Thinking Outside the Crisis: Imagining Communities Through Data

The way digital information is mobilized during this pandemic highlights the politics of data—even if we often couldn’t see the data itself.

This article is part of the Independent’s ongoing series, Thinking Outside the Crisis. Read Robin Whitaker’s introduction here.

There’s an image (shown on the right) circulating on social media, satirizing the proliferation of data—or, rather, satirizing the proliferation of time people now spend looking at data. Certainly, I find myself regularly checking the number of cases, deaths, and recoveries of Covid-19 in Denmark (where I’m now living), back home in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Canada, and in various other parts of the world. I’m part of a Centre for Social Data Science, so it makes sense that I’m looking at data both before the spread of covid-19 and now. But the circulation of this kind of amusing—but serious—representation of our data practices suggests that it’s not just me who’s checking these numbers.

It seems that data (in this case, epidemiological data) is becoming an active and central part of our daily lives. Perhaps our attention to such data and numbers at the moment offers us a sense of control over this pandemic, which—by definition—is out of control. It provides a semblance of rationality and order as social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, and the illness and death of people both near and far upend our lives in ways we never previously imagined. It also produces—and provides for us—a collective national and global imagined community, where we can envision ourselves as part of a greater whole that encompasses people we have never met. Through these numbers, we share our collective attention to the effects of the pandemic, as well as our potential or real connection to the national and global counts.

Digital DataBefore the Pandemic

The thing is, data was already a central part of our lives; it’s just that we often couldn’t and didn’t see it. Facebook and other social media sites track our posts, interactions, likes, and preferences, at the very least; Google trackss location information, search data, and even audio information; we (and FitBit, among others) track our movements, calories in and out, and sleep; every few years we give the government information about our household composition and identities for the census; and so on. In a few cases, like fitness tracking or the census, you see your own data and may use it yourself. These days, however, much of our data is collected in the background as digital traces of our activity, activity that was never meant (from our perspective) for producing such data.

The social, political, and economic implications of this extensive digital tracking have been in the spotlight and, in some cases, seen as a crisis in its own right. Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA in the United States was tracking data for internet traffic routed through the US, and much more. The Cambridge Analytica revelations showed the kinds of data that Facebook was tracking, as well as the privacy concerns and implications of that tracking for democratic processes. Researchers have also been highlighting the broader social implications of data collection and its use in automated systems, such as those relating to health insurance and welfare eligibility. These systems often reproduce racism, gender discrimination, and class inequality and poverty, while also relying on the labour of countless workers (see here and here) who receive low wages, no benefits, and experience trauma from their work.

A key point here is that the use of our data has unequal effects, which disproportionately negatively affect those marginalized based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other intersecting categories. These data crises have led us to recognize and contest the kinds of data that companies and governments are collecting and using. That is, we are—or we were—increasingly recognizing the politics of data, even if we often couldn’t see the data itself.

Data for Public Health

With the spread of Covid-19, companies and governments are highlighting the increased public value of this kind of data. Different government-research collaborations are using smart phone data to track our movements with a view to helping monitor people who are breaking quarantine, track the spread of the virus, and see the aggregate effects on individual mobility of social distancing efforts. Researchers, myself included, are using social media data to understand efforts by public authorities to capture our attention, the spread of misinformation and how to fight it, and the association between social media exposure and mental health, to name just a few topics.

Data governance laws and regulations, among the strictest being the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, provide that one of the lawful bases for processing data is for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest. While research is generally seen to fall under this provision, ethical and legal grey areas seem to be shrinking as it becomes difficult to suggest that efforts to understand, contain, and limit the harms of Covid-19 could be anything but in the public interest.

There has been widespread public engagement with the epidemiological data that we see. For example, people are pointing out that the infection and death rates from different countries are difficult to compare because of different testing regimes, lack of reporting, or different ways of counting. Even within Canada there are differences between testing and reporting in provinces that create an incoherent national picture.

Yet, while debates over how numbers are constituted and an active skeptical attention to numbers and data have become a commonplace part of our lives, the politics of counting and data themselves seems to fade into the background.

Imagining People and Populations

Our enumeration as citizens and national populations is the product of historical practices designed to make people and places knowable, and controllable. In thinking about the production of imagined communities—a term he coined—Benedict Anderson explores how modern censuses emerged, in part, to serve colonial administration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anderson suggests that the census, along with the map and museum, “profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion” and “the nature of the human beings it ruled.” Specifically, these practices contributed to the construction of racialized subjects and populations as they categorized and enumerated people in terms of “race.” Moreover, policy and administration around education, law, and health were built around these practices of (racial) enumeration.

What is being built around current practices of enumeration? How are people and places being imagined through these practices? What long-term effects in terms of infrastructure and social norms will this enumeration have?

For us, watching national coronavirus counts at home, the continual comparison by country reinforces our sense of national boundaries, even as the spread of the virus shows that our borders are easily crossed. It’s not that these kinds of comparisons are new; there are global indices and rankings comparing countries by everything from GDP to creativity. It’s rather how these comparisons are becoming an everyday part of our lives – made more material by the closing of national borders – and the kinds of subjects that are being constructed as we enumerate people by illness.

Countries are also being compared in terms of their strategies for containing the virus, including through their use of digital data. In many cases, the usefulness of digital data for monitoring those in quarantine or for the spread of the virus is more limited than initially envisioned and comes with concerns over privacy, consent, and discrimination. Prior to the Corona crisis, the crises around data and technologies entailed protests and bans against companies selling technologies based on our data to the US military (here and here) and law enforcement. Now, what kinds of connections between government, corporations, and law enforcement are instead being built, expanded—and celebrated—in the name of public health? And what kinds of digital subjects, representing us as people and populations, are being developed and used to automate decisions that govern our futures?

Data for Justice

Certainly, I am not denying the importance and value of data to understanding and limiting the harm of this pandemic. When Louisiana in the United States started tracking deaths from covid-19 by race, it revealed that Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the virus (70% of deaths there have been African Americans). This kind of data is also important to show the effects of racialized health care and economic systems, for example. Historically, the rise of population health statistics is also associated with people living longer and healthier lives, as counting populations also led to the idea that states could improve their populations.

But as we work to reduce the harm of Covid-19, we should also work to reduce the spread and harms of data and its use in systems for automation and control.

We need to imagine and build worlds where the power of data supports equity and justice—along with public health. Both the data and the virus also have disproportionately negative effects on populations within and across nations already affected by structural violence. Thus, our imagination also must not be limited by the enumeration and comparison of nations.

Samantha Breslin is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, where she is also associated with the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science. Her research focuses on gender and political economy in relation to computing cultures.

Illustration by Maximilian Schönherr.

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