Earthwide projects” at Shifting Borderlands, Aarhus 2015

I was delighted to par­ti­cip­ate in last month’s Shift­ing Bor­der­lands” work­shop at the decen­ni­al Aar­hus Con­fer­ence: Crit­ic­al Altern­at­ives . What an inspir­ing and mem­or­able event! My sin­cerest thanks to the organ­isers, Silvia, Mar­isa, Lucian, Hrönn and Carl.

The pos­i­tion papers — from a won­der­ful mix of people — are all online here. My own text was a short but ram­bling piece on some still under­developed ideas. I’ve been try­ing to think a little more crit­ic­ally about my role as a aca­dem­i­cian and a Microsoft research­er. Pre­dict­ably, in com­bin­a­tion, the roles raise all sorts of ques­tions and fric­tions for me. Increas­ingly, I’ve dir­ec­ted my efforts at think­ing about the worlds I’ve helped to enact and ask­ing wheth­er they are kinds of worlds that I would want to live in.

It’s hard to put it bet­ter than Donna Har­away:

My piece, Impact and Count­ing”, is avail­able here.

Har­away, D. (1988). Situ­ated know­ledges: The sci­ence ques­tion in fem­in­ism and the priv­ilege of par­tial per­spect­ive. Fem­in­ist stud­ies, 14(3): 579.

Presenting Data in place”

We’re present­ing a paper at CHI this year on Ten­ison Road.

Alex S. Taylor, Siân Lind­ley, Tim Regan, Dav­id Sweeney, Vasil­is Vlachokyriakos, Lil­lie Grainger, Jessa Lin­gel (2015), Data-in-Place: Think­ing through the Rela­tions Between Data and Com­munity, CHI 2015.

Here’s the abstract:

We present find­ings from a year-long engage­ment with a street and its com­munity. The work explores how the pro­duc­tion and use of data is bound up with place, both in terms of phys­ic­al and social geo­graphy. We detail three strands of the pro­ject. First, we con­sider how res­id­ents have sought to cur­ate exist­ing data about the street in the form of an archive with phys­ic­al and digit­al com­pon­ents. Second, we report endeav­ours to cap­ture data about the street’s envir­on­ment, espe­cially of vehicle traffic. Third, we draw on the pos­sib­il­it­ies afforded by tech­no­lo­gies for polling opin­ion. We reflect on how these engage­ments have: mater­i­al­ised dis­tinct­ive rela­tions between the com­munity and their data; sur­faced flows and con­tours of data, and spa­tial, tem­por­al and social bound­ar­ies; and enacted a mul­ti­pli­city of small worlds’. We con­sider how such a con­cep­tu­al­isa­tion of data-in-place is rel­ev­ant to the design of tech­no­logy.

Published Modelling Biology – working through (in-)stabilities and frictions

Just had our paper on Com­pu­ta­tion­al Bio­logy pub­lished in the online journ­al Com­pu­ta­tion­al Cul­ture.

Alex S. Taylor, Jas­min Fish­er, Byron Cook, Sam­in Ish­tiaq and Nir Piter­man (2014) Mod­el­ling Bio­logy – work­ing through (in-)stabilities and fric­tions. Com­pu­ta­tion­al Cul­ture, 1 (4).


Abstract: Com­pu­ta­tion­al bio­logy is a nas­cent field reli­ant on soft­ware cod­ing and mod­el­ling to pro­duce insights into bio­lo­gic­al phe­nom­ena. Extreme claims cast it as a field set to replace con­ven­tion­al forms of exper­i­ment­al bio­logy, see­ing soft­ware mod­el­ling as a (more con­veni­ent) proxy for bench-work in the wet-lab. In this art­icle, we deep­en and com­plic­ate the rela­tions between com­pu­ta­tion and sci­entif­ic ways of know­ing by dis­cuss­ing a com­pu­ta­tion­al bio­logy tool, BMA, that mod­els gene reg­u­lat­ory net­works. We detail the instabil­it­ies and fric­tions that sur­face when com­pu­ta­tion is incor­por­ated into sci­entif­ic prac­tice, fram­ing the ten­sions as part of knowing-in-progress — the prac­tic­al back and forth in work­ing things out. The work exem­pli­fies how soft­ware stud­ies — and care­ful atten­tion to the mater­i­al­it­ies of com­pu­ta­tion — can shed light on the emer­ging sci­ences that rely on cod­ing and com­pu­ta­tion. Fur­ther, it puts to work a stand­point that sees com­pu­ta­tion as tightly entangled with forms of sci­entif­ic know­ing and doing, rather than a whole­sale replace­ment of them.

Published Data and life on the street

We’ve pub­lished a short com­ment­ary on the Ten­ison Road pro­ject in the new Big Data & Soci­ety journ­al. Down­load it here (open access).


Taylor, A. S., Lind­ley, S., Regan, T., & Sweeney, D. (2014). Data and life on the street. Big Data & Soci­ety, 1(2).

Abstract: What does the abund­ance of data and pro­lif­er­a­tion of data-making meth­ods mean for the ordin­ary per­son, the per­son on the street? And, what could they come to mean? In this paper, we present an over­view of a year-long pro­ject to exam­ine just such ques­tions and com­plic­ate, in some ways, what it is to ask them. The pro­ject is a col­lect­ive exer­cise in which we – a mix­ture of social sci­ent­ists, design­ers and makers – and those liv­ing and work­ing on one street in Cam­bridge (UK), Ten­ison Road, are work­ing to think through how data might be mater­i­al­ised and come to mat­ter. The pro­ject aims to bet­ter under­stand the spe­cificit­ies and con­tin­gen­cies that arise when data is pro­duced and used in place. Mid-way through the pro­ject, we use this com­ment­ary to give some back­ground to the work and detail one or two of the troubles we have encountered in put­ting loc­ally rel­ev­ant data to work. We also touch on a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al stand­point we are work­ing our way into and through, one that we hope com­plic­ates the sep­ar­a­tions between sub­ject and object in data-making and opens up pos­sib­il­it­ies for a gen­er­at­ive refig­ur­ing of the man­i­fold rela­tions.

Short note on Solove’s Nothing to Hide’


Some early thoughts on data and pri­vacy, think­ing with Solove’s Noth­ing to Hide:

Early on in his 2011 book, Noth­ing to Hide, Daniel Solove makes a pro­voc­at­ive claim. He writes:

Leg­al and policy solu­tions focus too much on the prob­lems under the Orwellian meta­phor — those of sur­veil­lance — and aren’t adequately address­ing the Kafkaesque prob­lems — those of inform­a­tion pro­cessing” p.26

Solove’s point here is that much of the leg­al wranglings and policy mak­ing sur­round­ing pri­vacy are based on the premise that people have some­thing to hide. Thus the aims have, by and large, been tied to secur­ing pro­tec­tions against sur­veil­lance — oper­at­ing with­in the rub­ric of an Orwellian meta­phor”.

The broad­er argu­ment Solove makes is that this treat­ment of pri­vacy is miss­ing the pro­ver­bi­al trick.  As a concept, pri­vacy doesn’t simply entail people want­ing to hide things. For starters, accord­ing to Solove, “[m]any people don’t care about con­ceal­ing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of bever­ages they drink.” p.25 “[M]uch of the data gathered in com­puter data­bases isn’t par­tic­u­larly sens­it­ive, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or mar­it­al status.” P.25

It isn’t so much the gath­er­ing of inform­a­tion that mat­ters, Solove con­tends. It’s what agen­cies like gov­ern­ments are doing with it — the inform­a­tion pro­cessing” — that counts. The allu­sion is to a Kafkaesque world in which the rela­tions between agen­cies and indi­vidu­als are man­aged and con­trolled through the ana­lys­is of inform­a­tion or data. The power, so to speak, is held by those who can both access the data and sub­ject it to soph­ist­ic­ated ana­lys­is. I take this use of inform­a­tion pro­cessing to be ana­log­ous to big data ana­lyt­ics and cer­tainly most of the examples Solve refers to sup­port this.

I don’t know what Solove’s sources are for sug­gest­ing most people” don’t care about the con­tent of the inform­a­tion being gathered about them (this recent Guard­i­an art­icle appears to con­firm this). I do get his broad­er point though. Cer­tainly, it’s lim­it­ing to see pri­vacy as exclus­ively based on the premise that people have some­thing to hide. Moreover, the pos­sib­il­it­ies big data ana­lyt­ics open up for dis­cov­er­ing some pretty per­son­al things about people do seem daunt­ing, if per­haps over-hyped.

Yet, without want­ing to dis­count Solove’s argu­ment, I want to pro­pose a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about this issue of inform­a­tion pro­cessing. Seen from the ground up, we might also start to ask what people them­selves want to say through their data and using ana­lyt­ics. When Solove writes about most people” I think we need to begin think­ing about what this actu­al means and if there are ways of mak­ing claims like this action­able. So, a counter to the noth­ing to hide argu­ment” could be that most people — giv­en the know­ledge and tools — have some­thing to say”. That is they may want to have some say over how their inform­a­tion is dis­trib­uted, aggreg­ated, ana­lysed and inter­preted and, ulti­mately, how it is pro­duct­ively put to work. This cer­tainly won’t solve the mul­tiple prob­lems sur­round­ing pri­vacy, but it may at least redis­trib­ute the power and, in the pro­cess, give people some new ways of express­ing them­selves.

Oh, and as it hap­pens, this ques­tion of how to enable people to have some sort of say and con­trol over what gets done with their inform­a­tion is one of the motiv­a­tions for the new pro­ject we’re ramp­ing up in my group at Microsoft Research.

* A thank you to Jessa Lin­gel for point­ing me to the first quote above from Solove.