Blog Post

Data and its Dissidents

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about data.

My project for the National-Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship involves collecting a group of Londoners’ geolocation and browser data, representing that data in interesting ways, and drawing conclusions from the representations. (The images in this post show a sample of my own personal location data and a resulting map, as an example of this process on a very small scale.)

This project is officially underway. On November 1st, a group of ten people agreed to share a month’s worth of their personal geolocation and browser data with me. In other words, they agreed to give me nearly unlimited access to revealing information about all of the online and offline sites that they will visit.

Does this sound crazy? If you think so, you’re not alone. When I tell people about my project, 90% of them ask something along the lines of, “How are you recruiting participants?” which is the polite version of, Why on earth would anyone agree to participate in a project where they’re giving away their personal data?

I’m not surprised by that question, and you probably aren’t either. In some ways, it feels as though a battle is currently being waged around data collection, sharing, protection, and freedom. On the one hand, there are a plethora of examples of for-profit companies not just taking, but abusing, consumer data. From the 2006 case of AOL releasing logs of twenty million search keywords for 650,000 users (some of which was later found to contain personally identifiable information) to the 2011 discovery that Apple’s iOS4 had been collecting and storing the information of all iPhone and iPad users in an unencrypted file hidden on users’ devices, there’s already a troubling history of corporations playing fast and loose when it comes to data.

But it’s not only corporations who are involved in the game. Just this year, in the wake of the also-relevant Edward Snowden leaks, it became public knowledge that the NSA actively monitors internet users who browse for privacy software online. Similarly, if you’re reading from across the sea in the United Kingdom, you’ll be more than familiar with the fact that Britain has one surveillance camera for every 11 people who roam its streets.

We’re increasingly navigating through a surveillance society, and data is the oil that keeps the machine running. But there are other critical voices who believe that data holds the key to greater personal understandings. The very mobile application that I’m using for my project, OpenPaths, was founded in response to the 2011 Apple incident as an open-source, encrypted, and secure way of gathering location data that’s both decentralized and available for the everyday user to have and see. And as the rise of things like wearable tracking devices and personal data dashboards suggest, everyday people are becoming increasingly interested in ways to have, see, and understand their own data as well.

It’s at this juncture that my project comes back into play. The desire to give people access to their own data, securely protected but also presented in illuminating ways, is one of the more subtle goals of my project. As data becomes increasingly generated and proliferated, the very act of data literacy becomes the means by which people can empower themselves. If I can use the data of a few people to create a project that enables others to be interested in their own data, then in one respect I’ve already succeeded.

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You could argue, of course, that asking for people to give me their data isn’t the best way to alert them to the fact that we live in a world where data matters (like it or not). This is a very fair point, and it is one that I encountered often when recruiting participants. Even aside from the fact that there are legitimate reasons why some would not want to share their browser or geolocation history, there were multiple people who admitted to me that though they didn’t have anything to hide, they couldn’t move past a pervasive and intense belief that there was something fundamentally not right about giving out their personal information.

This is a feeling that I understand completely. As recently as a year ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find any vestiges of my online presence apart from a carefully controlled online website that contained, notably, no photos. Even now, I have a natural reticence towards sharing personal information, both on and offline.

But there are a few things that would, and have, changed my mind. The first has to do with a recent discovery that I uncovered through the process of tracking myself: looking at your own personal data makes that very data less abstract. Once data becomes personal, it is that much easier to educate yourself on how it is collected and how meaning might be derived from it. As I hinted at earlier, this process of learning, understanding, contextualization, and action can be summed up in the phrase data literacy.

And then there’s a second fact: what I’m examining in this project is information that most of us are and have been already giving away. Cell phone companies have been able to gather geolocation data for years, and anyone with an Android phone and Google account has likely been giving Google access to that same data. Similarly, user tracking has fantastic implications for advertisers and for the companies that use their services. Your browser history contains information about your personal interests and even purchasing habits, information that is invaluable to companies like Google and other online advertising providers, as well as any company that sells goods and services online.

In other words: I’m just collecting information that is already being collected in much more thorough ways by institutions with potentially nefarious reasons for wanting it. The only difference between me asking people for data and companies quietly taking it is the fact that one is up-front and direct and the other happens under the radar. So what’s worse: generating data that’s invisibly being collected by other entities, or explicitly knowing that you’re doing so?

For my participants, the answer is the first, and that’s part of what has allowed them to participate in my project. You, however, will have to answer the question for yourself.

If you’re interested in learning more about these sorts of topics, feel free to check out my project site, which is an amalgamation of all the sources that are informing my project at any given time. If you want to keep up with me more generally, follow me on Twitter or head over to my personal site.

The rest of you, stay tuned. I should be writing here more regularly as I begin to dive into the nitty-gritty work of collecting and interpreting my participants’ data. There is much more to uncover.

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