Accepted paper:

Where's the database in digital ethnography? Exploring database ethnography for open data and smart cities research


Ryan Burns (University of Calgary)
Grace Wark (University of Calgary)

Paper short abstract:

Open data infrastructures are increasingly used to make cities "smarter", but can deepen and (re)produce existing structural urban inequalities. Here we propose the database ethnography as a methodological intervention into the contestations, politics, and promises of open data platforms.

Paper long abstract:

Recent research has shown that the social, political, and epistemological relations underpinning open data platforms frame the platforms' implications in the world. As "smart cities" increasingly turn to these data infrastructures, researchers are looking to the ways open data might (re)produce existing structural urban inequalities. Such inequalities range from the struggles around how data capture knowledge, places, and people; to the uneven material distribution of resources in a city toward areas adept at data analysis. While many long-established methodologies exist for illuminating these processes, the digital spaces of open data infrastructures pose critical new challenges for researchers. In this paper, we develop the database ethnography as a rich methodological resource for open data research. This approach centers the database as a key site for the production and materialization of social meaning. The database ethnography draws attention to the ways digital choices and practices - around database design, schema, data models, and so on - leave traces through time. From these traces we may infer lessons about how phenomena come to be encoded as data and acted upon in urban contexts. More specifically, we argue that open databases limit data types, categorize and classify data to align with technical specifications, reflect the database designer's episteme, and (re)produce conceptions of the world. We substantiate these claims through a database ethnography of the open data portal for the city of Calgary, in Western Canada.

panel C16
Data worlds? Public imagination and public experimentation with data infrastructures