Data Activism in Light of the Public Sphere
‘Ayuda Ecuador,’ a deployment of the Ushahidi platform, was launched on April 16, 2016, after the first tremors of the earthquake that killed 660 people and injured 4,605 (USAID 2016). Within a matter of two hours, a group of ‘digital humanitarians’ – who typically comprise bloggers, techies and activists willing to volunteer their time to assist in emergencies remotely (Gutiérrez 2018a) — launched the deployment to ‘generate collectively data relevant to the emergency, threats, logistic needs and response that the affected population was experiencing (…) and effectively channel the efforts by different institutions and agencies’ (Ayuda Ecuador 2016).
The Ushahidi platform – a non-profit tech company from Kenya that allows the visualization of crowdsourced crisis data for humanitarian purposes – is a proactive data activist organization, proactively employing software and data for humanitarian assistance (Gutiérrez 2018a).
Data activism involves a series of practices ‘at the intersection of the social and the technological dimension of human action,’ aiming at either ‘resisting massive data collection,’ in the case of reactive data activists, or ‘actively pursuing the exploitation of available data for social change,’ in the case of proactive data activists (Milan and Gutiérrez 2015, 127). This article deals with the second type of data activism.
Proactive data activism is currently being harnessed to understand, analyze and develop solutions to a range of social problems, from climate change and biodiversity loss, to inequality and human rights abuses (Hogan and Roberts 2015), as well as to assist in humanitarian crises, as in the case of the Ushahidi platform.
Because of its capacity to generate alternative digital public spheres (called here APSs for short), this paper specifically refers to a type of proactive data activism termed ‘geoactivism,’ which employs interactive cartography to communicate and trigger action. In this paper, Geoactivism galvanized to address an emergency is called ‘crisis mapping,’ while geoactivism employed in evidence-gathering for advocacy is called ‘activist mapping’ (Gutiérrez 2018a).
The cases mobilized to illustrate this article include mainly deployments of the Ushahidi platform, based on crowdsourced data, as well as other cases, including InfoAmazonia, which relies on public data, as well as crowdsourcing and sensors to generate data. They are introduced in the analysis because they are typical geoactivist organizations (Gutiérrez 2018a).
To examine how APSs behave, I draw on ‘Why the net is not a public sphere’ (Dean 2003). Particularly useful are Jodi Dean’s reflections on how the net cannot be considered a public sphere, but a set of democratic configurations that she calls ‘neodemocracies’ (ibid., 105). Dean considers that the architecture of the public sphere is based on a set of components – specifically, site, goal and vehicle, as well as means and norms (2003, 96). I take this idea further to highlight facets of the APSs (see Table 1).
The primary purpose of this paper is not to compare the public sphere and Dean’s neodemocracies, but to contribute to a theory of data activism, a relatively unexplored phenomenon. Therefore, the theoretical comparison provided in this paper is a heuristic exercise for enlarging the concept of the APS in data activism.
In this section, some of the central concepts and theories mobilized for this study are explored and put in the context of data activism, including Dean’s neodemocracies (2003), Jürgen Habermas’s public sphere and its criticism, James Bohman’s electronic public space (2004), Nancy Fraser’s counterpublics (1990), and the theory of dataveillance (Poell, Kennedy and Dijck 2015). A brief comparison of the public sphere, the neodemocracies and the APSs is offered, which is explored in the next section.
According to Dean, the Habermasian public sphere arises in the nation, is aimed at consensus, abides by the rules of inclusivity, equality, transparency and rationality, and revolves around actors (2003). Meanwhile, Dean’s internet-based neodemocracies aim at contestation, happen on the web via networked conflict occurring within the canons of duration, hegemony, decisiveness and credibility, and emerge around issues (ibid.). The concepts emerging from this taxonomy are employed here probingly to observe the APSs generated by data activism.
I do not entirely subscribe to Dean’s criticism of the Habermasian understanding of the public sphere. Dean’s criticism does not take into consideration how the concept of the public sphere has evolved in Habermas’s thinking. Habermas updated it, suggesting that ‘a cosmopolitan matrix of communication’ could make a ‘world public sphere’ possible (Habermas 1996, 514), decoupling the public sphere from the nation. Therefore, when I uphold the idea that the public sphere is linked to the nation, I am referring to Dean’s critique.
Besides, the Habermasian public sphere is not as placid as Dean portrays it, since it also deals with struggle and is intended for action. In the public sphere, discourse commences once there is a problem and actors can contest each other’s validity claims (Habermas 2006, 413). In fact, the public sphere is the place where differences are settled by reason, and not by war (Negt and Kluge 1993, ix). Likewise, when I mention consensus as the goal of the public sphere, I am using Dean’s views.
One of Dean’s criticisms is that adding an ‘s’ to the concept does not save it, because groups either share the same norms (and therefore are a public in Habermasian terms) or they do not (and therefore are not a public) (Dean 2003, 97).
This distinction does not apply easily to the APSs created by data activism. APSs may share the same norms, underlying values and solidarity, but their evanescence makes them plural and ad hoc. They are similar to Stefania Milan’s karst river movements, which remain dormant, reappearing when conditions require it (2013), while their members feel part of the same movement and principles (Grabowski 2012). They match Donatella della Porta’s and Mario Diani’s description of a network organisation combining formality (i.e. norms) with elements typical of a distributed network, based on the independence of single components which adapt and change as the occasion demands (2006, 159).
Dean’s taxonomy arranges the features of the public sphere and the neodemocracies into boxes whose boundaries blur once you look more closely at them. Conscious that any classification is arbitrary, I employ Dean’s taxonomy as a heuristic tool for reflecting on data activism.
Thus, APSs’ frame of reference is the local and the global concurrently (not the national or the web), since they are ‘transnational,’ in Bohman’s terms (2004). They are directed at action (not solely at consensus, as Dean asserts for the public sphere), and are established around conflicts (not actors or simple issues).
Table 1: Comparing the public sphere, neodemocracies and APSs
Action (via consensus)
Crises and problems
Networked coordination (via procedures)
Inclusivity and evanescence
Source: Elaboration by the author based on Dean (2003, 108).
This new taxonomy allows me to make some observations about how APSs behave.
Other authors’ arguments, compatible or not, are employed later in this paper for thinking about APSs, although the intention is not to subscribe to any theory of the public sphere.
For example, Bohman’s reflection on ‘a new kind of public sphere’ that emerges in the era of ‘electronic democracy’ (2004, 131) is useful. Bohman acknowledges that an ‘electronic public space’ – understood as a computer-mediated, Internet-enabled communication — may have the potential of generating a ‘novel public sphere,’ enlarging the scope of ‘certain features of communicative interaction across space and time,’ especially when applied to ‘deliberative transnationalism’ (2004, 132-151).
Data activism could be considered an enhanced variety of activism in that it is enabled by a cutting-edge form of technology (i.e. the data infrastructure), and data activists often use the Internet as a platform for disseminating information (together with other information and communication technologies or ICTs). Bohman’s viewpoints are therefore interesting for considering how data activism employs technology to generate novel public sphere(s) for transnational advocacy and humanitarianism.
This article draws too on Fraser’s look at marginalized groups excluded from the public sphere, and the formation of their post-bourgeois public spheres as ‘subaltern counterpublics,’ overcoming a ‘hegemonic’ mode of domination (1990, 61-62). These groups generate counterpublics, or ‘parallel discursive arenas,’ to develop and circulate ‘counter-discourses,’ which present alternative ‘interpretations of their identities, interests and needs’ (ibid., 67).
Although there is a difference between Fraser’s bottom-up counterpublics and the spaces generated by proactive data activism, her conceptualization is useful here too. In 2008, four volunteering techies and bloggers, who could hardly be described as ‘marginalized’ in spite of being ‘repressed,’ launched the first deployment of the Ushahidi platform.
This first application was set up to bypass an information shutdown during the bloodbath that arose after the presidential elections in Kenya a year earlier, and to give voice to the anonymous victims. The deployment allowed victims to disseminate alternative narratives about the post-electoral violence. Since then, other applications have been set up by campaigners, organizations and digital humanitarians in every major disaster not only to visualize what is happening but also to assist people affected in real time, offering some ‘expectation of a response’ and opening a ‘space for interaction,’ in Bohman’s words (2004, 135). Namely, the APSs of data activism could be considered subaltern in that they are parallel discursive arenas where people disseminate counter-discourses in opposition to top-down narratives and approaches.
This paper also takes into account the backdrop in which proactive data activism emerges, which includes the datafication process – that is, computing aspects of life that had never been quantified before (Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier 2013, 78) — and the massive collection of data by governments and corporations, giving rise to ‘computational politics’ (Tufekci 2012), what Braman calls the panspectron (2009, 314) or dataveillance (Poell, Kennedy and Dijck 2015). Dataveillance employs ‘the massive flows of data circulating between devices, institutions, industries and users’ for ‘new and troubling practices’ (ibid.). Reactive data activism, a frontrunner of data activism, emerges precisely in answer to this data-gathering and intrusion (Milan and Gutiérrez 2015).
Labels employed in this paper are derived from Gutiérrez (2018a), where eleven attributes observed in forty data initiatives (i.e. how collaborative a concrete organization is), thirty semi-structured interviews with data activists, practitioners and experts, and four in-depth interviews with Ushahidi developers and deployers were the basis for a non-normative taxonomy employed in examining proactive data activism (ibid.). According to this classification, proactive data activists can be categorized as: skills transferrers, focused on transferring data or social science skills, forging opportunities for alliances and generating digital platforms and tools for data activism; ‘catalysts’ who chiefly fund data projects; activists who produce data journalism, when news media organizations are not willing or capable of doing so; and the actual data activists and geoactivists (ibid.).
The ability of some proactive data activist initiatives to generate APSs is the pivotal idea in this paper. Happening both locally and globally across borders (site), aiming at action (goal) and gathered as a temporary network around the crisis caused by the earthquake (vehicle), ‘Ayuda Ecuador’ is an example of how data activism can generate temporary spaces for dialogue and action.
The ‘deployers’ at ‘Ayuda Ecuador’ included several organizations from different countries, supported by four experts: Luis Hernando Aguilar, on knowledge management; Byron Herrera, on software development; Estela Navarrete, on mobile software development; and Angela Oduor, from Ushahidi (Ayuda Ecuador 2016). The application connected them and other digital humanitarians with victims (reporters) generating data via the crowdsourcing platform, and traditional humanitarian agencies, using the resulting information on the ground. For almost three weeks, these three communities – that is, deployers, reporters and humanitarian workers — ‘met’ in the public space generated by the platform to agree, make decisions and coordinate actions.
The theory of the public sphere is employed here to analyze these spaces. It was Habermas who described the public sphere’s emergence in the 17th and 18th centuries as space where a communicative action leads to mutual understanding (Habermas 1984, 17–18). However, Habermas was criticized for having created too abstract a model, and for having bypassed some challenges, such as the exclusion of women and men from the lower classes, and the heterogeneity of the public (Webster 2006, 163–68; Calhoun 1992).
Nevertheless, the idea of the public sphere has been revived with the emergence of ICTs, the ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler 2006, 212), and the data infrastructure — including databases, algorithms, servers and systems needed to obtain, curate, analyze and visualize data (Gutiérrez and Milan 2017) —, due to the fact that these technologies appear to augment opportunities for interaction and debate (Rheingold 2002; Papacharissi 2002; Benkler 2006). Habermas himself reviewed the concept, suggesting that ‘a world public sphere’ could become possible (1996, 514).
However, in the ‘network society’ (Castells 2010b), the public sphere does not remain intact. The rise of ‘digital contention’ generates a ‘structural transformation of the public sphere,’ where access, participation and communication ‘are constantly redefined and renegotiated’ in ‘multiple arenas‘ (Celikates 2015, 14).
This revival, again, met with more criticism. Distinctions between the bourgeois and proletarian public sphere (Negt and Kluge 1993), national and translational publics (Bohman 2004), the Habermasian public sphere and the ‘networked public sphere’ (Friedland, Hove, and Rojas 2006), as well as discussions about whether the concept of the public sphere could be applied to the net (Dean 2003) and social media (Fuchs 2013) ensued, leading the debate towards ‘opposing assessments’ (Bohman 2004, 132).
For Lewis A. Friedland, Thomas Hove and Hernando Rojas, the ‘centrality of networks’ demands revisions of the public sphere (2006, 5). These authors argue that the ‘networked public sphere’ presents challenges to the public sphere in that it raises questions about the structure of communicative action, as the institutions of socialization are now networked, transforming ‘core forms of intersubjective communication and sociation’ (ibid., 24).
Echoing Oskar Negt’s and Alexander Kluge’s proletarian public sphere, Christian Fuchs critiques ‘the contemporary web’ and social media as false emancipatory public spheres because they are dominated by capitalist interests (2013). He adopts the notion of ‘proletarian counter-public sphere’ as a ‘radically different’ public sphere (Fuchs 2010, 176).
Concurring, Dean notes that the net is ‘the architecture for communicative capitalism, both as order establishing itself and as an order being resisted’ (2003, 105). The online presence of activists supports her arguments that resistance and discord are the goals of the web (ibid.). There is a different way to look at it. The data infrastructure embeds several forms of bias, discrimination and asymmetry, which do not disappear when activists use it for their causes (Gutiérrez 2018a, 2018b). However, I do not think that these contradictions annul the APSs’ power to foster democratic participation; they simply reflect the complexity of our world, where simultaneous, often clashing, phenomena happen.
Having framed the discussion, what follows is an analysis of the comparison between the public sphere, the neodemocracies, and the APSs.
The Tensions of the Site, the Goal and the Vehicle
Data activism imposes tensions on the public sphere. The following section dwells on them, paying particular attention to three strains (site, goal and vehicle), which are mainly significant because they present the most noteworthy differences between the public sphere, the neodemocracies, and the new APSs.
The Tension of the Site
Several communities typically convene when launching a Ushahidi deployment tackling a crisis: the group of expert ‘digital humanitarians’ (Meier 2015a) setting up and supporting the deployment remotely; the people affected by the disaster or violence, who contribute their data and use the information; and the humanitarian workers, responding to the crisis.
The first group can be based on different geographic locations, taking advantage of the ‘space of flows,’ which allows real-time social practices to happen simultaneously (Castells 1992, 2010a). The second and third groups operate locally, on the ground, and globally, when they communicate in the APSs generated by the platform. ‘Ayuda Ecuador’ offers an example: ‘locals’ (i.e. on-the-ground humanitarian personnel and reporters) and experts from different parts of the world (i.e. the digital humanitarians) create a space where they can discuss and coordinate actions.
According to Dean, the public sphere occurs in the nation, while the neodemocracies are situated on the web (ibid., 108); meanwhile, the new APSs happen both locally and globally, all at once. During the Enlightenment, the public sphere surfaced in the salons of England, France and Germany, a neutral arena of critique against the absolute power of royals (Habermas 1991, 33-34). The conceptions that Habermas mobilized initially to examine the bourgeois public sphere (i.e. ‘State,’ ‘Church,’ ‘aristocracy’ and ‘royalty,’ among others) cannot be fully appreciated outside the framework of the nation.
Meanwhile, Dean states that neodemocracies – understood as democratic configurations which are organized through contestation (2003, 108) — happen on the web, a place of conflict and antagonism, where differences ‘emerge, mutate, link up into and through networks’ (ibid., 105-106).
Instead, the communities that engage in initiating an Ushahidi deployment interact in a space where the local and the global intersect via the web or other communication systems (i.e. mobile phones).
As with neodemocracies, the concept of the nation limits the way proactive data activism can be theorized. In proactive data activism, a global interaction seeks local effects. The nation can be an element in the offline aspects of proactive data activism (i.e. the level of freedom of speech of the country where the crisis happens), but it is not determining. For instance, the first Ushahidi deployment in Kenya managed to bypass national restrictions and to impose an alternative narrative thanks to a synchronized, collaborative effort.
The Tension of the Goal
APSs are created for tangible action. The interactive mapping employed by Ushahidi, for example, depicts different layers of information in diverse formats (i.e. images, graphs, text). These strata are provided by reporters and deployers (i.e. where and when ‘water purification and sanitation’ services are offered on the ‘Ayuda Ecuador’ map) so that others can use them. Namely, verified reports about where water purification and sanitation services are available, and for how long, are offered so people can act on them.
Another example is the geoactivist initiative ‘Rede InfoAmazonia,’ which offers actionable information on the quality and quantity of the Amazon river’s water and issues warnings, so the communities in the West of Pará, Brazil, can make decisions in their daily lives (Rede InfoAmazonia 2016). ‘Rede InfoAmazonia’ is based on a system of connected sensors that capture data based on physical and chemical parameters, which produces cartography, data and notifications via mobile technologies when the water indicators exceed or go below boundaries of normality (ibid.).
Ushahidi largely engages in crisis mapping, increasing the efficiency in response to humanitarian emergencies, while InfoAmazonia often deals with activist mapping, generating data and empowering communities for participating in decision-making processes. Occasionally, data activism engages in contest (which places it closer to Dean’s neodemocracies). That is, crisis mapping is the art of visualizing citizen reports on a map during a crisis to enhance humanitarianism, whereas activist mapping is more focused on galvanizing communities and gathering bodies of evidence that can be used for advocacy (Gutiérrez 2018a).
Consequently, the idea of proactive data activism should be regarded here as a broad grouping that embraces cases with multiple goals related to action, but not all of them are considered in this article.
Habermas regarded the public sphere initially as a locus of rational discussion aimed at understanding (Habermas 1991). In the public sphere ‘everybody’ gets a chance to talk and to be listened to. That is why Dean considers that the Habermasian public sphere’s goal is principally consensus; in contrast, contestation is what neodemocracies aim at (Dean 2003, 109). A democratic theory built around the notion of issue networks aiming at struggle recognizes that antagonism is what gives democracy ‘its political strength’ (ibid., 111).
Meanwhile, the APSs generated by proactive data activism exhibit a propositive teleological pragmatism, as seen in crisis and activist mapping. This makes proactive data activist initiatives ephemeral: they are created only as a response to a crisis or to an issue perceived as problematic, which they seek to highlight, elucidate and even solve. When the difficulty disappears (or the deployment fails), these initiatives tend to fade as well, in the same way as collective action sometimes remains concealed and resurfaces only when the conditions are auspicious, mimicking a karst river (Milan 2013, 137–68).
The Tension of the Vehicle
The crisis or problem that the data-activist endeavor is tackling is the vehicle, if ‘vehicle’ is to be thought as the trigger for the formation of the APS. However, actors are as significant in the APSs as in the public sphere, giving good reason why they deserve some attention here too.
As with citizens’ media, proactive data activism places people at the forefront of content production (Rodríguez 2001, 20). In ‘Rede InfoAmazonia,’ local communities generate data via sensors, contribute to their interpretation and use the resulting information to make decisions. Their data agency is enhanced when the datafication process – typically the monopoly of governments and corporations — is reversed. Thus, these communities’ ‘routine association’ with automatized data collection is transformed (Milan and Gutiérrez 2015, 130).
In the case of crisis mapping, actors include deployers, reporting victims and humanitarian workers. These three communities are fundamental. Useful crisis mapping cannot occur without credible deployers, eager reporting witnesses (reporters) and collaborating humanitarian workers. The challenge in crowdsourcing data does not come from its technical sophistication, but from the convening power of the project. For instance, hundreds of Ushahidi deployments have failed due to the absence of people submitting reports from the ground, transforming maps into ‘dead maps’ (Vota 2012). Likewise, the failure of some Ushahidi deployments to engage humanitarian forces on the ground has led to hiccups as well (Keim 2012).
Actors in APSs are significant in more ways because they can include marginalized people, making APSs close to Fraser’s counterpublics (1990, 61). For example, the Ushahidi deployment in Haiti in 2010 offered visibility and decision-making power to the victims affected by the earthquake. Another example is InfoAmazonia’s ‘Annual cycles of the indigenous peoples of the Rio Toque’ project, which crowdsources and visualizes information from indigenous people (Cardoso 2015). However, APSs can be considered counterpublics, up to a point. Even if some deployers are victims themselves, there are apparent power asymmetries between the tech-savvy deployers, building and managing the platform, and the data reporters, merely using it under predetermined conditions.
Nonetheless, actors are not the vehicle for APSs. Without the emergency or conflict, the APS do not make any sense. The vehicle for proactive data activism is, then, the crisis or problem at hand, and the nature of data activist projects is teleological.
Proactive data activism can be seen as an instance of collective action triggered by conflicts and problems, which then deploys unconventional means – specifically, the data infrastructure used critically – to deal with them.
In contrast, in the public sphere actors are the vehicle. They are conceptualized as rational beings that make coherent choices, based on reason (Habermas 1984, 89-93). As said, the public sphere has been challenged from many fronts, one of them questioning who can be an actor because the bourgeois public sphere was an elitist island for educated, propertied, white men. Its character was ‘equal’ only for the privileged few, but ‘exclusionary’ for others (Calhoun 1992, 223).
Dean states that a democratic theory built around the notion of issue networks can avoid this ‘fantasy of unity’ (2003, 107). In fact, the neodemocracies are focused on issues because the web is structured by networks formed around issues (ibid., 110-111). Although actors are ‘always embedded in networks,’ they are replaceable because networks’ configuration continuously changes as players enter or leave them (Dean 2003, 108), realizing forms of autopoiesis, ‘or network-based self-organization’ (Friedland, Hove, and Rojas 2006). In a Ushahidi deployment, for example, roles are static while people can change responsibilities or move in and out of the APS.
Looking at the element of the vehicle, APSs seem closer to neodemocracies than to the public sphere in that they are characteristically triggered by (problematic) issues and not actors. However, while any neodemocratic network can be gathered around any issue, any problem will not trigger a proactive data endeavor.
Whether an issue is catastrophic or problematic enough (or perceived as such) depends on different factors. Droughts, for example, are amongst the most deadly disasters regarding the loss of lives (Live Science 2013), but because they often occur over long periods in far-away developing countries, most droughts get a fraction of the coverage that any hurricane receives in rich countries (Tzvetkova 2017). Meanwhile, public attention, media reach and emotion are essential in any successful Ushahidi deployment, since they require a high degree of buy-in among actors.
The new APSs stand in contrast to both the bourgeois public sphere and Dean’s neodemocracies; but the lines which separate them become more imprecise when looking at their means and norms.
The means mobilized by APSs is networked coordination, while the public sphere is only possible through procedures, and neodemocracies ‘open up opportunities for (networked) conflict’ (Dean 2003, 108).
Networked coordination works within the APS through the formation of temporary networks for action, triggered by the conflict or problem and glued together by solidarity and values, enacting a ‘logic of aggregation’ as they assemble individuals from diverse backgrounds (Juris 2012). While the deployment lasts, the deployers become digital humanitarians, a collective category that groups people of different backgrounds, ranks and nationalities.
However, the ‘diversity of individualized actors’ imposes stress on the sustainability of the effort (Juris 2012, 261). In fact, the need for an unremitting exertion inflicts a strain within the APSs of crisis mapping. Volunteer burnout is, for example, a problem in humanitarian emergencies, since they can last for months, demanding a sustained determination and long hours. It is not the individual that guarantees results but the network, which is resilient because their elements are disposable. In that way, data activist organizations resemble the flexible networks described by della Porta and Diani (2006).
From the perspective of norms, the APSs are ruled by inclusivity and evanescence, equal access, transparency and credibility. This places them halfway between the public sphere, whose rules are inclusivity, equality, transparency and rationality, and the neodemocracies, governed by duration, hegemony, decisiveness and credibility (Dean 2003, 108).
Where the public sphere is regulated by ‘inclusivity’ in Habermasian terms, the neodemocracies value duration (Dean 2003, 109). But for APSs duration makes no sense, since they exist only while the conflict or problem persists. APSs get constantly activated and discontinued, and a conditioned ‘inclusivity’ is essential for generating the crowds, networks and communities that keep them alive.
Paradoxically, ‘inclusion’ in crisis mapping is delimited by the rules determining that actors must belong to one of the three communities necessary to launch a deployment. But for Bohman, ‘any social exclusion undermines the existence of a public sphere’ (2004, 134). To think about the inclusion of the APSs, this concept must be qualified.
The APSs are inclusive, but they establish boundaries for inclusion. Ushahidi deployments create spaces for equal participation with concrete rules: anybody can become a digital humanitarian, but they need to register, declare their abilities and potential contributions to the crisis, and then follow guidelines to produce as much verified, actionable information as quickly as possible. These guidelines are not imposed from external actors in a higher hierarchical position, though, but as a result of internal, horizontal processes of evaluation (Gutiérrez 2018a). For the duration of the deployment, the space is open to experts and non-experts, as long as they share the same objectives, can contribute time and comply with the rules. Then, it shuts down.
Volunteering experts are privileged people with access to technology; however, the APSs also include victims and vulnerable people. The only barrier to the victims’ mediated participation is their access to ICTs, especially mobile phones, which in the past few years has been growing [e.g. in 2008, with a population of over 39 million people, Kenya had experienced a sharp growth in mobile technology penetration, with more than 16 million subscribers (Oteri, Kibet, and Ndung’u 2015)]. In the case of InfoAmazonia’s ‘Annual cycles of the indigenous peoples of the Rio Toque’ project, participation is even more mediated.
Therefore, APSs are ruled by impermanence and qualified inclusion.
In the context of antagonism, ‘neodemocratic politics are struggles for hegemony’ (ibid. 110), and the public sphere is governed by the norm of equality. Meanwhile, the APSs are ruled by equal access.
In Ushahidi deployments, for instance, all actors can participate in the decision-making process: everyone has a parallel capacity of generating and accessing information.
However, equal access does not mean equality here. There are three primary power asymmetries that can be observed in crisis mapping. First, by verifying the information reported by witnesses, deployers turn into gatekeepers of what is public in an APS. Namely, they are placed in a higher echelon. Second, although victims can include deployers, being a deployer is not as dangerous as being a witness or a conventional humanitarian worker, and there is an abyss of difference between working on a disaster remotely and confronting the physical conditions of an emergency on the ground. Third, the reports that are published by the deployment can expose, and have exposed, the victims’ and the human rights defenders’ whereabouts, activities and networks, endangering them in situations of repression and violence (Hankey and Clunaigh 2013; Slater 2016).
Another rule of the public sphere is transparency. But according to Dean, nowadays power is not hidden, so transparency does not need to be a goal. Echoing the concept of infoxication (Toffler 1984), Dean means here that, in the net, there is not a lack of information, but the opposite: an overload. ‘Fully aware that there is always more information and that this availability is ultimately depoliticizing, neodemocratic politics prioritizes decisiveness’ (ibid.).
But contrary to what Dean says, information is not always available, even when it is most needed such as in the case of disasters or emergencies. Snowden revelations in 2013 put an end to any illusions of transparency on the part of governments too (Castells 2015).
APSs seek transparency when information is hidden, not as a final goal, but as a tool for action. Ushahidi’s first deployment was put in place precisely to break the news blockade by the Kenyan government and media.
However, too much transparency can render victims vulnerable to being targeted. The use of the data infrastructure enables digital humanitarianism, but it also produces new risks for both humanitarian workers and witnesses, since their reports can disclose their location, actions and networks to the dataveillance machinery (Hankey and Clunaigh 2013, 536; Stottlemyre and Stottlemyre 2012, 12). Namely, data and metadata produced in data activism can be harvested by people in power to control and locate activists and witnesses (Burns 2014). That is why Ushahidi deployments do not usually open their data.
Proactive data activism can also offer alternative narratives when the mainstream versions of reality are manipulated. An example is the ‘counter-mapping’ project set up by several communities in Indonesia in resistance to governmental initiatives to remap land and surrender it to companies (Radjawali and Pye 2015). Indigenous counter-mapping challenges the state power over maps, and its categorization of land uses (ibid., 4). This movement is currently testing ‘grassroots UAVs’ (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to generate data, and strengthen people’s datasets and political actions (Meier 2015b). Again, the idea in data activism is not to produce transparency for transparency’s sake or to create awareness, but is aimed at action.
Finally, issue networks are ruled by credibility over rationality; in contrast, rationality governs the public sphere (Dean 2003). The APSs look more like neodemocratic networks since credibility and trust are vital to sustaining the crowd and the activist effort (Gutiérrez 2018a).
The APSs are not ideal havens of cooperation and equality: power asymmetries exist within actors, and some glitches and oversights in real-life cases have created ‘dead Ushahidi maps.’ However, the rules of the APSs imply that they have to be guided by: conditioned inclusivity and temporality, within a set of procedures; equal access, so actors can communicate and act; transparency, so unconventional data-based narratives are produced; and credibility, so buy-in and adhesion on the part of the actors involved in tackling a crisis are generated.
Framing the New APSs
Based on the observations made earlier, this section justifies why the sphere of communication and action created by data activism are called here ‘alternative digital public spheres,’ and also provides a broader context for the rise of data activism in the big data society.
The APSs are ‘alternative’ because they engage alternative actors (i.e. non-experts, victims and vulnerable people) in producing counter-narratives, using technologies in unconventional ways (i.e. the data infrastructure employed critically), and sometimes altering power dynamics by reversing the monopoly of maps and the datafication process. Namely, they propose formats, actors and subjects outside the established norms.
They are ‘digital’ because they are enabled and constrained by the data infrastructure, that is, a digital infrastructure that allows the managing, sharing, storage and use of data. That is, they are digital because they are enabled by information, communication and data technologies.
The APSs conform to the rule of ‘publicness’ as a condition of the public sphere, defined by Bohman, although he talks about face-to-face interaction (2006, 134). In the APSs, there is little physical contact, but the ‘conversation’ is public not purely because it could be seen online by others but to the extent that it could be taken to address anyone, paraphrasing Bohman, (ibid.). That is, they are public because they are ‘the result of the social activities made by individuals sharing symbolic representations and common emotions in publicness’ (Mateus 2011, 275).
Data activism happens in the context of other social uses of the data infrastructure. It can be employed in two opposing ways: it can facilitate governmental and corporate intrusion, manipulation and control, but it can also be a powerful tool for interaction, activism and social change.
The unyielding datafication of all human activity has profound impacts. With big data and computational techniques, massive surveillance and manufacturing consent is easier: it has moved from the ‘magnifying glasses and baseball bats’ of the 20th century into ‘telescopes, microscopes and scalpels’ of the 21st century (Tufekci 2012, 6).
To be exact, employed as a scalpel, data infrastructure allows manipulators to engage people on an individual basis. Before data infrastructure, social scientists analyzed relevant samples of the universe they wanted to study and relied on surveys in which people said what they thought they did. With data infrastructure, social scientists now can examine what people do (Stephens-Davidowitz 2017). Data infrastructure enhances and quickens surveillance, makes it personal and renders it ubiquitous and surgical. Surveillance today involves ‘the ability to go beyond what is offered to the unaided senses and minds or what is voluntarily reported’ (Ball, Haggerty, and Lyon 2012, 26).
But the ICTs and, lately, data have transformed activism too. The rise of the data infrastructure and massive surveillance prompted ‘reactive data activism,’ which employs the data infrastructure to shelter online interactions and communities from massive surveillance (Milan and Gutiérrez 2015, 127). With reactive data activism, the infrastructure that makes it possible has become more accessible to the average user, ‘rapidly evolving from a peripheral, elitist form of activism to a diffused one, whereby also non-skilled users take part in the game’ (ibid.).
Data infrastructure allows a zooming in and out of processes and places and can offer both the high-resolution landscape of a situation and a vision of the life of one single person at a given time (i.e. a request for help posted at ‘Ayuda Ecuador’). These capabilities are incorporated into the new APSs.
The realization of the APSs is not free of contradictions. Differing from that which reactive data activists usually do, proactive data activists often resort to capitalist technologies, whose values they do not seem to share. Some of these technologies are based on business models that require the low production costs that only semi-slave conditions and child labor afford (Amnesty International 2016, 29), and create environmental damage (Hogan and Roberts 2015). Proactive data activists typically turn to whatever tool is at hand – including Google Maps, mobile technology and other corporate inventions — to respond to a crisis (Gutiérrez 2018a). Other problematic issues include the power asymmetries and the failures that real cases of data activism accumulate.
The spaces for debate, consensus and networked action that are generated in proactive data activism can be theorized as public spheres, because they share some of their attributes: although proactive data activism’s final aim is action, it is articulated by actors who interact and organize following procedures framed by ‘inclusivity,’ equal access and transparency. However, they do not resemble the bourgeois public sphere entirely. I have called them ‘alternative digital public spheres’ or APSs for short. Table 2 summarizes their qualities, which emerge in comparison with the public sphere and the neodemocracies.
Global interaction in the space of flows with local effects (local dimension also in on-the-ground action).
Ø Consensus (which embeds an expectation of response) is a tool for action;
Ø crisis mapping’s aim is tackling emergencies and activist mapping’s is to enhance advocacy and empower communities.
Ø APSs can bypass information blockades, generate alternative narratives and counter-maps, and revert datafication;
Ø emergencies can trigger crisis mapping and social problems, activist mapping;
Ø although not the vehicle, actors are important, citizens are placed at the forefront of production, marginalized people can get empowered and some roles are fundamental in crisis mapping.
Ø APSs behave like decentralized network organizations, where roles are static (i.e. crisis mapping), while concrete individuals are expendable;
Ø a sustained effort over time strains the endeavor, but networks are resilient.
Ø Norms come from the network, not imposed in top-down processes;
Ø APSs emerge with an built-in obsolescence;
Ø they are ruled by conditioned inclusivity;
Ø their equal access (not equality) is framed by asymmetries (in the roles and rules, in the level of danger and because victims can be exposed);
Ø transparency is a tool (like consensus), which can generate disruptions, but too much transparency can be dangerous for victims/reporters;
Ø without credibility, data activist initiatives fail.
Table 2: The alternative digital public spheres. Elaboration by the author.
What follows is an explanation of Table 2. APSs generated by data activism have lost the nation as a reference because they are located both in the local and the global, taking advantage of the space of flows. The action coordinated globally in the APSs has local consequences. In crisis mapping, for instance, the local determines the conditions in which victims can report, and humanitarian workers can use the information on the ground.
Actors in the APSs seek consensus, but this accord embeds an expectation of a response and is used as an instrument for action. The two main varieties of geoactivism, crisis mapping and activist mapping, are targeted at action, although the former’s aim is tackling emergencies (short-termed action,) and the latter is deployed to generate evidence for advocacy and empower communities (medium- and long-termed action). In APSs there is a difference between the local and the national. For example, disasters may affect vulnerable people in remote rural areas more than others living in cities of the same country. Also, catastrophes do not respect national frontiers.
APSs are formed around conflicts and problems they seek to address, and sometimes they bypass information blockades and generate alternative narratives and counter-discourses. They can allow ordinary people to generate their own data on their own terms, reversing the datafication process, which is typically the monopoly of governments and corporations. Emergencies can trigger crisis mapping, which is the geolocation of citizen data to assist humanitarian efforts, while activist mapping can be activated by social causes. Although not the vehicle, actors are essential in APSs: citizens are placed at the forefront of content production; disenfranchised people are at the decision-making table, which empowers them and enhances their agency; and some roles are fundamental in crisis mapping, for example.
APSs are managed by decentralized, networked coordination in which roles are static, while individuals are expendable. Although a sustained effort over time can impose strains on the actors supporting the APSs, it can be overcome by the resilience of the network.
The norms that rule APSs come from the network, that is, they are not imposed in top-down processes by external actors. APSs in data-activist initiatives are fluid and short-lived, embedding a built-in obsolescence because they arise in the face of finite emergencies and problems. Another rule governing APSs is conditioned inclusivity, which allows the participation of anyone, as long as he or she follows the guidelines, for example, to produce verified reports during crises. However, this equal access (not equality) embeds some asymmetries. In the case of crisis mapping, for example, deployers act as gatekeepers of verified reports, victims and humanitarian workers often face dangerous situations, and victims can be exposed by the APS. Transparency, another rule, is employed in the APS as a tool and can generate disruptions when it becomes evident that, for example, news media organizations are not doing their jobs. However, too much transparency can be dangerous for victims reporting data about their situations. Finally, credibility, needed to generate buy-in, ensures the success of the data-activist initiative.
But exactly as is the public sphere, the APSs are a construct. They are offered here as a heuristic concept for understanding how proactive data activism raises networked communities of individuals from a diverse background, sometimes based in remote locations, for coordinated action. APSs, in which actors work in perfect harmony towards results, are never to be found in real life, as actual-life implementations discussed in this paper demonstrate.
What real cases show is that, with enhanced data-based capabilities, activism can unleash processes of real communication conducive to action. APSs also provide another turn of the screw in the theoretical debate about the validity of the public sphere as a concept today.
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Miren Gutierrez (mirengutierrez.com; @gutierrezmiren) is director of the Expert Program on Data analysis research and communication at the University of Deusto (Spain), and Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute (UK) and DATACTIVE. She is the author of Data Activism and Social Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Her research interests include data activism, climate change and environmental loss. firstname.lastname@example.org.