist.
Gennie Gebhart, researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF); Dan Rademacher, executive director, GreenInfo Network; and Alexandra Lacey and Jin Zhu from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project offered insights around data advocacy and activism. Jay Mollica and Keir Winesmith from SFMOMA’s Web and Digital Platforms team shared information on the various roles data plays within the museum. Public Knowledge participating scholar Jon Christensen and co-curator Deena Chalabi moderated, while SFMOMA’s Tomoko Kanamitsu took notes.
After Arikan introduced his Civic Data Solidarity project, the context that inspired it, and preliminary research questions he hoped to pursue in the Bay Area, a unique conversation unfolded among the participants. Several people understood firsthand Arikan’s description of the inadequacy of existing public data storage and management platforms, and were interested in the various social and political factors that produced the field of options. Others voiced concerns about unintended consequences of consolidating and linking data sets, unsure if intention alone could turn surveillance technologies to subversive ends.
It was clear from the start that many of the participating groups would not ordinarily work together. There was no unified sense of what “data” was or how it was useful. Hosting the event at SFMOMA, and in the Public Dialogue gallery specifically, seemed both fitting and fortuitous. The social and political position of the museum played an important role in setting a tone where critical incompatibilities could be examined and engaged, and yet remain unresolved.
Reflecting on the event, UC Santa Cruz’s Weinberg wrote, “I greatly enjoyed speaking with Burak Arikan about his vision for the project. I found it incredibly rewarding to talk in a shared space that included so many different perspectives. I thought we collectively explored many productive tensions, particularly between the potential of big data for social justice, and the possibility of big data– based projects to perpetuate forms of exploitation and privacy invasions. I look forward to seeing the project in its final form.”