A Brown Bag Lunch at King’s College London

On February 11 we began one of our first series of talks to share the research findings that we have been gathering over the past year. If you are curious about our research design or how we have tried to approach this project click on the following link and it will take you through a series of slides that were used to present some of our initial findings to our colleagues in the Digital Humanities Department.  Here, we began by outlining some of the key conceptual ideas that helped to inform our research framework, specifically for the series of the focus groups and interviews that were carried out with our YRS participants.

We then outline some of the key brush strokes that were involved in this project namely:

Tumblr Diary1. Distributing SmartPhones & the MobileMiner

2. Focus Groups & Interviews held with all of the YRS participants

3. Tumblr Diaries – which we used to determine the amount of time our participants were spending on their mobiles and what they were doing when they were using them.  The Tumblr diaries were also used to cross reference what was gathered and dumped into the anonymized database at King’s via the MobileMiner app. It therefore helped us pair our data with the appropriate YRS participant and determiTumblr Diary 2ne if perceived media use matched their actual media use.

4. Hackathons – We held two.  The first involved our participants creating hacks that either improved upon the MobileMiner app or considered ways to interpret how privacy agreement operate. In the second hack we returned the data we had been collecting, based on the MobileMiner app downloads. YRS participants were then invited to create something with their own data.

The presentation then highlighted some of the key findings around our participant’s understanding of privacy.  Key points of interest for us included:

1. How much control do users actually have?
2. Is privacy something that is experienced individually or collectively?
3. Why is there so much apathy in relation to the amount of data that young people are willing to share about themselves online?
4. How can a more engaged pedagogical strategy be formulated?

Lastly, the presentation highlights some of the contradictions that our participants are confronted with when it comes to the harvesting of their data. While on the one hand there appears to be a kind of apathy or indifference to the amount of data that is regularly gathered on individual users, most of the projects that were created during the second hackathon were actually attempts to learn more about what they were generating.  Most of our participants sought ways to create tools that would afford them more agency and control over their own data, which for us signals a need for more robust approaches to data literacy. More to follow!


A Long Overdue Update on the Success of our Second Hackathon!

In November 2014, we held our second hackathon with our YRS participants. This event was much anticipated as it gave us an opportunity to return all of the data we had been collecting over a six month period via the MobileMiner app. The day began with Giles doing a brief presentation, outlining what we had collected and how our young coders could best work with all the information that they were given.

While there were some initial struggles in trying to figure out what to do with all of the data, our researcher participants persevered and came up with some brilliant prototypes for apps and ways to visualize our data. What we quickly realized is that there are just so many things one can do with a lot data, all you need is a good imagination!

In just a few hours, here are some of the hacks that were undertaken by our research participants:

  • Cell Tower Time: Featured an app that tried to display different colours on a map to show what cell towers where used at certain times. This decision was made instead of using GPS, because our researchers collectively decided that this form of location tracking would have been too invasive for our participants. As a result, the MobileMiner app converted cell tower data into very approximate location data using the gazetteer of cell tower locations provided by opencellid.org. Had this hack been completed, it would have highlighted all of those Cell Tower IDs that had been gathered during the six months of data gathering, highlighting how easy it is for us to be tracked with the most basic kinds of technology.
  • Data Mining: This hack created applications using the SQLlite databases that were created in the MobileMiner application. This collaborative effort tried to produce something that might allow users to gain insight into what the ‘average’ leaks when the engage on social media platforms. In other words, thinking about ways of quantifying the notifications that occur when a user uses an app such as Facebook or Twitter.
  • Social Media and the Days of the Week Correlations: This hack tried to develop a graph generating tool to demonstrate when and for how long, the Twitter, Facebook and Facebook Messenger app were used by our research participants. More specifically, it aimed to know what days of the week these apps were being used, alongside the number of times they were accessed and at what time of the day they were most frequently used. He then cross referenced this with the number of notifications that the apps sent back to their home servers. By so doing, he asked three questions of the data: 1) Does using an application result in an increased number notifications? 2) Is there a day of the week that appears to make the user more vulnerable to the app leaking? 3) Is there a time a day that makes the user more vulnerable to the app leaking? In addition, the hack tried to visualize social media use and seeing how this changes over time. From this perspective, the hack tried to extend the quantified self app to encompass social media usage.
  • Sonification of Processes and Notifications (Sonosocialdata-ism): This hack tried to process sketch that takes the data from the mobile miner app (as a CSV file) and produces a tone at a higher frequency with processes (popularity of usage) and increases volume with notification count. The participant thus turned data into sound by developing a number of tones and colours to correlate with the frequency in which the apps we had been monitoring were calling home. Had this project been completed, then the app would have generated brighter and more grating sounds to coincide with the leakier and more invasive apps found on any user’s device. This unique approach to visualization came from their belief that sound and colour signify more clearly to the average user. In their own words: ‘Most people would prefer this to numbers on a screen or paper, as its a lot more jarring for the non-savvy, as some could say that higher, louder tones are uncomfortable, whereas seeing numbers is relatively meaningless unless you know the context…This could break down the complicatedness for the end user…It would be great if you could listen to a list of apps, to find the tones, to find the one that are potential problems.’

Mining Mobile Youth Cultures

We are very excited that some of our initial results have already been published! In October 2014, Dr. Tobias Blanke travelled all the way to Washington to attend the IEEE conference, where he presented our article: “Mining Mobile Youth Cultures”. This short paper discusses the co-research we have been involved with over the past year with our YRS participants. Here you can read about the MobileMiner app that we designed with the help of the 20 young people we were working with. The app’s primary function has been to capture the data that is regularly leaked from mobile applications. Specifically, it looked at the number of times in which data was exchanged from the mobile and the various apps that our research participants happened to be using. The MobileMiner then captured the data that gets regularly harvested by third parties to investigate how digital culture is tracked and captured in mobile environments.

Briefly, the MobileMiner uses the Android API, which provides functions that return the total number of bytes transmitted and received by a given app. It does so by polling the APIs every half second and then logs the moments when there is a notable increase. We could not develop the MobileMiner as an iOS app because of the highly proprietary and restrictive environments of the Apple ecosystem. The very fact that we were not able to access even limited data off this highly popular operating system is perhaps a valuable finding, albeit not entirely surprising. However, what were able to create for the Android system proved to be successful, in part due to the enthusiastic collaboration with our YRS participants who continuously strived throughout the project to improve upon MobileMiner’s open source code.

Some of the most notable highlights we uncovered from the MobileMiner are that when it comes to the apps that we download, there are some significant differences in the amount of data that gets captured about users. For example: Three of our young coders played the game ‘Don’t Tap the White Tile’, a popular app with over 130 million downloads. From our records it accessed its server 46, 53 and 42 times over a period of 21, 2 and 3 days for each of those users. According to some marketing blogs, our findings are what could be considered ‘normal’. However another game called: ‘The Line-Keep In’, which only boasts 12000 downloads and has no privacy agreement for the user to accept, accessed its server 1760 times over a period of 27 days, with significant activity found even when the user was asleep!

The paper also highlights some of the finding from our focus groups, which targeted the complex relationship young people have in relation to their online privacy. Here we tried to raise a series of questions around how much control users feel that they actually have and examined if privacy is something they feel they experience individually or collectively. The questions also sought to understand why young people are willing to share so much about themselves online by seeking their attitudes towards information sharing. In our future research, we will work with the YRS communities to co-develop a set of analyses that will utilize the big social data for humanities research in the digital culture.

Visit to the V&A: Digital Design Weekend September 20&21

logoOn September 20 and 21st we were very excited to participate at the V&A as part of their Digital Design Weekend. This was an exciting free event of collaborative making and activities that explored the physicality and digital value, and was meant to coincide with the London Design Festival. Throughout the day we were able to profile what we have done so far on our grant. We spoke at length about the series of interviews we have already with our YRS co-researchers, highlighting some of the important contributions they have made towards conceptualizing what privacy within our current historical moment.

We were also able to show off MobileMiner, the app that we have been developing, which is helping us learn about the kinds of data that are made available by our smartphones and apps we engage with. One of the preliminary findings that many people found interesting was that some games that are played by our YRSers appear to be generating quite a bit more data then others. We are still investigating what this means but there appears to be some indication that there are clear differences between the amount and kinds of data that apps take from users. Our next steps will be to organise, analyse and visualize the big social data we have gathered. We will do this in relation to the media diaries that our co-researchers from YRS have been keeping, allowing for a point of comparison between how they think they are using their devices and what their devices are actually gathering.

Many thanks go out to Andrew Prescott, who invited us to attend the event. It was a great experience to be among so many innovative AHRC Digital Transformations projects!

Our First Successful Hackathon!

On June 21st, we held our first hackathon with 13 of our research participants from  Young Rewired State.  Everyone was quick to form their groups and worked hard for the entire day at King’s College London.  There were many frustrations throughout the day, however, slowly progress was made! Some of our research participants took on the role of teacher, showing other fellow participants how to code with certain programing languages.  Some of the participants began their research on privacy agreements for the first time and were shocked to find out how little they actually had.  For this reason, some of the hacks produced platforms and apps that helped to visualize and understand the number of third parties that are attached to every website and app that get downloaded on smartphones.  Other participants were fascinated by the size of the digital footprints that get left behind when they engage with big social data so they made a Twitter account that posts photos and data automatically from their phone. Finally, some of our other participants tried to improve the MobileMiner app that we have produced.

If you would like to learn more about what we have done, click here to view the projects!  Or click here to see the archive of tweets that were produced throughout the day!

New Article on the Materiality of Big Social Data

I have a new article ‘Data Motility: The Materiality of Big Social Data’ published in the journal Cultural Studies Review. It is in the special issue ‘Coding Labour’ edited by Esther Milne and Anthony McCosker. The article originated at a conference held back in November 2012 at Swinburne University in Melbourne Australia. The special issue features Jussi Parikka, Rowan WIlken, Anna Munster and Ned Rossiter, among others. It is most excellent and very much worth a read.

My article examines the material ecosystem of big social data: the kind of data we generate, the computational environment in which it is processed,and  the third parties accessing and aggregating our data. It offers conceptual framing for the way in which the data we generate circulates almost wholly autonomously of our control, through an almost exclusively proprietary environment.It asks whether this makes us merely generators of value for digital enterprise (or indeed targets of pervasive surveillance by the security state) or whether there is more progressive cultural and political potential therein.

A Conversation about Big Social Data

A recent presentation we did for the Rothschild Foundation focused on some of the fundamental qualities of big social data and working through the vast amount of cultural artefacts that are born and remain digital.  To consider the digitization of cultural practices, we discussed the growing centrality and ubiquity of smartphone devices, particularly amongst young people.  Here, in part, we considered some of the more recent statistics on the increased usage of mobile phones and how these devices are enabling more and more of our cultural practices to be seamlessly integrated online.  We also unpacked some of the inherent contradictions found in how we value and want to protect the data that we both intentionally and unintentionally generate. Given the parameters for the capture of our social data are rooted in privacy agreements, we looked at two of these policies–Instagram and Sunrise Calendar.  Our intention was to critically examine and unpack the term ‘third party’ and finally to illustrate some of the assumptions that are often made when it comes to the protection of the data we produce online.  Click here for a link to this discussion.