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.