Thursday, February 12, 2015

New paper: "Barriers to the Localness of Volunteered Geographic Information"

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 09.48.45 copy

Some colleagues (Shilad SenHeather FordDave MusicantOliver KeyesBrent Hecht) and I have put together a paper for CHI on Barriers to the Localness of Volunteered Geographic Information. The paper asks important questions about both the geographies of information, and the factors that explain those geographies: 
Localness is an oft-cited benefit of volunteered geographic information (VGI). This study examines whether localness is a constant, universally shared benefit of VGI, or one that varies depending on the context in which it is produced. Focusing on articles about geographic entities (e.g. cities, points of interest) in 79 language editions of Wikipedia, we examine the localness of both the editors working on articles and the sources of the information they cite. We find extensive geographic inequalities in localness, with the degree of localness varying with the socioeconomic status of the local population and the health of the local media. We also point out the key role of language, showing that information in languages not native to a place tends to be produced and sourced by non-locals. We discuss the implications of this work for our understanding of the nature of VGI and highlight a generalizable technical contribution: an algorithm that determines the home country of the original publisher of online content.
You can access a copy of the paper here:

Sen, S. W., Ford, H., Musicant, D. R., Graham, M., Keyes, O. S. B., Hecht, B. 2015 Barriers to the Localness of Volunteered Geographic Information. CHI 2015 (pre-publication version here).

And you can also watch a screencast (excellently narrated by our own Heather Ford) of our forthcoming interactive map tool:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Informational Magnetism on Wikipedia: mapping edit focus

The previous post demonstrated not only that Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa are net-importers of content on Wikipedia (Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, receives 10.7 more edits from the rest of the world than it commits to the rest of the world), but it also showed where those edits come from.

This post does something a little different: it shows where edits are sent to.

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In this network, an edge (a line connecting nodes) thickness is proportionate to the total number of edits received. That is, if a region sends most of its edits to North America (even if it sends very few edits) then that edge will be thick.

With the graph normalized by the number of edits sent, we see a striking finding from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Not only do less than half of edits in the MENA region stay within the MENA region, but a substantial share go to North America, even if their impact on the overall number of edits within North America is rather minimal.

In fact, proportionate to the total number of edits sent from a region, MENA sends more edits to North America than any other region sends to another. This leads to what might be considered a ‘double whammy’ for the MENA region. Not only are there not many articles about the Middle East, and even fewer in local languages. And not only are there very very few editors. But of the edits that exist, a lot of them are to write about Europe, Asia, and America.

The global informational cores are exerting a sort of information magnetism. The presence of information creating a virtuous cycle of informational richness; and the absence of information being part of a vicious cycle of informational poverty.

Ralph Straumann and I are working on a paper that explores these topics and this conclusion in more detail, and will post a full draft here as soon as we have one. In the meantime, we’d welcome any comments or questions on the patterns and data presented here.

Note that this work comes from the following report:

Graham, M., and Hogan, B. 2014. Uneven Openness: Barriers to MENA Representation on Wikipedia. Oxford Internet Institute Report, Oxford UK.

The following paper also offers an abridged version of some of the results:

Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014 Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

Or for a broader discussion about why the locality of participation matters, see:

Graham, M. 2014. Internet Geographies: Data Shadows and Digital Divisions of Labour. In Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, eds M. Graham and W. H. Dutton. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 99-116.

Graham, M., M. Zook, and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in the Urban Environment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3) 464-479.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Informational Magnetism on Wikipedia: geographic networks of edits

Previous work that I've published about the geography of contributions to Wikipedia showed the varying types of local engagement that different regions havethe primary reason that Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, has such a low proportion of locally created content, and some of the ways that Sub-Saharan Africa’s already extremely low proportion of local contributions is inflated by just a few outliers (meaning that the vast majority of content written about countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is created from outside the region).

In all of that work, we employed a simplified distinction of 'within region' or 'outside region' when considering the geography of edits. However, it is possible to also look at which regions send edits to which other regions. Thus, instead of a univariate map or a bivariate scatter plot, we can represent the data as a network of flows.
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The network above is just such an attempt. In it, edge (a line connecting nodes) thickness is proportionate to the total number of edits received. That is, if a region receives most of its edits from North America then the edge from North America to that region will be thick.

When looking at flows of geographic information, there are “net-importing” regions (Asia, Latin America & Caribbean, Middle East & North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa) and “net-exporting” regions (North America, Oceania) in terms of edits. Sub-Saharan Africa receives 10.7 more edits from outside than it commits to the outside. North America, in contrast has a figure of 0.38.

The next post will look at the data somewhat differently. Instead of where edits are received from, it will focus on where edits are sent to (as we shall see, this is an important difference).

Note that this work comes from the following report (the relevant parts of which were written in collaboration with Ralph Straumann and Bernie Hogan):

Graham, M., and Hogan, B. 2014. Uneven Openness: Barriers to MENA Representation on Wikipedia. Oxford Internet Institute Report, Oxford UK.

The following paper also offers an abridged version of some of the results:

Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014 Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

Or for a broader discussion about why the locality of participation matters, see:

Graham, M. 2014. Internet Geographies: Data Shadows and Digital Divisions of Labour. In Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, eds M. Graham and W. H. Dutton. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 99-116.

Graham, M., M. Zook, and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in the Urban Environment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3) 464-479.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Visualising the locality of participation and voice on Wikipedia

On Sunday, I use an extended stopover in San Francisco airport to pop into the Wikimedia Headquarters and chat about uneven geographies of voice and representation on the platform.  In looking through some of the previous work that Ralph Straumann, Bernie Hogan, Ahmed Medhat, and I did on the topic, I noticed a few results that we haven't yet had a chance to blog.

The graph above shows us something very interesting about the locality of participation and voice on Wikipedia.

It investigates the topic by looking at the proportion of within-region-edits to Wikipedia articles.

Each region of the world is assigned a colour (North America - brown; Oceania - dark blue; Europe - light blue; Asia - grey; Latin America - yellow; Middle East - green, and Sub-Saharan Africa - red). The vertical axis focuses on the proportion of edits to articles in the region that come from that region [“received edits”] and the horizontal axis focuses on the proportion of a region’s committed edits that stay within that region [“committed edits”]. (note that The data shows anonymous edits only (+), registered edits only (×) and both edit types combined (●))

On the vertical axis of the figure we can see a clear division between regions that are largely able to define themselves and regions that are largely defined by others. The world regions separate into two distinct groups of three (with Asia in the middle): Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East & North Africa, Latin America & Caribbean receive comparatively few edits from within their territories (around 25 percent). Europe, Oceania and North America on the other hand receive primarily edits from within (around 75 percent). Asia is edited from within and from outside to almost equal degrees. In other words, there are significant parts of the world in which a majority of content is not locally generated.

Asia, Europe and North America all have 73–80 percent of their committed edits staying within their own region. Interestingly, Sub-Saharan Africa commits just slightly less within-region edits at 67 percent. Oceania, Latin America & Caribbean and especially Middle East & North Africa fall behind with 36–60 percent. In other words, not only does the Middle East & North Africa have a lot of non-locally generated content written about it, many of the edits coming from the region are used to write about other parts of the world.

What does this mean?

• Even when editors from Sub-Saharan Africa spend most of their edits within region, their small numbers mean that most content still comes from elsewhere.

• The global cores of North America and Europe self-represent very effectively by focusing on their own regions.

• Content appears to be very sensitive to feedback loops. A lot of content on an area in one language leads to more content in other languages as translations rather than similar local content.

The global cores focus their editing primarily within their own territories. Large amounts of geospatial content show no sign of deterring people from further contributions and editing: as more content exists, so too do more articles to amend, augment, update and build upon. It is possible that a stock of good content may be an attractive “editing ground” for Wikipedians, whereas a scarcity of content, beneath a certain unknown threshold, may – somewhat paradoxically – demotivate people to fill in the blanks. A relative lack of content may further reinforce perceptions amongst editors that little content equates to a small audience that is not worth writing for.

We expand on all of the ideas in a recent report that we published:

Graham, M. and B. Hogan. 2014. Uneven Openness: Barriers to MENA Representation on Wikipedia. Oxford Internet Institute Report, Oxford, UK.

See also:

Graham, M., Hogan, B., Straumann, R. K., and Medhat, A. 2014. Uneven Geographies of User-Generated Information: Patterns of Increasing Informational Poverty. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (forthcoming).

And they will also be forthcoming in a new paper (that we're currently working on) that focuses specifically on these issues of self-representation.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ashby Prize

I am very happy to announce that I paper that I co-authored with Matthew Zook has been awarded the Ashby Prize. The prize is presented by the journal Environment and Planning A for the most innovative papers published in the journal each year.

The full paper is available at the following link  (one perk of the prize is that the paper gets to become open-access):

Graham, M and M. Zook. 2013. Augmented Realities and Uneven Geographies: Exploring the Geo-linguistic Contours of the Web. Environment and Planning A 45(1) 77-99.
This paper analyzes the digital dimensions of places as represented by online, geocoded references to the economic, social, and political experiences of the city. These digital layers are invisible to the naked eye, but form a central component of the augmentations and mediations of place enabled by hundreds of millions of mobile computing devices and other digital technologies. The analysis highlights how these augmentations of place differ across space and language and highlights both the differences and some of the causal factors behind them. This is performed through a global study of all online content indexed within Google Maps, and more specific analyses of the linguistically and topically segregated layers of information over four selected places. The uneven linguistic geographies that this study reveals undoubtedly influence the many ways in which place is enacted and brought into being. The larger aim of this project is to use these initial mappings of the linguistic contours of the geoweb to push forward a broader debate about how augmented inclusions and exclusions, visibilities and invisibilities will shape the way that places become defined, imagined, and experienced.
We are delighted, honoured, and, honestly, surprised to be awarded a 2014 Ashby Prize. It is a wonderful affirmation of the work we put into the paper and our ongoing research on the geographies of information.

The paper started with fairly simple (yet fundamental) questions about the blurred boundaries between our material and digital lives. Namely, where and under what conditions do these worlds intersect? How do they vary across space and language? And how do we explain these patterns? The paper is interdisciplinary in nature and attempts to draw from, and speak to, Geography, Internet studies, Urban studies, and Communication studies. The piece builds heavily on our earlier work on the hybrid nature of material/digital places (see Graham 2011, 2013 or Zook and Graham 2007a, 2007b): arguing that the lines between digital signifiers and the material signified are becoming increasingly blurred as digital content is tightly enrolled into our spatial experiences.

While rooted in a process tracing back decades to the first satellite imagery and GIS projects (or even millennia if one includes annotations to the material environment such as petroglyphs), the connections between places and information related to them have been made particularly visible and usable over the past ten years. The emergence of crowd-sourced information as well as large professional databases, the ubiquity of all manner of sensors, and the recording of ambient data documenting everyday geographies has created a world that is increasingly augmented by digitally stored, geotagged information. This fact coupled with the ready-availability of interfaces (e.g. Google Maps, Wikipedia, Tripadvisor) through which we can access this information, whilst we’re in the very places being portrayed, has meant a diffusion of the power to create and use spatial representations; an ability once largely limited to a few. In short, digital augmentations are profoundly imbricated into our everyday lives and places.

The augmentations, however, are neither uniform or unidirectional and can both highlight and hide information. Articulating these dual process of uncovering and obscuring is the main goal of this paper, as language is a particularly ready indicator of the unevenness of digital representations. The world, as seen through lens of a search engine or location based service, for instance, simply appears differently depending upon the linguistic contexts through which you engage. The power of maps and spatial representations endures. But the levers through which this power is enacted are now embedded in lines of software, designs of platforms, availability of data sources, and opaque (and often decentralized) governance and production systems, rather than the pen and ink of cartographers or the interests of centralized states or competing elites.

Eventually, information is not only providing the raw material for creating representations of places but actively engaged in augmenting them whilst they are being enacted and brought into being; a theme that we explore in much more detail in a parallel paper on augmented realities we wrote with our colleague Andrew Boulton (Graham, Zook, and Boulton 2013). Today, many people don’t think twice about conducting a spatial search for restaurant or being given bespoke directions home from our precise location. But less than a decade ago, these spatial services were largely limited to GIS labs. We still remember the excitement with which we greeted the first virtual globes and the extreme novelty of a map based search. Moreover, we'll admit to literally spending hours simply entering a range of search terms and locations into Google Local (an early branding of Google Maps) simply to better understand how this new and monumental thing worked and how parts of the world were both revealed and hidden in these representations.

The principle point of all our this work is that the digital layers of places need to be better interrogated. We need to understand what they include and exclude; what they show and don’t show; who does and doesn’t participate in their creation; and what people, platforms and algorithms have a hand in filtering, ranking, and censoring that content. In short, digital dimensions have become key variables for studying all kinds of human geographies, and it is important for researchers to better understand their connections to spaces and places.

Our paper was an attempt to address some of methodological and theoretical issues associated with informational geographies. Using a relatively simple set of software scripts to collect data, we were able to show both that some parts of the world are surrounded by much denser layers of digital information than others, but also the variable nature of this content within places as certain people and languages had considerably more data available to them. In other words, the paper highlighted a number of the balkanised bubbles of augmented information that have important implications for the enaction of material balkanised spaces; a point we take up in later work (Graham, Zook, and Boulton 2013; Zook, Graham and Boulton, 2014). Clearly, these are early days in this body of research and we look forward to many and fruitful exchanges with the growing number of geographers engaged in this work.

As with all academic pursuits, this paper did not emerge from a vacuum and we would like to recognise the broader conversations in which our paper is embedded. The initial draft of this paper was targeted at a 2011 conference held in Oxford by the Oxford Internet Institute -- “A Decade in Internet Time: symposium on the dynamics of the Internet and society – and the interdisciplinary nature of the event helped broaden our vision about who we hoped to engage. That conference paper was subsequently reworked for a special issue of Environment and Planning A on ‘Neogeography’ put together by Matthew Wilson and Mark Graham (Wilson and Graham 2013) which provides valuable context to this work. For example, the special issue also is the home for a selection of papers that address important questions about crowdsourced cartography, the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge production, and power in decentralised networks.

We hope that our paper, and the special issue of Environment and Planning A to which it belongs, become the beginning of a sustained and extensive effort to critically tackle questions about the digital and augmented facets of our lives. But, even as mobile devices and information services become ever more prevalent, our abilities to recognize and research face serious challenges. Many digital layers are opaque, invisible to the naked eye, locked away in closed and ephemeral databases, and tightly controlled by entities that have no interest in critical research. For instance, how and why exactly does Google rank the results of spatial searches? How are these results personalized? How are our updates to social media being captured, processed and repurposed? Are we being subtly directed away from parts of the city based on our social networks and search histories? These are just some of the key questions in this area, and we believe that it is precisely our role as geographers that requires us to constantly attempt to understand how datasets, data intermediaries, systems, platforms, devices, algorithms, and networked crowds work to influence the digital augmentations to our everyday lives and geographies. Maps have power; which makes personalized geovisualizations all the more potent, and understanding the processes behind this, all the more important.

We would like to end with some words from Tony Benn, a British Labour party politician who sadly passed away earlier this year. He famously had a set of five questions that he said that we should always ask any powerful person: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”
Perhaps we should attempt to more explicitly adopt those questions to research into the powerful platforms, algorithms, and systems that govern and structure our networked interactions. We hope that our paper has contributed towards that goal, and we’re excited that so many of our colleagues and collaborators are also working towards those aims.

Mark Graham and Matthew Zook

Graham, M. 2011. Cloud Collaboration: Peer-Production and the Engineering of the Internet. In Engineering Earth. ed. Brunn, S. New York: Springer, 67-83.
Graham, M., M. Zook., and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in the Urban Environment: contested content and the duplicity of code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3), 464-479.
Wilson, M and M. Graham. 2013. Guest Editorial: Situating Neogeography. Environment and Planning A 45(1) 3-9.
Zook, M. and M. Graham. 2007b. Mapping DigiPlace: Geo-coded Internet Data and the Perception of Place. Environment and Planning B. 466-482.
Zook, M., Graham, M, and A. Boulton. 2014. Crowd-Sourced Augmented Realities: Social Media and the Power of Digital Representation. Chapter in S. Mains, J. Cupples, and C. Lukinbeal. Mediated Geographies/Geographies of Media. Springer Science International Handbooks in Human Geography.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Historical visions of connectivity

Technologies of connectivity have changed beyond recognition in the last century. But, how have our imaginations of the effects of those technologies of connectivity changed?
This is the question that we posed (and addressed) in a forthcoming paper that I wrote about last week:

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015. Geographies of Connectivity in East Africa: Trains, Telecommunications, and Technological Teleologies. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (forthcoming).

In that paper, we look at the arrival of two transformative technologies of connectivity into East Africa: the railway in the late 19th Century, and fibre-optic cables at the beginning of the 21st.
In this brief post, I want to juxtapose a selection of quotes from the historical moment with quotes from the contemporary one (you can find the full citations for the quotes in our paper):

I seemed to see in a vision what was to happen in the years to come. I saw steamers trailing their dark smoke over the waters of the lake; I saw passengers arriving and disembarking; I saw the natives of the east making blood brotherhood with the natives of the west. And I seemed to hear the sound of church bells ringing at great distance afar off.
- Henry Morton Stanley, Journalist and Explorer (1902)
What a road it is! Everything is apple pie order. The track is smoothed and weeded and ballasted as if it were London and North-Western. Every telegraph post has its number; every mile, every hundred yards, every change of gradient, has its mark […] Here and there, at intervals, which will become shorter every year, are plantations of rubber, fibre and cotton, the beginnings of those inexhaustible supplies which will one day meet the yet unmeasured demand of Europe for those indispensable commodities. Every few miles are little trim stations, with their water tanks, signals ticket-offices, and flower beds complete and all of pattern, backed by impenetrable bush. In brief, one slender thread of scientific civilisation, of order, authority, and arrangement, drawn across the primeval chaos of the world. - Winston Churchill, Former Prime Minister (1908)

Practically nobody, in this age of progress can say to us ‘thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.’
I see, as in a vision, a thread-like serpentine double rail athwart the entire continent. South to North I see the coloured races being conveyed to and from labour centres in health and comfort. I see our crowded and over-crowed areas here pouring out thousands of white men, to build, as Mr.Rhodes wished, “more homes” under brighter skies and happier conditions.
- Lewis Mitchell, a director of the British South Africa Company, (1906)

We can contrast those visions to some contemporary ones:
If you want to become extremely wealthy over the next five years, and you have a basic grasp of technology, here's a no-brainer: move to Africa. Seriously.
The internet is only now arriving, and -- with a billion people on the continent still mostly offline – there exists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the next Zyngas, eBays and Groupons for a huge untapped local market. You need only look at the map of huge broadband fibreoptic cables currently being laid…to understand how quickly and ambitiously an entire continent is being connected. - David Rowan, Editor of Wired UK (2011)

Just as it is clear that growth in the 19th and 20th centuries was driven by networks of railways and highways, growth and development in the 21st century is being defined and driven by digital highways and ICT-led value-added services.
In Africa, we have missed both the agricultural and industrial revolutions and in Rwanda we are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution. This revolution is summed up by the fact that it no longer is of utmost importance where you are but rather what you can do – this is of great benefit to traditionally marginalized regions and geographically isolated populations. - Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda (2006)

Thanks to I.C.T. the world now is truly a global village with better communication and now better informed. I am confident that timely solutions to the ongoing economic crisis will be found using the crucial tools of I.C.T…[we] are finally joining what the American author Thomas Friedman called a flattened world. - Mwai Kibaki, Former President of Kenya (2009)

What we argue in the paper is whilst some of these revolutionary hopes that are ascribed to technologies of connectivity are not new, we see important differences between the historical and contemporary moments. The historical moment was concerned with a shrinking world and on the ability of technology to integrate an empire and open up new lands to imperial ambitions. The contemporary moment is characterised instead by a focus on a global village instead of the colonial moment's shrunken world. It is less about cores connecting to peripheries, and more about getting everyone into the global economy, the global village, and Thomas Friedman’s flat world.

A core goal of the paper is then to show how these framings of connectivity, in both moments, have supported both the colonial and neoliberal projects: one showing the inevitability of the core's dominion over the peripheries and one showing the the inevitability of connections to a global marketplace.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New publication: Geographies of Connectivity in East Africa: Trains, Telecommunications, and Technological Teleologies

source: Mombasa-Victoria (Uganda) Railway and Busoga Railway, The Director of Surveys, Nairobi Government Printers, B.E.A (1913)  

I'm very happy to announce that a paper that I co-authored with Casper Andersen and Laura Mann has been accepted for publication in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographies of Connectivity in East Africa: Trains, Telecommunications, and Technological Teleologies Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (forthcoming).

The paper analyses and compares two transformative moments of technologically-mediated change in East Africa, the construction of the Uganda railway between Mombasa and Lake Victoria (1896-1903) and the introduction of fibre-optic cables that landed into the ports of Dar Es Salaam and Mombasa in 2009. 

It uses discourse analysis to examine how technologically-mediated connectivity has been represented by political and economic actors during these transformative moments. In both cases, we explore the origins of the expectations of connectivity and the hope and fear associated with them. 

Building on Massey’s notion of power-geometry and Sheppard’s concept of positionality the paper focuses on power relationships in discussions of connectivity and asks how people understand the abilities of transformative technologies to modify positionalities and alter relational distance and proximity. Ultimately, by examining historical and contemporary expectations of connectivity in East Africa, this paper allows us to work towards creating more grounded and historicised understandings of the coming-together of technology and connectivity.

Monday, October 27, 2014

New publication: Urban Food Futures: ICTs and Opportunities

I'm happy to announce that a new special issue that I co-edited with Jaz Hee-jeong is now out:

Urban food futures: ICTs and opportunities

The full line up of papers includes:

Urban food futures: ICTs and opportunities
Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Mark Graham

Influencing online grocery innovation: Anti-choice as a trigger for activity fragmentation and multi-tasking
Ronan de Kervenoael, Jonathan Elms, Alan Hallsworth

ICTs and ethical consumption: The political and market futures of fair trade
Eleftheria J. Lekakis

Transition Belsize Veg Bag scheme: The role of ICTs in enabling new voices and community alliances around local food production and consumption
Ugo Vallauri

Co-creating sustainable eating futures: Technology, ICT and citizen–consumer ambivalence
Anna R. Davies

FridgeMatch: Design probe into the future of urban food commensality
Denisa Kera, Nur Liyana Sulaiman

Using communicative ecology theory to scope the emerging role of social media in the evolution of urban food systems
Greg Hearn, Natalie Collie, Peter Lyle, Jaz Hee-Jeong Choi, Marcus Foth

Our introduction summarises some of the work done in this area. The abstract is below and you can access a pre-publication version here.

Food is a vital foundation of all human life. It is essential to a myriad of political, socio-cultural, economic and environmental practices throughout history. As Kaplan contends, “the scholarship on food has real pedigree.” Today, practices of food production, consumption and distribution have the potential to go through immensely transformative shifts as network technologies become increasingly embedded in every domain of contemporary life. This presents unique opportunities for further scholarly exploration on this topic, which this special issue intends to address.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are one of the pillars of contemporary global functionality and sustenance and undoubtedly will continue to present new challenges and opportunities for the future. As such, this special issue of Futures has been brought together to address challenges and opportunities at the intersection of food and ICTs. In particular, the edition asks, what are the key roles that network technologies play in re-shaping social and economic networks of food?

Possible responses to the above question would necessarily be wide-ranging and even conflicting. We introduce a special issue here that addresses the question from multiple perspectives. This special issue was born out of a collection of papers that were presented at the Urban Food Futures symposium held in late 2011 at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute. The speakers came from a variety of fields, including information technology, geography, business studies, development, and futures studies. Before introducing the papers that make up this issue and the debates and issues that they speak to, we find it useful to reflect on the importance of the coming-togethers of food and ICTs for futures studies. We do that in three ways.

First, we focus on the increasing data trails left behind by food as it is moved across the world, and highlight the significant impacts that these food-related data might have on both production and purchasing practices. Second, because our interactions with food are always inherently social, we focus on both the ways that ICTs are able to amplify certain socialites around food, and the broader implications of those amplifications. Finally, we focus on the re-routings of mobility and distribution networks made possible by ICTs and their potential effects on not just food production and consumption, but also the urban and rural infrastructures and spaces that mediate those activities.

Friday, October 24, 2014

New publication: Using Geotagged Digital Social Data in Geographic Research

We have a new publication out in a forthcoming book on 'Key Methods in Geography':

The chapter covers some 'big data' methods that can be used in geographic research (in addition to focusing on how to map the strange breakfast preferences of Americans). 

The abstract is below, and you can download a pre-publication version here:

Poorthuis, A., Zook, M., Shelton, T., Graham, M, and Stephens, M. 2014. Using Geotagged Digital Social Data in Geographic Research. In Key Methods in Geography. eds. Clifford, N., French, S., Cope, M., and Gillespie, S. London: Sage. (in press).

Abstract: This chapter outlines how one might utilize the massive amounts of web-based, geographically-referenced digital social data for geographical research. Because much of these data are user-generated and produced through social media platforms, we also focus on the pitfalls associated with such sources and the benefits of a mixed methods approach to these data. Not only can digital social data be mapped for visual analysis, it is also useful to use a range of quantitative methods to understand relationships between different subsets of the data. In addition, closer, systematic readings via qualitative methods of social data provides insights of particular people’s perceptions and experiences of the world around them. Thus, while making maps is often the starting point for geographers working with this kind of research, it is rarely the end point.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Digital Labour and Development

The picture above was taken in Pasig City in the Philippines. The poster advertising free wifi is symbolic of the changing connectivities of a country in which more than 30 million people are now Internet users. Whereas the advert on the the left is symbolic of how many in the country have harnessed those new connectivities: setting up business process outsourcing (BPO) firms and performing digital work.

This, however, is a relatively old story and there are millions of people around the world working in the outsourcing sector.

But, in the last few years, we have seen some important changes. The rapid growth of online freelancing, digital work, and microwork is undoubtedly changing the landscape of digital work: creating jobs in people's homes and internet cafes rather than in the kinds of offices full of BPO firms in the photograph above.

These changes could be seen as an important moment in the trajectory of global development: offering millions of skilled and unskilled workers in low-income countries access to jobs. But many concerns also exist. Not only are workers placed in potentially precarious positions, they also are potentially enrolled into new digital sweatshops with little opportunity to upgrade their positions.

It is in the context of those very different ways of understanding the intersections between digital labour and development, that my colleagues Helena BarnardVili LehdonvirtaIsis Hjorth, and myself are embarking on a 30-month project to understand contemporary virtual production networks.

We are focusing on three countries in Southeast Asia and three in Subsaharan Africa, asking the following questions:

  • What is the overall landscape of virtual production networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia?
  • What factors explain the network structures that we see?
  • How are these networks changing over time?
  • Who benefits from SSA’s and SEA’s virtual production networks?
  • How do observed changes differ from public, political, and academic discourses surrounding potential effects?

We are using a combination of quantitative (using log data from work platforms) and qualitative (six months of fieldwork) methods and plan to regularly release and share our findings.

Changing connectivities are undoubtedly profoundly influencing the landscape of digital work: enabling new flows, new networks, and new geographies. By studying virtual production networks in some of the worlds economic peripheries, we hope to ultimately understand who benefits and who doesn't from these new forms of work.