Join us for our Masterclass Series!

We are very excited to introduce our Masterclass series.

1) Interventions in Big Data Politics (At the Politics of Big Data Conference) – May 8, 2015

Exercising agency within a politics of big data entails gaining a clearer understanding of what comprises the digital ecosystems which enable new social and economic relations. From metrics, to third parties, to the various futures of the visual web, this panel will present a series of interventions that make visible the infrastructures that actively support and enable ubiquitous algorithmic and data-intensive environments. Dr. Carolin Gerlitz will lead the discussion by unpacking how first order metrics such as counts of tweets, replies or hashtags are constituted, arguing that such apparatuses need to be seen as epistemic devices. Next, Dr. Jennifer Pybus will put forward data literacy as critical intervention for understanding the dynamic flows and processes that relate to the exponential growth of data. Finally, Dr. Farida Vis will discuss algorithmic accountability as it relates to the issues around seeing/not seeing and the futures of the visual web.

What counts in social media research?

While algorithmically calculated popularity rankings influence scores or relevance measures have faced increased critical inquiry, little attention has been paid to the composition of first order metrics, such as counts of shares, tweets or hashtags. But what do we actually count when we aggregate tweets, @replies, likes or shares? Metrics, the presentation suggests, need to be seen as epistemic devices, informed by diverse use cultures and platform politics. Based on empirical work on a 1% Twitter sample, the presentation suggests that metrics do not count but calculate and have to be considered as lively – animated by users, their practices and mediating devices.

Bio: Carolin Gerlitz is Assistant Professor in New Media & Digital Culture, member of the Digital Methods Initiative and conducts research on digital culture and methods.

Hacking the Social Life of Big Data

It is paradoxical that questions of agency arise in relation to big data, considering that collectively, we are a leading source of its generation.  Data literacy, as conceptualized in the AHRC grant: ‘Our Data Ourselves’, will be put forward as a critical emergent field that is aiming to develop a set of competencies and knowledge to empower people to understand the dynamic flows and processes related to our steadily growing digital footprint.  Key aspects of the digital ecosystems that facilitate the capture of big data on our mobile devices will be examined in relation to how gaining access to one’s own data, not only augments the agency of the individual but of the collective user.

Bio: Jennifer Pybus is Senior Lecturer in the London College of Communication at University of the Arts London.T

Visual Cultures of Big Data

The recent rise in social media platforms and apps focused on image sharing highlights a series of important issues in terms of the politics of big data. How do we deal with this recent explosion in image data? Images don’t lend themselves easily to computational techniques, which are unable to get at their meaning in any significant way. This presentation will highlight work from the Visual Social Media Lab, which works towards developing methodological and theoretical strategies for the capture and interpretation of social media image data at different scales. This work also draws attention to the need to consider wider cultures of visibility. For example: how do we get to see these images in our feeds and streams at all? Do we see them as images? This presentation therefore also highlights the need to interrogate these new regimes of algorithmic visibility, including questions around accountability.

Bio: Farida Vis is a Faculty Research Fellow in the Information School, at the University of Sheffield. She is the Director of the Visual Social Media Lab.

2) Hacking Mobile Ecosystem for Data: 15 May 2015 : 10:00-4:00pm

This is a hands-on event to gain a more practical understanding of the kinds of data mobile phone apps capture. Led by the well-known researcher Darren Martyn, whose background lies in penetration testing, reverse engineering and vulnerability discovery and exploitation. Participants will be given pre-rooted Android phones and will learn how to use app-reversal tools (like dex2jar; WireShark, etc.) and decompile apps. We will then see what kind of data an app asks for, whose analytics services it uses, and examine the traffic. Please bring your laptops, no hacking experience is required! This event welcomes participants of all levels of technological expertise.

To register click here!

3) Born-digital data in the Arts and Humanities: 21 May 2pm; King’s College London S-3.18

Jane Winters

This event will critically investigate whether big born-digital information is the ‘Gold Rush of the Information Age’ (Marshall)for the humanities and what kind of advanced digital methods we need to develop in order to follow this excitement. The humanities have yet to see any systematic investigation of how born-digital information could be used for their research interest in the future. The event will bring together a number of key people who have started to work on born-digital information and how it can be used in the humanities. We will develop a plan on how to take this research forward in the next few years.

Bio: Jane Winters is a Professor of Digital History at the School of Advanced Studies, University of London. Currently, she is Principal Investigator of the Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities project; Co-Director of Digging into Linked Parliamentary Metadata; Co-Investigator of Traces through Time: Prosopography in Practice across Big Data; and Publishing Editor of the Bibliography of British and Irish History. She is also Executive Editor of the IHR’s journal, Historical Research and Associate Editor of Frontiers in Digital Humanities: Digital History.

4) Rethinking Data Privacy: 1 June 2015, 3pm-5pm 

Helen Nissenbaum


Event Abstract: Elements of Contextual Integrity as Guideposts for Privacy Research

According to the theory of contextual integrity, disruptions in the flow of personal information (often stemming from deployment of computational systems and digital media) are experienced as privacy threats not merely when they expose personal information or threaten our control over it but when they result in inappropriate flows. Appropriateness of flow is modeled by the construct of context-specific informational norms, which prescribe informational flows according to the parties involved (subjects, senders, recipients), the types of information, and constraints on flow between parties. Empirical studies promise a more nuanced, less ambiguous account of attitudes and behaviors relevant to privacy when taking account of these additional dimensions of analysis.

Helen Nissenbaum, Professor, Media, Culture, and Communication, NYU.

Register here!

5) Playing with Data in the Ubiquitous Commons

Salvatore Iaconesi  and Oriana Persico: 3 June 2015 – 10:00-18:00

King’s College London (Strand)

Playing with Data in the Ubiquitous Commons is a  day-long performative workshop using Human Ecosystems–a series of technologies are combined to harvest and analyse public data. We will explore our collective data to gain insight on the flows of communication, information, knowledge exchange, and of the patterns for emotional contagion. Together participants will use techniques such as Natural Language Analysis, Geo-referencing, Machine Learning, Network Analysis, and various Computational Sociology techniques to gather information about the communities in the city, including the places, locations, times, topics, emotions, opinions which they express, and the social architectures which they describe. Outputs will range from a series of research insights; interactive visualizations or installations; game concepts to be enacted with different communities; models for community engagement, and their testing through playful modalities; the description and enactment of meaningful urban rituals which promote public, inclusive collaboration and participation to city life under one or more issues.

The workshop is an interdisciplinary, critical and playful approach to our material assemblages as data-subjects; that is, our ubiquitous data and information generation, which express relations, emotions, locations, opinions, behaviours and the potential inferences therein. Participants will collectively explore the data and present insights. People of all levels of technological expertise are warmly welcome.

Salvatore Iaconesi is an interaction designer, robotics engineer, artist, hacker. TED Fellow 2012, Eisenhower Fellow since 2013 and Yale World Fellow 2014.

Oriana Persico holds a degree in Communication Sciences, is an expert in participatory policies and digital inclusion. She is an artist and writer and she currently teach Digital Design at ISIA Design Florence.

Register here!

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 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.

Transmediale 2014: The Uses and Abuses of Big Data

Screenshot 2014-05-02 13.02.37

I was fortunate enough to be invited to Transmediale 2014, the Berlin-based festival of art and digital culture to speak. On January 31st I spoke on the panel ‘The Uses and Abuses of Big Data’ along with Jussi Parikka (, Kate Crawford (, and Paolo Cirio ( My paper was entitled ‘Big Social Data: Potential Invented By New Relations?’ and it critically examines the social data we generate with our mobile devices. I ask whether it can function as anything other than surveillance fodder for the NSA/GCHQ or potential surplus value for the information economy?

Here is a link to our panel. My co-presenters Jussi, Kate and Paolo are all very dynamic thinkers and provide wide-ranging insights into big data. Plus the video is in HD!

In my talk I propose the ‘digital human’ as a way of theorising our data-rich contemporary condition and better understanding our constitutive relationship with technology.  I also draw on concepts from the French philosopher Gilles Simondon as a means for thinking through our contemporary state of being wherein we are in a collective state of data excess. The challenge is in accessing our own ‘big social data’ outside the proprietary platforms in which they are generated. I conclude by suggesting that we face a fundamental cultural, political and economic challenge in moving beyond our current state of generating unprecedented amounts of personal data over which we have precious little control.

In short, just like a snow-laden slope pre-avalanche, we all generate social data that collectively situates us in what Simondon calls “this initial supersaturation of being.” Right now this state of profound potential is primarily being actualised by capital and the security state. Collectively, however, this potential could be actualised in very different ways through new relations. One of the reasons we are undertaking our research is through a shared belief that big social data can be more than a source of profit for Facebook or digital surveillance. We hope that our research is making a modest contribution to getting there by critically examine and working through our own social data and the ecosystem through which it circulates and is processed.

Greetings from Mark Coté

Today marks my overdue introduction to this blog. My name is Mark Coté and I an the Co-Investigator of our AHRC-funded ‘Our Data Ourselves’ research project. I am also Programme Director of the MA in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London, where we are also undertaking our research. Along with our Principal Investigator Tobias Blanke, and Research Associates Jennifer Pybus and Giles Greenway, we will be posting updates on our research as well as related reflections. We are always interested in the ideas and research of others and hope this can also function dialogically. So please if you are interested or provoked by what you read, please do let us know. Thanks.

On attending “Big Data and Security in Europe Challenges and Opportunities”

On Tuesday, January 21st 2014 we attended the conference: “Big Data and Security in Europe Challenges and Opportunities” in Brussels, organised by Professor Louise Amoore and Dr. Volha Piotukh of Durham University.   The discussions that took place focused mainly on the unique challenges and opportunities that big data represents for Europeans.  Some of the key questions that were asked included: i) Can data on ordinary daily transactions reveal nascent security threats? ii) What role, if any, can ‘big data’ and ‘big data analytics’ play in securing Europe and Europeans? iii) What are the implications of the reliance on new forms of data analysis within the security domain? While our research does not focus specifically on issues relating to security, it is still important to think through those ‘implications’ that are evoked whenever a discussion around big data arise. If there is anything that Edward Snowden has taught us, it is that innovation in data analytics has spread far beyond the State into the very fabric of networked communicative practices.  For the young people that we will be working with, how will such transformations in the way social data are accumulated and rendered usable effect how they conceptualise their own privacy? Is data surveillance becoming normalised? Or, have all of these recent revelations had a politicising effect, reinforcing the need now more then ever for the ‘Right to be Forgotten’?