Virtual, visible, and actionable: Data assemblages and the sightlines of justice

Big Data and Society 4 (2) (2017)
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Abstract

This paper explores the politics of representing events in the world in the form of data points, data sets, or data associations. Data collection involves an act of seeing and recording something that was previously hidden and possibly unnamed. The incidences included in a data set are not random or unrelated but stand for coherent, classifiable phenomena in the world. Moreover, for data to have an impact on law and policy, such information must be seen as actionable, that is, the aggregated data must show people both something they can perceive and something that demands interrogation, explanation, or resolution. Actionable data problematize the taken-for-granted order of society by pointing to questions or imbalances that can be corrected or rectified, or simply better understood, through systematic compilations of occurrences, frequencies, distributions, or correlations. The paper describes and analyzes three different modes of authorized seeing that render data on global environmental phenomena such as climate change both visible and actionable. It argues that the political force of environmental data compilations derives from the divergent epistemological standpoints and expert practices associated with producing views from nowhere, everywhere, and somewhere.

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