Ryan  Burns, phd
September 8, 2014

Critical Data, Critical Technology AAG Sessions

Recently my research interests have leaned more heavily on my long-term fascination with “critical technology studies”. My thinking has mostly oriented around the ways technology broadly speaking - data structures, lines of code, representational capacities, hardware and gadgets, etc - influence the ways we think about social and geographic processes. In my dissertation, for instance, I question how Ushahidi’s grouping of individual reports, both in summative red dots and in topical categories, “accidentally” delivers information/knowledge about what can be known during crises, and about the very nature of humanitarian crises themselves. This resonates strongly with Jim Thatcher and Craig Dalton’s recent commentary and with a special issue of GeoJournal Jim and I have put together, soon to be in print. Along these lines, the three of us have organized the two following sessions for next year’s AAG, which seek to begin a discussion in geography about how critical data and technology studies can contribute to our understanding of how data and technologies impact scholarship and everday lives. See below for more information and instructions on how to apply.

Critical Data, Critical Technology: in Theory

In recent years, geographers and other social scientists have begun engaging new data infrastructures, representational technologies, and the resulting analyses as they have emerged in private industry, academic research, and government agencies. Moving beyond simple claims of the “end of theory” (Anderson 2008), it is no longer a question of if anyone thinks ‘big data’ calls for academic analysis. The challenge is now how to approach the complex epistemological and ontological issues raised by emerging data and technology writ large. In turn, the new forms of analyses and sources of data have spurred academic debates over the social and political implications of data analytics and technology (Crampton et al. 2014; Kitchin and Dodge 2011). Recently, researchers have proposed a series of prompts that indicate an incipient critical approach to data studies (boyd and Crawford 2011; Dalton and Thatcher 2014). However, in this field’s nascence, more questions have been raised than answers. For example, geographers and social scientists have yet to address the ways a critical study of data might intersect with and draw from larger critiques of technology.

In these paired sessions, we seek to explore and evaluate critical approaches to data, analytics, and new spatial technologies in a common forum. This session focuses on theorizations and conceptual approaches and the complex ontological and epistemological commitments entailed in them.

Promising questions include:

Critical Data, Critical Technology: in Praxis

Big data is currently engaged in diverse sectors, including academic research, civic engagement, urban administration, digital humanitarianism, international development, and public health. These diverse practices show potential for integrating principles and lessons from critical scholarship, but much work needs to be done to build and maintain these connections. How can big data be practiced critically? In what ways is this work already being done? What can practitioners learn from applied studies of technology? How might big data become part of critical practice? How can critical scholars benefit from a greater understanding of existing praxis outside the walls of the academy?

Recently, researchers have proposed a series of prompts that indicate an incipient critical approach to data studies (boyd and Crawford 2011; Dalton and Thatcher 2014). However, in this field’s nascence, more questions have been raised than answers. For example, the very definition and utility of ‘small data’ remains contested. In these paired sessions, we seek to explore and evaluate critical approaches to data, analytics, and new spatial technologies in a common forum. In this session, we are interested in how practitioners are mobilizing data, technologies, and analytics in ways that resonate with ‘critical data and technology studies’. We are interested both in existing practices and in potential connections between theory and praxis.

Promising questions include:

If interested in participating in either session, please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Jim Thatcher (jethatch@uw.edu) on or before October 1st, 2014.

Please indicate in the submission whether you are interested in participating in the Theory or Praxis session.

Organizers: Jim Thatcher, University of Washington - Tacoma; Craig Dalton, University of Bloomsberg; Ryan Burns - University of Washington

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