Ecologies of Data
ASSEMBLING ODDKIN IN THE ANTHROPOCENE
This is the introductory essay to a new series, Ecologies of Data, also posted at ppehlab.org.
How do we build conceptual tools for living and working in the Anthropocene? What language would they speak? Can these tools encourage new ways of documenting and communicating environmental issues, while emphasizing the urgency of open data and evidence-based decision making? Could the lexicons of ecology and data conservation build a common language with these tools? And how might such a direction reveal the uncanny entanglements among these distant fields? These are some of the questions that emerge from DataRefuge, an ongoing project of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) and Penn Libraries, to ensure the preservation and availability of data under an administration that refuses to take steps to mitigate or adapt to our new normal.
DataRefuge is a public, collaborative initiative to archive, distribute, and safeguard federal climate and environmental data vulnerable to suppression, obfuscation, even erasure. This denial of man-made climate change and the disavowal of facts constitute one of the greatest challenges of the Anthropocene. Moreover, DataRefuge stresses how vital evidence-based democracy is to public health, safety, and growth, now more than ever. On January 13-14, 2017, PPEH together with the Penn Libraries hosted DataRescue Philly, a bundle of events including a teach-in for the Philadelphia Resistance Meeting, a panel of experts from various fields on Data Vulnerability and Valuability, the opening of Date/um, along with a DataRescue Guide training session and full-day data rescue and code-a-thon event.
Hundreds of scholars, activists, coders, and concerned individuals from Philadelphia and beyond volunteered their diverse skills and perspectives. Librarians and archivists created content metadata and inventories for datasets; volunteers with a variety of skillsets seeded URLs to the Internet Archive for the End of Term Harvest project; coders, hackers, and computer scientists generated new scripts with the capacity to download datasets that require special skills to access; humanists and social scientists gathered together to document the event itself, and to write use case scenarios about different stakeholders that rely on climate and environmental data.
Assembling and integrating various ways of conceiving, organizing, storing, and deploying climate data, we not only built tools for scraping agency websites, but also made oddkin, as historian of science Donna Haraway has urged in response to the environmental challenges and threats the new administration has enacted. In other words, building the foundation for DataRefuge necessitates the formation of uncanny connections and collaborations “in hot compost piles,” or when programmers and cultural historians realize the technological and social tools that are urgently needed by working across distant disciplines. (Haraway 2016) These collaborative efforts furthermore ensure the sustainability of the project long-term, its usefulness for local communities and cities who organize their own DataRescue events, and the legibility and quality assurance of the datasets for researchers and planners who rely on climate and environmental data.
Building DataRefuge, then, is like composting--a process in which biodegradable waste is gathered together and aerated to create nutrient-rich humus that enriches soil. When building refuge, the foundational work on the ground--surveying and mapping the landscape of agency websites; digging through layers of different agency sites to create guides that direct to create new codes and scripts for grabbing data that are difficult to save; seeding and sorting urls to web crawlers; scraping and crawling for data--is vital to making DataRefuge and evidence-based democracy to flourish. Moreover, the shared vocabulary between descriptions of DataRefuge and the ecological language of composting is more than coincidental.
Ecologies of Data is a series of essays that consider the processes of making oddkin, ruminates on these uncanny entanglements, and evaluates the commitments that we make as we build DataRefuge across disciplines, knowledges, and communities. The essays span various disciplinary boundaries, and think together about the ecology of making, saving, and building data, datasets, and archives, and how these are fundamentally ecological activities. Finally, Ecologies of Data ruminates on why we build DataRefuge, drawing from a number of historical examples and hopefully providing one model for a capacious ecology that is necessary for living in the Anthropocene, and moreover collaboratively, democratically, and freely defining what a new normal should and might look like.
Haraway, Donna J. Staying With the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.