Assignment 1: Data Walk

Due date
April 23, 15:00

The goal of this assignment is to sensitize you to the ways in which data is continually produced in contemporary social settings. In another context we might talk about the opportunities this holds for social researchers, many of whom have welcomed the “data deluge” as an opportunity to invent new ways of knowing the social. In the context of this class, however, we will mostly discuss its ethical implications—the ways in which the research process is shot through with ethical concerns when it takes place in data-saturated environments.

Canadian media scholar Alison Powell came up with the idea for data walkshops with the express purpose of “opening up civic discussions about data and its ethics within urban space.” A variation on the ethnographic go-along method, it has been adopted by scholars around the world, including the Centre for BOLD Cities in our own region.

In this assignment, you will plan, carry out and report on a data walk. Each student will submit a brief report (around 600 words) with supporting materials such as maps, photographs and notes taken en route.

During the walk, you will focus on data hubs: objects or sites that collect data. Examples include customer loyalty cards, ATMs, traffic cameras, RIFD tracking systems, OV chip card scanners, QR codes, parking meters, air quality meters, but the list could go on and on.

Under “normal circumstances” a data walk would involve a small group of 6–8 people taking on different roles, such as navigator, note-taker or photographer. For the purposes of this assignment, you should only involve one other person, such as a roommate or family member. Plan your walk someplace convenient, for instance in your own neighborhood, and restrict it to about one hour.

Your report should address the planning, execution and your reflection on the data walk. You may take the following points as a guide as you complete the assignment:

  1. Plan your walking route ahead of time. Make a map or list some landmarks you intend to pass on your walk.
  2. What will you look for? Which data hubs do you expect to encounter along the way?
  3. Collect evidence. Take pictures or bring back objects from your walk.
  4. Tell a story. Why did you walk where you walked? What was an important thread that you decided to follow? What did you learn about your environment? Did the other participant in your walkshop see things differently?
  5. Discuss the results. How visible are the data hubs you spotted? What kinds of data do they collect? Who owns the data? Where are they stored? What value might they bring to you or others? What do you think are the “costs” of data collection—in terms of the technology required for its collection, the likely environmental impact, encroachments on privacy, or possible “chilling effects”?

Please write your report in clear and coherent prose. Use proper references as needed.