Big Bang Data: some thoughts on an exhibition

I had a lot of fun a couple of weekends ago at the Big Bang Data exhibition.  It claims to show “how the data explosion is transforming our world”, and if it doesn’t manage quite that, it’s certainly worth a visit.  It’s on in London and its run has been extended to 20 March – not surprisingly, as it was packed out on the Saturday afternoon I visited.  Its website has lots of materials on things that are in the show if you can’t make it to London.

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There’s lots to say about it.  After a couple of artist installations to kick things off (Timo Arnall‘s Internet Machine and Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous, entrancing Data.tron – and We Need Us by Julie Freeman is installed towards the show’s end), the exhibition was divided into zones that reflected pretty accurately a number of current academic ways of thinking about digital data: the materiality of ‘the cloud’; the ‘quantified self’; the massiveness of ‘big data’; ‘data for the common good’, looking at participatory uses of data and digital devices; ‘data is beautiful’.  Each zone was full of examples of different kinds of engagements with digital data, by artists and designers and activists, and there were also a few (rather gestural) citations of earlier, pre-digital examples of images doing apparently similar things.  There was also a massive ‘London Situation Room’, with a number of very large projections of various data streams from the city by Tekja, as well as two consoles with interactive screens of various kinds.

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London Data Streams by Tekja

The variety was fascinating.

However, the variety also served to obscure what I felt by the end was actually a rather uncritical approach to digital data.  Continue reading

cultural geography going vulgar and viral

The Open University’s OpenSpace Research Centre held an event in June 2014, its annual Doreen Massey event, which was on the theme of ‘provocations of the present: what culture for what geography?’.  You can find recordings of it here.

Several of those of us who contributed have converted our talks into short papers for the journal Social and Cultural Geography, and three of them – including mine – are online now.  You can browse them here.  Mine is called ‘Cultural geography going viral’, and it reflects again on the impact that social media – and particularly Twitter – might have on the practice of cultural geography.  Sam Kinsley’s excellent contribution – ‘Vulgar Geographies? Popular Cultural Geographies and Technology‘ – is available on his blog here.  Sam’s piece (like mine) looked at things digital, but engaged with them from a rather different angle, suggesting that popular culture is now largely mediated through digital technologies, and thus that cultural geography needs to get both more popular (or ‘vulgar’ – a nice and nuanced prod at the subdiscipline’s longstanding neglect of the mass media, let alone social media) and more digital.

I  also took a paragraph in my essay to reflect briefly on my own writing practices now that I ‘do’ social media (this blog and Twitter really, I use Facebook and Academia.edu pretty minimally).  I think of them as an ecology, a kind of balance between long, short and extremely short forms of writing, each with their own voice and rhythms of production.  (Rather irritatingly, I wrote the essay for Social and Cultural Geography fairly quickly and in my less formal ‘blogging voice’, only to find that it’s taken nearly eighteen months to get published, of course, as it’s in a journal, so now feels less spontaneous and immediate and more sloppy and casual.)  Now that I’m in the middle of trying to write a long paper again though, I’m realising that ‘ecology’ doesn’t quite cover it.  Ecology does indeed imply a sort of balance, and what I’ve learnt is that if I’m trying to think and write long form, then both my blog and my tweeting are distractions that I have to switch off.  It’s more like a zero-sum game: either I distribute my attention in lots of little bits, or I concentrate on one big thing.  Or maybe I’m just getting old…

If anyone is interested, the long piece of writing that I’m working on will be a paper (I hope) with the provisional title of ‘post/human agency in the digitally mediated city’.  The draft has some phrases that I’m quite proud of (though, in my bitter experience, they’re usually the ones that referees dislike for their overgeneralising-ness*, so they’ll probably never see the light of day).  But here’s a taste of what I’m trying to do:

 While the notion of human agency is hardly ever interrogated in scholarship focussed on digitally mediated cities, the agency of nonhuman, emergent “quasi-objects” (Bingham 1996) is described in great detail.  Dodge and Kitchin (2009), for example, catalogue various kinds of agency enacted by coded objects, infrastructures, processes and assemblages, subdividing coded objects into hard, closed, permeable and sensible ‘codejects’; Kitchin (2014) pays similar forensic attention to ‘data’; and every restatement of Thrift’s (2011, 2012, 2014)  nonrepresentationalist account of the digitalised city  is enriched by new vocabulary.  The various modalities of human agency, however, have been left unexplored.  This is inconsistent, particularly in the context of the oft-mentioned Actor Network Theory emphasis on the ‘symmetrical’ analysis of both the human and the nonhuman; as Braidotti (2013 12) says, just as we are learning to think differently about the nonhuman, “we need to learn to think differently about ourselves” too (and see Anderson 2014; Halford and Savage 2010).  In its attention to human agency in particular, this paper contributes to a genuinely symmetrical, posthuman geography of digitally mediated cities.  

(That rather overweening final sentence will probably be revised too.)  I’m  really enjoying reading so much interesting geography on things digital and urban!  And thinking about how to work with feminist, queer, postcolonial and critical race theories of the digital too, which in my view work on digitally mediated cities really needs to engage with.  Watch this space for further updates.

*not only are blogs short-form writing (for me anyway), but they also allow me to use words like overgeneralising-ness on a Friday afternoon when I’m too tired to think of anything more elegant.  But you know what I mean, right?

 

exhibitions visualising digital data

There seem to be a few exhibitions around at the moment – as well as one that ran for a few weeks and closed at the end of November, in Riga, called Data Drift – that look at the intersection of digital data and digital visualisations of various kinds.  Maybe there’re always these sorts of exhibitions around and I just haven’t noticed them, but if there aren’t, it’s kind of interesting that I found four in the past month or so.

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One’s at Somerset House in London, focussing on data and called Big Bang Data, until the end of February.

Another is called Animated Wonderworlds at the Museum fur Gestaltung Schaudepot in Zurich.  It’s curated by Suzanne Buchan and runs til 10 January.  I was hoping to get to this one, but my plans were scuppered so I’ve had to make do with the exhibition catalogue and a YouTube video.  It’s focussed on animation rather than on digital data specifically but does include some data visualisations, and the catalogue has a great essay by Suzanne, which talks about just how pervasive digital animations are now.

And the third is at the Institute for Unstable Media (what a great name – though I guess all institutes are made of unstable media…) in Rotterdam.  Its title is Data in the 21st Century and it’s on until 14 February, exploring the frictions between ‘data’ and ‘reality’, according to its homepage.

As I haven’t actually been to any of these shows, this is more of a hand-wave than a proper blog post.  Interesting, though, that there’s so much work by artists, designers and digital humanists (Lev Manovich features in all but Digital Wonderlands, I think) using visualisations to interrogate data.  The claim that data – especially the big data sets generated by so much of the digital infrastructure of everyday life now – is understood more easily if it’s visualised is one that’s made very often.  I’m not so sure.  As others (like Johanna Drucker) have worried, once data is visualised, certain questions about it are prioritised over others.  A visualisation (as Suzanne Buchan argues about animations) invite affective responses, they let us “see the unseeable”, to quote Suzanne, and we can get carried away into their beautiful, glowing worlds.  That can be a wonderful thing.  But it also makes the robustness of the data, and the process of visualisation (both the technical process and the labour process) much harder to see, in fact.  Making something visible always seems to entail making something else much less visible.

prezi as tool and symptom

For my keynote lecture at the International Visual Methods conference held in Brighton in September this year (you can read it and link to the Prezi here), I prepared a Prezi.  Prezi is cloud-based software for making visual presentations (or at least the free version is cloud-based), and I’ve been using Prezi instead of Powerpoint for some time now. I’ve got to the point of reflecting on it not just as a new toy to be played with but also, like any toy (or digital device), thinking about how it’s shifting what I do in presentations.

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Prezi is basically an empty space onto which you can position various things – images, text, audio files, videos, links to websites – and you then frame them in various ways with boxes and brackets and arrows and so on. You then specify a route for moving between the frames, and can do that in any direction. You can also zoom into the space and zoom out again. According to its Wikipedia entry, this means Prezi works in 2.5D because it positions things closer or further away on a flat screen.

It’s useful for a number of reasons. You don’t have work through a linear text in the way that Powerpoint encourages; you don’t have to exit to play a YouTube video; you can zoom into points of detail and then zoom out again to get an overview of your main argument. So Prezi is a useful tool for positioning things in relations, in hierarchies, in networks (it’s as much spatial as visual).

I like it for presentations because it can show the structure of an argument or an analysis really clearly, as well as carry lots of empirical material. At the International Visual Methods conference I also heard a couple of other uses for Prezi, which both used it more as a way of organising research data than as a presentation device.

The first of these was the Everyday Childhoods research cluster at the  University of Sussex.  Their Face 2 Face research project looked at how young people use different kinds of media devices.  Researchers conducted micro-ethnographies which involved researchers spending an ordinary day with each child and documenting their lives across home, school, leisure spaces etc.  They asked their research participants to keep a diary of their media use over 24 hours, and take photographs too, and the research team then used Prezi to collate the resulting materials.  You can see the Prezis here (you can choose to make a Prezi public and shareable) – use the ‘case studies’ tab at the top of the page.  Not only do these Prezis carry a diverse range of materials, you can choose to explore the young people’s days chronologically or not.

A second use of Prezi as a means of presenting research data was discussed by Darren Umney.  He describe how he used it to manage part of the data he was gathering for his research on debates about a nineteenth-century railway development: his Prezi contains scans of 61 newspaper articles that covered the building of a railway line in the 1830s, and he uses Prezi’s collage-ing and zooming abilities to annotate the articles, arrange them in time-lines, group them into thematic categories and show the relations between those categories, and the links between categories and his conceptual terms. As you move from the data to the concepts, you zoom out in the Prezi. You can explore his method for managing data in this way on his blog here.

Prezi is notorious for that zooming, and for the nausea that it can create in people watching a Prezi, especially if it’s being projected onto a big screen. All the advice you can get on using a Prezi therefore tells you not to zoom too much, too fast or too often. I’d agree with that: don’t zoom too much. My other bit of advice is to map the layout of your Prezi before you start – I wonder how much pre-planning Darren did before using Prezi to work on his thesis analysis. (There’s much more good advice on Prezi’s own site, of course, and also on this LSE Impact Blog post – give yourself a couple of hours to watch the tutorials and practice and you should be good to go.)

I’m also now thinking that moving from Powerpoint to Prezi may have a relation to how visual culture is changing. Thomas Elsaesser has argued that the ubiquity of digital visualisations of many kinds means that a shift is taking place, from framed images structured by the rules of Cartesian perspective to a mobile, unharnessed, 3D visuality. His main example is 3D cinema, but Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I also used his essay to think about the spatiality of still CGIs. And Prezi’s frameless zooming also looks like a perfect exemplification of his argument.

The question I have to ask myself though is about my predilection for the final zoom that reveals the grand structure underpinning my presentation. Does it make my position so clear that its positionality and construction are also evident? Or is it rather too close to comfort to the god’s-eye viewpoint so thoroughly critiqued in the early 1990s by Donna Haraway, among others?


 

Elsaesser, Thomas. “The ‘return’ of 3-D: On Some of the Logics and Genealogies of the Image in the Twenty-First Century.” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 2 (2013): 217–46. doi:10.1086/668523.

Rose, Gillian, Monica Degen, and Clare Melhuish. “Networks, Interfaces, and Computer-Generated Images: Learning from Digital Visualisations of Urban Redevelopment Projects.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32, no. 3 (2014): 386–403. doi:10.1068/d13113p.

 

 

The Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology

Here’s an announcement that may be of interest to many of you.
The Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology recognizes students in the social sciences who incorporate visual analysis in their work.  The contest is open worldwide to undergraduate and graduate students (majoring in any social science).  It is named for Rachel Dorothy Tanur (1958–2002), an urban planner and lawyer who cared deeply about people and their lives and was an acute observer of living conditions and human relationships.
The 2016 competition for the Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology is now accepting applications, with a deadline of January 25, 2016.  Entries will be judged by members of the Visual Sociology Group (WG03) of the International Sociological Association (ISA).  Up to three prizes will be awarded at the Third ISA Forum of SociologyThe Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World, to be held in Vienna, Austria on July 10-14, 2016.  Attendance at the forum is not a requirement but is encouraged.  First prize is $2,500; second prize is $1,500; and third prize is $500.
For more information and to apply, go to http://www.racheltanurmemorialprize.org/.

online training in image elicitation methods – pre-register now!

Last year, I worked with Professor Helen Lomax and Dr Nick Mahony to produce three online advanced research training modules in image elicitation methods.  Each module will run once in the next three years, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.   Module 1 looks at using image elicitation methods with ‘vulnerable’ research participants; module 2 examines discourses of elicitation and participation more generally; and module 3 looks at a couple of possible futures for digital image elicitation methods.  They’re free and open to all researchers, but are aimed primarily at PhD students.

Pre-registration for module 1 is now open here, and closes on 27 November.

spotted at Cambridge station – cut-and-pasted people talk back!

I always keep my eye out for building site billboards and their shiny (or not so shiny) digital visualisations to add to my collection, but at Cambridge station on Saturday I got a surprise. Someone has added speech bubbles to the figures cut-and-pasted into this hoarding.

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I took the photo above in June; below is the hoarding on 17 October.

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And here are some of bubbles in close-up.

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And finally, one that not many critics of this sort of glamourising of urban redevelopment schemes seem to consider:

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I have no idea who made this intervention, but my hat goes off to you.

visual research methods in an expanded field: what next for visual research methods?

I gave a keynote address at the International Visual Methods conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. I’m not planning to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal (thereby hangs a tale, for another time), so I thought I’d post it here instead. It’s not a polished piece, it’s my notes for the lecture, with a few references, and it gets rather vague towards its end… but it’s an attempt to provoke some new thinking about visual research methods so may have some usefulness nonetheless.

You can watch the prezi that accompanies it here.

Its abstract is below; click through at its end to read my notes for the address.

This lecture will review the current state of visual research methods, discussing both methods for interpreting found visual materials and methods that involve the creation of visual materials as data and as means of disseminating research findings. It will suggest that, while creative experimentation continues, several visual research methods have consolidated and are now relatively mainstream, particularly visual ethnographies, image-elicitation interviews and visual participatory research. It will argue that now, to move forward, visual research methods must engage more fully with the range of issues raised by the fact that so much of contemporary everyday visual culture is mediated by software and, often, delivered by digital hardware. What are the implications of selfies and memes, of YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr and Vine, for visual research methods? The lecture will suggest that image-heavy social media platforms raise three methodological questions for visual research methods: questions of scale, of distribution and of practice. The lecture will explore these and suggest that if images are to continue to be taken as useful tools in understanding social life, this may well require a radical expansion of visual research methods.

Continue reading