Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reading Response 1 - Situated Advocacy

The article hits on quite a few important points, the first being that of data quality. It’s such an important topic yet it is easy to overlook in any visualization, especially when the viewer is unfamiliar with the process. A very close friend of mine is working on community-level environmental action programs in lower income Chicago neighborhoods and has told me that often the participants in their field studies do not understand the difference between weather and climate. If the target of environmental awareness has trouble discerning between macro and micro levels of information, it is probably safe to assume that little thought is even given to the source of the data and the implications of its quality in regards to the information they are being presented with. If the target audience is so detached from the data gathering process, how can the visualization of the culled information really have any meaning? Bratton hits on this idea in referencing the “beautiful ‘data-smog’ projects modeling ambient urban-environmental information in one way or another” that are essentially more works of art than deployable information systems. Not only can the source of data be called in to question here but also its presentation. Transparency and accessibility are key in conveying information to those unfamiliar with any subject.

Jeremijenko’s Environmental Health Clinic is surely a clever idea, especially by making use of the idea that doctors operate outside of politics. This addresses the transparency of information, but is it accessible? In terms of low-income neighborhoods, how likely is a resident going visit an Environmental Health Clinic? The issue is deepened further when Bratton & Jeremijenko talk about better datasets by way of the collection and submission of individuals. In areas of concern, how realistic is it to think that residents have access to computers, an internet connection, and the ability to install sensors? It’s a wonderful dream.

The ability to translate data to information, and to advise an action based on it is powerful. In Manual Castell’s “Rise of the Network Society” there is a major idea where the network (internet) allows for a horizontal power system - more smaller nodes can connect to, inform, and react to one another. This is in opposition to the vertical power structure, typical of most any governmental structure where there is top-down flow of information and orders. In the vertical system the lower tiers have less ability to effect the higher tiers, whereas in the horizontal system “power in numbers” takes precedence and the flow of data is more evenly distributed. To this Bratton & Jeremijenko are much aligned when they speak of greater numbers of data sources being gathered and submitted by non-political entities. The power is there, so how do we make it work? The horizontal power structure has edges when you bring it back to low income areas. It is in these areas where the vertical power structure is still at work because the horizontal system is inaccessible. Does the increase in data availability on the horizontal system further separate it from those who are under a vertical system? It’s a bit of a side-track, but it’s something the article has made me think about. It’s not just an issue of awareness, but of haves and have nots, of surveillance versus sensing, of making real connections that matter beyond social networking, and of trust in the power of the systems at use.

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