Planning for Civic Data Solidarity

A daylong Graph Commons Workshop on December 5, 2015, at the Brown Institute as part of The Transparency Series in the Columbia Journalism School in New York.

In the summer of 2017 Burak Arikan facilitated a Graph Commons Workshopat the Designing Hope festival in Frankfurt. An introduction to complex network mapping techniques and technologies, the workshop invited participants to bring their own data and learn how to create interactive maps that would help them “untangle complex relations that impact them and their communities.” At a conceptual level, the project asked people to reflect on “the network as a creative and critical medium.” Ultimately, its goal was to teach people how to use mapping and visualization tools.

For his Public Knowledge commission, Arikan was interested in building on his experience with network mapping and the Graph Commons platform, creating bridges or connections between different sets of data across organizations and even political interests. He wanted to uncover how to cultivate “civic data solidarity” by staging workshops in the Bay Area with organizations that generate and manage independent databases on a range of civil society issues.

The context of the Bay Area workshop was different from Frankfurt’s, which meant the design of the workshop needed to be different, too. People and organizations would be invited to participate, but practical questions quickly followed: Who would be invited, and why? Would the political orientation of the organization matter? One idea was to select a set of political issues—climate change and human rights, for example—and invite a range of organizations to the table. This approach proved tricky because, although multiple organizations work under the sign of “climate change,” they do not share the same analysis or the same goals. Since political commitments aren’t determined by data alone, agreeing that climate change should be confronted does not, in and of itself, produce “data solidarity.” Some organizations work to reform existing systems/institutions; others work to dismantle or replace them. Ecomodernists are not fighting the same battle as those committed to environmental justice. Getting these groups in the same room, or putting their data on the same map, would not resolve their political differences. But that was deemed to be OKtrying to resolve political differences through data would be a pretty troubling goal.

Still, other questions remained. What kind of “data” should the organizations bring to the workshop? If we were to convene an array of nonprofits, advocacy groups, and direct service organizations, how could these data sets be put on the same map without creating a false sense of equivalence among different projects, different strategies for measurement, and different definitions for the things being measured? Was the idea of civic data solidarity presuming a shared language where there isn’t one? And what are the risks in doing so?

There were also questions about when nonprofits and activists should be cautious about consolidating their information and making resistance/survival strategies visible. For example, in an attempt to enact civic data solidarity in London, several homeless service providers decided to share and map their data. The government’s Home Office—responsible for immigration, security, and law and order—then used that map to deport people. Making this kind of information public can be risky. Sometimes there’s a reason things aren’t counted and mapped.

In contrast, Arikan’s intention was to turn the surveilling gaze against itself, by focusing on data about government entities and private corporations, and to avoid putting marginalized communities at greater risk. Even so, it seemed worthwhile to think about the unpredictable utility of these maps and techniques.

As the ideas evolved, we decided to aim for a tighter focus and a more curated conversation. Instead of introducing people to the concept of network mapping, we would invite organizations that were already engaging with the medium.

Rather than aiming to reveal/forge new solidarities among disparate groups, we wanted to connect the project to conversations already happening with groups that were collaborating in some way. We thought this first workshop could serve as an opportunity to engage with both the utilities and the dangers of networked data, one step removed from the urgency of practical organizing work. This way, it could eke out space for reflection and speculation, untethered to a particular campaign or outcome.

Doing so among people and organizations that already incorporate data collection and mapping/visualization into their work could set the stage for a deeper critical engagement with the medium. Inspired by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative’s Enacting Environmental Data Justice event at the Society for Social Studies of Science conference in August 2017, we planned a Creative Research Workshop on the politics of data in the Bay Area today.